The Plight of the Florida Panthers

The old saying goes: How do you make a billionaire a millionaire? Make them the owner of a sports franchise.

Those words ring true for the owners of the Florida Panthers.

The team has been in a rut for the better part of their existence and it doesn’t seem to be turning around for them at all. Year after year the Panthers find themselves on the outside looking in, picking high in the draft, and (most importantly) losing money.

News broke yesterday that one of the owners of the Panthers, Doug Cifu, is unsure of Florida Panthers’ future in Sunrise. Although the team has a lease until 2028, they are hiring a consultant to try to get out of it for relocation purposes. In the article he is also quoted as saying:

“The arena and the team have lost a significant amount of money year over year for the last 10-plus years and the current business model is not sustainable.”

How much is a significant amount of money by business standards?

In the article it mentions the Panthers are losing $30M a season. In February, Cifu was said to be losing $100k a day and looking for an $80M buyout from Broward County to help the team’s finances. In essence, the owners of the Florida Panthers have asked for taxpayer’s money to fund a team that doesn’t seem that they will ever get off the ground.

If anyone thinks implementing a different business model will quash the problems the Panthers currently possess, then you’re in for a bumpy ride. When dealing in the business side of things in the sports industry, owners have to make many decisions that deal with more than just the team. There are ways to stop the bleeding.

Nick Bjugstad
(Marc DesRosiers-USA TODAY Sports)

From what I can tell, there are two major flaws the Panthers face in their business model that haven’t been addressed in their 20-year history – winning and fanbase.

Let’s address their regular season numbers for a minute. The Florida Panthers were formed in the 1993-94 season. Twenty years have passed since their inception and they don’t have much to show for it. They’ve missed the playoffs 80% of the time (16 seasons) and the four times they did secure a postseason spot, they were knocked out in the first round in three of those seasons. The exception was in 1995-96 when they made the Stanley Cup Final, of which they were swept in four games. The Panthers have consistently been the bottom of the barrel and have one of the worst winning percentages of any NHL team over the last 20 years.

Winning can only go so far, but if there is no passionate fanbase that can sell out the building every night or tune in to watch games on a nightly basis, the team is a sitting duck. When you compare the Florida Panthers to the Toronto Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, or Edmonton Oilers, you can see similar patterns in their playoff success in recent years. The major difference between the two, is regardless of their winning percentage, the Canadian teams will always sell out games and generate revenues that teams like the Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes just won’t ever achieve.

Do the Florida Panthers have diehard fans? Absolutely, and I don’t discredit them. But so did the Atlanta Thrashers. The sticking point here is that the Florida Panthers is that there is really no cultural tradition for hockey. There aren’t many rinks in the area and even fewer amateur players in South Florida. It hinders the development of the sport.

Furthermore, it’s not as if tickets prices are through the roof like you’d see in the Northeast. The cheapest season tickets can be had for $516 for the whole season ($12/game). The average attendance for Panthers games has been one of the worst in NHL history as they’ve seen their name in the bottom 10 more times than they’d like to count. This past season they came in 29th with an average attendance of 14,117. Even for that cheap a price, fans still don’t want to come out to see their hometown hockey team play.

However, the more concerning part isn’t the numbers they receive inside the arena, but rather outside of it. In 2013, the Sporting News ran an article that showed the amount of households that tune into to hockey games in their local markets. The top five teams were the Blackhawks (198,000), Bruins (165,000), Penguins (138,000), Rangers (133,000), and Flyers (101,000). The team all the way at the bottom of the list was the Florida Panthers with an average number of 4,000. That number is abysmal. The next lowest team was the Columbus Blue Jackets with 11,000 viewers.

How can you expect to be a successful franchise and sell tickets when fans don’t even tune into the games on TV for free?

The team is a money pit whose inability to produce revenue makes them the black sheep of the NHL. Just like the Atlanta Thrashers before them, the Florida Panthers look to be going the way of relocation unless something drastically changes…and quickly.