Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Playing Below Capacity: Florida Panthers

Welcome to the eighth edition of Playing Below Capacity, a series here at Puck Money where I've been taking a look at teams (as of December) playing below 85% capacity in their arenas. The previous seven editions can be found here. Today its off to Sunrise, Florida where the Panthers are fighting for their first playoff appearance since the spring of 2000 and are currently ranked 29th in attendance by capacity coming in at 79.1%. However, the Panthers are enjoying a 1.5% gain from their first half average attendance, including a 10.5% jump in the last two weeks as they just wrapped up a six game homestand at the BankAtlantic Center.

*Note: Please remember that I'm a young college kid who thinks he knows what he's talking about. Any "problems" that I suggest the Panthers have are my opinion and are most likely not 100% accurate (but close to it, if I do say so myself). Enjoy and please do comment.

Here are the ideas I came up with that could be problems with getting people to go to Panthers games on a regular basis...
  • Arena Location/Age
  • High Ticket Prices/Poor Promotional Events
  • Metro Population
  • On Ice Product
  • Location/History of Franchise
  • Other
First, some basics about the Florida Panthers (wikipedia):
  • The Florida Panthers began play in 1993 when in 1992 Blockbuster mogul H. Wayne Huizenga was awarded an NHL Franchise. The Panthers entered the league in '93 with the
    (now) Anaheim Ducks. The team is now owned by Alan Cohen and other wealthy Florida-based businessmen.
  • In 14 completed seasons in the sunshine state, the Panthers have made the playoffs three times, twice not advancing past the first round. Their 1995-1996 season was one to remember as the Panthers made their only Stanley Cup appearance.
  • For their first five seasons, the Panthers played at Miami Arena in Miami, FL. In the fall of 1998, the Cats moved to the now-named BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, FL, about 35 miles north of Miami and about 15 miles west of Fort Lauderdale, FL.
  • The capacity for Ice Hockey at the BankAtlantic Center is said to be 19,150 or 19,250 with standing room.
- Arena Location/Age:

The BankAtlantic Center opened in 1998, so being a decade old is not a problem. The Sports Road Trip Guys say the arena is gorgeous, but the location was a poor choice. Lets take a look from the satellite (click to enlarge both):

The BankAtlantic Center is noted by the "A" arrow. The "city" of Sunrise is very much a residential area, or to put it frankly, a giant retirement village. The arena is placed between a swamp and the nations fourth largest outlet shopping mall. With Sunrise only having just over 90,000 inhabitants, lets take a look at where most other Panther fans have to come from to get to Sunrise:

The green "A" arrow represents Miami Arena, the Panthers former home. The "B" arrow represents the BankAtlantic Center in Sunrise, and the "C" arrow represents the center of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. From Miami to Sunrise is 35 miles according to google maps, or about 45 minutes by car. From Fort Lauderdale to Sunrise is about 15 miles, or 20 to 25 minutes by car. Although I've never been to Sunrise, I have almost no doubt this has an affect on the game by game attendance. The club had five years starting in 1993 to find a new home in East Florida, and by placing the arena in Sunrise, the choice seems rushed. I could not find any articles about the placement choice, but placing the Arena in Fort Lauderdale would have been a much more logical choice. I understand this is easier said than done, but in a downtown setting this arena would have looked great and the Panthers would enjoy at least ~500 more spectators per game.

Update: After being directed to a thread on HF Boards which discusses the location of the BankAtlantic Center or "BAC," many season ticket holders and consistent fans enjoy the arena location because of how easy it is to get to with highways and parking. Although I still think downtown Ft. Lauderdale might draw more crowds, some/most/half of Panther fans do not mind the location of the BAC.

- High Ticket Prices/Poor Promotional Events

One would think the Panthers would attempt to keep ticket prices low to attract more consistent fans, but a Panthers game for the family can cost Mom and Dad a couple of bucks. According to teammarketing.com, The Panthers are 11th in the Fan Cost Index for the NHL at $309.44. The Fan Cost Index:
comprises the prices of four (4) average-price tickets, two (2) small draft beers, four (4) small soft drinks, four (4) regular-size hot dogs, parking for one (1) car, two (2) game programs and two (2) least-expensive, adult-size adjustable caps.
Florida's FCI is up 14.1% from last season, along with their average ticket price being up just under 3%, which raises that cost to $52.61 and in turn is just above the NHL average. The Panthers average ticket price is $111.34, which is just under the NHL average. Could these prices affect incoming fans? Sure, but the Panthers are right around the NHL average, which is really all you can ask for.

