The Florida Panthers had a breakthrough season last year. ESPN the Magazine recently recognized the Panthers as number 33 on their Ultimate Team Rankings, which ranked the top 122 teams from the NHL, NBA, MLB, and NFL. This ranking was a giant leap from last year's ranking of 111.
The rankings were based on a number of factors which included ownership, fan relations, coaching and players. ESPN the Magazine ranked the Cats the highest in the areas of affordability and fan relations.
I think the Panthers have always had good fan relations but there's no doubt their marketing department has been working overtime this year. The team is currently presenting the Red Rising campaign in which they have coordinated several community events in South Florida to keep the fans involved with the team during the offseason.
For me a big boost as a fan was general manager Dale Tallon's decision to bring on some top shelf talent in the 2012 offseason. Last offseason the Cats brought on guys like Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann and Jose Theodore, all of whom became integral parts of the team during the 2011-12 season. There's no better boost for fan moral than a few players that fans can believe in and get behind.
I'm not sure if any major league sporting event is necessarily affordable these days but Panthers tickets don't hurt your wallet too badly. Last season I was able to get upper level tickets for about $40 per game and if you're familiar with the neighborhood you're willing to walk, you can find free parking around the stadium. Prices on concessions are about average compared to any other sporting event but as long as you don't go crazy on beer and nachos it's no big problem.
A Winning Team
The Cats are suddenly on everyone's radar. Just a few months ago in July ESPN ranked the Panthers number one in their NHL prospect rankings. It's nice to hear the Panthers being talked about but will they be able to keep up the pace? Despite how affordable the stadium is or what the team's fan relations are like, no one pays attention to a team in last place. Last season the Cats went to the NHL playoffs for the first time in over a decade and took the New Jersey Devils to a nail-biting overtime in Game 7 in the first round.
If the Cats can keep up their winning ways the team should continue to flourish. South Florida is a small market for the NHL but hockey fans in South Florida have embraced the Panthers. I think it will be more difficult for the Cats to defend the Southeast Division Championship than it was for them to win it but if they can put together a couple of more good seasons in a row, the fans in South Florida will continue to flock to the stadium.
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All team and stadium information from FloridaPanthers.com
Kristian Eberwein is a freelance journalist from Orlando, Florida. He was an English major at the University of Central Florida and has been a part of the Florida hockey community for the past twenty years. Follow him on Twitter @KrisEberwein