In defense of Florida Panthers' epically embarrassing crowd vs. Ottawa

@GMillerTSN
@GMillerTSN

The Florida Panthers announced a crowd of 7,311 fans for their Monday night loss to the Ottawa Senators. It’s a pathetically sparse crowd, lower than some college hockey games. It unfortunately comes during a perfect storm of negative attention for that sea of empty seats: 

-- It was a game against a visiting Canadian franchise, which meant a slew of press box tweets that were circulated by their Canadian followers who gleefully chronicle any struggling American NHL city’s gate problems.

-- It comes on the heels of a summer of relocation and expansion talk.

-- It comes after the franchise already had to tarp off parts of the upper deck due to low ticket demand, and after their home opener only drew 11,419 fans on Saturday.

-- Now that the Coyotes have actual owners, someone else needs to be the belle of the Relocation Bait ball.

So the Panthers’ attendance became big news on Monday night, as it “looks worse than ever” according to CBS and “not a lot of fans are even showing up to see their efforts” according to NBC and “Sunrise, Florida, looked a bit bareaccording to Sports Illustrated and “Let’s give the benefit of the doubt and assume that fans were still out buying refreshments” according to For The Win and “There is nobody at the Panthers-Senators game” according to SBNation.com.

True, it was the worst attended game in Florida Panthers’ history, beating a Halloween 2007 game against the Carolina Hurricanes, which drew just 10,063. So why did the attendance bottom out on Monday? The articles linked above didn’t really get into it, so we will:

1. The Panthers Draw Flies This Time Of Year.

Four of the Panthers’ five smallest crowds in franchise history all have something in common: They were games played in October.

There was the Oct. 13 game against Ottawa this season, and the Halloween game in 2007; another Halloween game against the San Jose Sharks in 2006 (10,081); and an Oct. 15 game vs. Phoenix in 2003 (10,069).

The outlier, incidentally: A Dec. 3, 2013 game against, you guessed it, Ottawa (10,074).

Traditionally, Florida has followed the template of other “soft” attendance markets in the U.S.: Large opening night crowd, then a nosedive for Game 2.

Their second home game last season? The Los Angeles Kings, drawing 12,810.

Their second home game in 2011? The Buffalo Sabres, who have ex-pat fans in South Florida, and yet the game was nearly a 4,000-fan drop from opening night (14,811). Then Winnipeg came to town on Oct. 31, and the game drew 11,855.

In 2010, the Dallas Stars were the second home game, and drew 11,580.

In 2009, they flipped the script and had a tiny crowd on opening night against the Chicago Blackhawks, drawing 11,526. (On second glance, this was a Premiere Series game in Helsinki.)

In 2008, the Minnesota Wild were their second home game, and they drew 12,106.

Attendance picks up as the months grow colder, and out of towners pick up tickets while vacationing. It always does. But the early going has never featured packed buildings, outside of the lockout year.

So Monday night was a second home game against a Canadian team not named the Canadiens or Maple Leafs. (Outside of Winnipeg, does another Canadian team inspire less enthusiasm from U.S. ticket buyers than Ottawa?) It was in October, before the snow birds arrive.

We didn’t expect it to be that low, but it was going to be an intimate gathering.

On second thought, we sorta figured it’d be that low, because…

2. The Florida Panthers Stopped Papering The Building.

While all of the publications linked above ran the same tweeted photos from visiting journalists, none of them actually stated why the attendance was at a record low:

The Panthers stopped giving so many damn tickets away.

(Sean Gentille of The Sporting News was perhaps the only one to cite this.)

The team’s new owners ended many of the ticket giveaways that the Panthers had been synonymous with for years, to the point where they were giving a free ticket to anyone with a valid driver’s license. (Seriously.) They said it was a disservice to the team’s season ticket holders, which apparently they have, to keep giving away tickets while they ask them to pay for them.

So Monday night’s crowd, which might have been propped up thanks to the NHL counting “tickets distributed,” was a warts-and-all 7,311 in the box score.

This obviously adds another layer of embarrassment on the franchise, as those previous low numbers in October were likely even lower in actual head count, given what this non-inflated crowd looked like. But the plan is to attempt to build value back into those tickets, and the team is going to have to swallow its pride with crowds like that for a while to do so.

That’s because …

3. The Panthers Are A Terrible, Losing Franchise.

Let’s be honest: The Panthers drew flies because their seasons usually end up as a brown lump with flies buzzing around it.

Florida’s made the playoffs once since 2000. They’re off to a bad start this season. The two biggest names to join the team are on defense: Roberto Luongo last season, and Aaron Ekblad at the NHL Draft. Neither is apparently a draw.

"I don't pay attention to that stuff when I'm playing, I just focus on my job,'' Luongo told the Miami Herald after the game. "If we want to get some people in the stands we need to start winning some games.”

And that’s really what makes this “EMPTY SEATS EQUALS RELOCATION” talk so frustrating.

I apply the same standard to Florida as I do Columbus and Arizona: It’s impossible to really get a handle on these markets until we see sustained success, multiple playoff appearances and fans getting attached to homegrown stars. Can anyone really assess the Panthers’ location as a good or bad hockey market when the team has had one playoff appearance in 14 years?

This isn’t to say that it is. The Panthers have struggled mightily in trying to connect with fans and build a base of them who actually pay to attend games. Maybe it doesn’t end up working there, despite the new ownership; lord knows there are a few markets with a hunger for a relocated team at the moment.

But passing around a few images of pathetic attendance without exploring the how and why of it screams “cheap heat.” Yes, the Panthers’ crowd was abjectly embarrassing on Monday. But there are better reasons than “LOL FLORIDA” as to why it happened, and will continue to happen, and why it needs to happen, which is to make the tickets something more valuable than that marinated chicken on a toothpick they hand out at Panda Express. Even if they have as many Stanley Cups as that chicken. And that toothpick.  

Image via Gord Miller

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