Although the tickets might be a little high-priced, the Panthers marketing department does a great job of offering great deals to bring in new fans and keep old ones. The most recent is the Panthers Promise Plan; a four game ticket plan where if the Panthers make the playoffs you get priority access to playoff tickets. If the Cats fail to make the playoffs, you get four tickets to the '09-'10 season for free. I'm sorry for the cheesiness, but what a great deal! Along with this, the Panthers have plenty of theme nights, and they have another marketing favorite of mine; the Panthers First Timer Program. The program allows anyone with a Florida Drivers License to apply for two tickets for free to one game. It has drawn some slight criticism as the Panthers are constantly in the rumor mill for giving away a hefty amount of tickets, but I still like the deal as it has the great possibility of creating new fans.

- Metro Population

The "city" of Sunrise has just over 90,000 people. The metro population of the Miami-Ft. Lauderdale area is key though, coming in at just under 5.5 million people (statshockey.net). The city of Sunrise has the second lowest population in the NHL, defeating only the tiny Uniondale. The metro population is a solid one, but seeing that Ice Hockey is a predominately white and non-Hispanic demographic, the Panthers most likely suffer that only about 40% of the population is just that in the South Florida Metropolitan Area.

- On-Ice Product

As I mentioned, the Panthers are looking to make the playoffs for the first time in seven seasons. With the Panthers currently 7th in a tight Eastern Conference playoff race, the Panthers attendance should no doubt benefit from the Cats on-ice play for their remaining 11 home games. Lets take a look at the Panthers attendance compared to their on-ice play (click to enlarge):

The average attendance of just over 16,000 in 2001-2002 was the franchises highest average since its creation in 1993. The fact of the matter is, Southern Florida is a tough market to sell hockey in. An average over 15,500 should be considered a success, and an average over 16,000 is pretty well done. Of course there is always room for growth, but the plan for the Florida heads running the show should be to get back to that 2002 level and stay there for a couple of seasons.

The Panthers are an exciting team on the ice, with young forwards like Michael Frolik, David Booth, and Nathan Horton leading the way. Arguably the teams best player, 25 year old Defenseman Jay Bouwmeester, has been thrown around in more trade rumors this season than anyone I can remember. The club has found a successful tandem of goaltenders in Tomas Vokoun and Craig Anderson, both of which should be back for the 2009-2010 season.

- Location/History of Franchise

As stated and with kind of basic knowledge, hockey is somewhat of a tough sell in Florida. Do not get me wrong, the sport does great for its location and history with the area. It definitely has a pulse as the Statewide Amateur Hockey of Florida in in association with USA Hockey along with Florida Scholastic Hockey League, a high school hockey league setup about 11 to 12 years ago. Hockey has come a long way in the state, thanks to the help of the Panthers and Tampa Bay Lightning.

- Other

The Panthers are the 24th most valuable team in the NHL at $163 million dollars; which is up 8% from last year. Their value and revenue have risen every year since the lockout, but unfortunately so has the negative operating income, which last season came in a $-9 million. They also have a considerable amount of debt compared to their value, at about 50%. Still, you do not hear much about financial trouble out of the Panthers. Huge losses like the Coyotes are experiencing (that are being reported) are either not prevalent or not being reported. This is good, as it allows fans and players alike to concentrate on the hockey at hand, especially in a such a playoff drought.

- Conclusion

Making the playoffs this season would be a huge help for the Panthers attendance and overall bottom line on the balance sheet. The Panthers do a great job of selling hockey in a non-traditional market, and this should be noted. Still, will the Panthers still be in Florida in five to ten years? I'm not exactly sure. I do not think the Lightning will be relocated because they have won a cup and generally experience better attendance on the west side of Florida. The Panthers attendance is in OK shape, but needs to improve and hopefully will with more of a winning team on the ice as of recent. A good meter for hockey in the Panthers area will be if they make the playoffs, as they should look to pack the BankAtlantic center with Panthers and possibly Lightning fans as well.

Well that about does it for this edition of Playing Below Capacity. Next week we will cover the Thrashers of Atlanta, who are going through a major ownership battle and have struggled on the ice for years now. Please feel free to comment on anything.

Should be more later.