Florida Panthers (Photo by Eliot J. Schechter/NHLI via Getty Images)
The owners of the Florida Panthers are convinced they can fill all those empty seats with some franchise stability, which includes concessions from Broward County, which owns their arena. They say they won't move, but they're putting out some mixed messages on that front.
You have to give the Florida Panthers credit for having chutzpah. They’re in the process of convincing the politicians in their city that a hockey team few people watch or care about is the driving force behind all the business the arena creates and that it would be a white elephant without them there. They’re also adamant that a team that has only once in 16 years turned a profit can do so if only it gets help with its arena lease.
And they might just be successful in doing it.
Will the Florida Panthers move from the BB&T Center in Sunrise for the colder climes of Quebec City anytime soon? Well, not if you believe NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who has tossed ice water on the idea every time it has been broached. Nor if you listen to Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu, who is every bit as adamant.
"The Florida Panthers are not moving and we’ve consistently said we have no plans or intentions to move. We have no place to move,” Cifu said in an interview with thn.com. “We have no desire to move this franchise. We are 100 percent convinced the Florida Panthers can be viable and sustainable in South Florida.”
But there’s a catch, of course. The Panthers, led by Cifu and majority owner Vinny Viola, are looking for concessions amounting to about $78 million from Broward County over the course of the remainder of their lease on the BB&T Center, a lease that runs out in 2028. Among the concessions the Panthers are seeking are a $4.5 million reduction in their share of the arena debt repayment, a reduction to $1.5 million from $2 million on their commitment for capital improvements and maintenance and a cap of $1 million on insurance that now costs $1.7 million.
In return, the Panthers vow they’ll continue to operate as good corporate citizens they'll operate a team that is, “at or near the NHL salary cap.”
It’s important to note that in order to pay for these concessions, the Panthers are not asking for a hike in property taxes or anything out of Broward County’s general fund, rather they want a larger share of the “bed tax” that is charged to visitors who stay in the county’s hotels. So while the people of Broward County will not be asked to directly fund a billionaire who owns the hockey team, it will have to direct tax money its way that could otherwise be spent on other projects.
But here’s where things get dicey. Cifu says the negotiations with Broward County have been all positive and collaborative and that the Panthers are not even entertaining the thought of leaving if they don’t get the deal they’re seeking. “If it happens, it happens; if it doesn’t, it doesn’t,” Cifu said. “I’m not putting a gun to the head of Broward County. I don’t negotiate publicly and I don’t negotiate at the point of a spear.”
The problem with that is there’s this little document that’s right on Broward County’s website titled Broward County and the BB&T Center: A Partnership of Growth & Success that was produced by Sunrise Sports and Entertainment for a county workshop in February that specifically addresses the possibility of relocation and the negative impacts it would have on the county.
It quotes Michael Evans, the president of Live Nation Arenas concert promoters as saying that if the Panthers were to leave, “the partnership between Live Nation and the BB&T Center would cease and the number of events that visited the venue on a regular basis would dwindle significantly.” The also point out that, “Losing the Panthers will have a dramatic negative effect on overall revenues, so much so that any expense savings cannot be overcome by the lost revenues. Will result in dramatic swing to an operating loss of $3.9 million.” And under the heading, “What does losing a tenant mean?” the Panthers go into a litany of negative consequences, including, “Negative impact on the quality of life in Broward County.” Yeah, they actually said that.
Does that sound to you like an organization that has absolutely no intention of moving if it doesn’t get the deal it’s seeking? Does that sound like an organization that’s not putting a gun to anyone’s head?
It’s impossible to predict what the end result of all of this is going to be. Broward County has hired an outside consulting firm to measure the effects of the Panthers departing and they’re expected to vote on the proposal in the spring. Former mayor Barbara Sharief, who is now a council member, told Renaud Lavoie of TVA Sports that, in their current form, the proposals, “wouldn’t pass at all.”
Cifu, meanwhile, has been quoted as saying that the current business model of the Panthers is unsustainable. “I was quoted that the franchise has lost a good deal of money historically,” Cifu said. “I will confirm that we lost a good deal of money last year and we’ll lose a good deal of money this year. In the long term, that’s not sustainable.”
The Panthers have lost between $25 million and $35 million annually and there’s nothing to suggest that trend will turn around anytime soon. Despite being active in the free agent market and having a team that is a playoff contender, the Panthers continue to struggle mightily at the gate. Through 13 home games, they’re averaging just 8,939 fans per game, in large part because they’re counting only paid tickets. The low numbers will not have an effect on revenues because those inflated numbers didn’t represent paying customers anyway.
“When you have instability in the marketplace and you have a team that has made the playoffs four times in 21 years and advanced out of the first round only once, who can blame the marketplace for not supporting that team?” Cifu said. “I don’t. I’m disappointed that we get 8, 9, 10,000 fans in the building…I’m disappointed. I’d love to have 15,000 rabid fans wearing their sweaters like they do in Chicago or in Toronto, but you’ve got to earn that. You’ve got to earn that loyalty and you’ve got to earn that dollar and we as a franchise haven’t done a lot to earn that.”
Clarification: The original story, citing a presentation made by the Panthers to Broward County in February, said the Panthers have $10.6 million in outstanding loans to the county. In fact, the Panthers have paid all their loans to the county. We regret the error.