The Florida Panthers' Empty Den

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With lackluster attendance and the team in last place, the Florida Panthers' last playoff appearance in 2012 feels like a distant memory. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)
With lackluster attendance and the team in last place, the Florida Panthers' last playoff appearance in 2012 feels like a distant memory. (Joel Auerbach/Getty Images)

If a defenseman falls in a Sunrise, Fla. hockey rink, does he make a sound? Because lately, there's been nobody at the Florida Panthers' home arena to hear it. That's not exactly true. On Monday, 7,311 witnessed the Ottawa Senators defeat the Panthers on their home ice. But that means the stadium was only 38 percent full.

Greg Wyshynski, creator of the Yahoo! Sports "Puck Daddy" blog joined Bill Littlefield to comment on the Panthers' rapidly emptying den.

BL: The Panthers' previous low was just over 10,000 fans. What accounts for the precipitous drop?

Without a big offensive star and without any success on the ice, it's a very, very tough product to market.

Greg Wyshynski, Yahoo! Sports

GW: Well, it's because they're being honest for once. The Florida Panthers have been notorious over the years for papering their building with free tickets. It got to the point where one year, they had a promotion where anybody with a valid Floridian driver's license could get a free ticket to a Panthers game. That's how bad it got.

And the new owners that came in last year had the idea that to build value back into their tickets and to try to somehow establish a fan base that thrives, you should not hand out tickets for free. And it also helps the season ticket holders, too. The people that pay money every game to go see the Panthers play look left, look right, see people there on free tickets and wonder, "What am I paying for?" So, this number that we saw is much closer to the actual attendance for these games early in October than we saw in the past. But now we're seeing how many fans are actually attending the games.

BL: I have to challenge you on that, because I'm looking at the photo that accompanied your story about Monday's attendance, and it looks to me more like 311 people, rather than 7,311. Are you confident in the number that was reported?

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GW: No, but I'm never confident in any number that's reported in the National Hockey League. The NHL, like other sports, they count tickets distributed. And that's how these teams like the Panthers have, for years, been able to inflate their attendance numbers. Because it's based on the number of tickets that you give away versus how many bodies are actually in the building. And then you're at the game and you're thinking, "OK, unless there are people disguised as empty chairs, this is not a sellout."

BL: The news of declining attendance comes after an offseason full of rumors that the NHL might relocate the Panthers. I'm sure it must be hard to be a fan right now, but it must be hard to be a player on the Panthers as well.

GW: The players that I've spoken to that have been in this situation before — and I've spoken to a few that played for the Phoenix Coyotes, now the Arizona Coyotes, that went through just a hellacious period in the last three or four years where every single year it looked like they were going to move. A lot of the players just seemed to be able to tune it out when they're in the dressing room. So it doesn't affect them as much, but it does affect the fans. How do you possibly commit yourself, live and die with that team, if you feel like they're going to be in Quebec City next year?

BL: The Panthers have made one playoff appearance in the last 14 years, and they've once again gotten off to a bad start this year. But let's suppose that they did start playing well at some point this season. Would that draw a lot more fans?

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GW: I believe it would. I think there's two problems right now from a marketing perspective for the Panthers. The first is, obviously, that they don't win — the one playoff appearance since 2000. They've never been able to put together back-to-back successful seasons. I really feel like you can't judge that market yet, until you see what it looks like when the team wins. And we're seeing that in other places. I mean, Canadian journalists were ready to move the Nashville Predators several years ago. Then they started winning and making the playoffs and minting new fans. Columbus [Bluejackets] is the same situation — now they're putting together winning seasons and you're seeing the fan base grow.

That brings us to the other problem, which is that they don't have a marketable star right now. Without a big offensive star like Tampa Bay has with Steven Stamkos, and without any success on the ice, it's a very, very tough product to market.

BL: The Panthers next play at home on Oct. 30. Do you think the team is relieved to be spending some time away from Florida now?

GW: [Laughing] Well, here's the other part of this attendance story that was lost on a lot of people that just wanted to laugh at the empty-seat pictures that were being tweeted around by the Ottawa Senators beat writers that were at the game, which is that four of the five lowest crowds they've ever had are in October. So, they're probably fine with leaving and going away in October because it's always been Canadians and Bostonians and New Yorkers that go and vacation in Florida. October is usually terrible. But as the months grow colder, you'll see more and more visiting fans filling those empty seats.

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This segment aired on October 18, 2014.


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