Does hockey have a future in the South U.S.?

A sea of empty seats in Sunrise, Florida, Oct. 11, 2014.( J PAT CARTER — AP Photo)

A sea of empty seats in Sunrise, Florida, Oct. 11, 2014.( J PAT CARTER — AP Photo)

On Monday night, the Florida Panthers played the Ottawa Senators in front of a very scarce crowd. Although the official count was 7,311, the BB&T Centre looked more like a ghost town than a hockey game. It was a record low for the Panthers.

What is traditionally a football and basketball market, Panthers hockey has been a tough sell since the team has started playing in Miami. In 21 years, the Panthers have made the playoffs four times, including the Cinderella run in 1996.

Even with young guns Jonathan Huberdeau, Aaron Ekblad, and star goalie Roberto Luongo, the Panthers cannot draw big crowds. Perhaps if the Maple Leafs, Rangers or Bruins were playing against the Panthers, the game would have drawn a bigger crowd. However, you just can’t play those teams for 41 homes games a year.

Will hockey ever rise in the South?

The Atlanta Thrashers were another team that experienced low attendance at the gate. In their final season, they averaged 13,469 before moving to Winnipeg. The Thrashers could not give tickets away in Atlanta, even if they tried. Even the mascot was sent to jail as a promotional tool.The only way he could get bailed out is if 5,000 season tickets were purchased. In contrast, the Winnipeg Jets sold out their season tickets within the first hour as soon as they were on sale.

The Arizona Coyotes take on the Oilers at the Gila River Arena on October 15, 2014 (Photo : Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

The Arizona Coyotes take on the Oilers at the Gila River Arena on October 15, 2014 (Photo
: Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Another team that has low attendance figures has been the Arizona Coyotes, who have been plagued with ownership issues over the past several years and have also struggled to sell tickets. Their saving grace is visitors from Canadian and traditional American hockey markets such as New York, Boston, Chicago or Detroit. However, with new owners and a lease with the City of Glendale, the Coyotes are committed to keeping hockey in Arizona.

However, not all is lost with the southern hockey markets. With recent playoff appearances and superstar Steven Stamkos leading the way, the Tampa Bay Lightning have been seeing improvement in ticket sales.

After the Carolina Hurricanes won the Cup in 2006, they have also seen a spike at the ticket gates. Despite missing the playoffs in the past two seasons, The Predators have had a competitive team over the past decade and that has encouraged many fans to come watch. The team is also heavily marketed, as Predator fans like to refer to their town as “Smashville”.

Winning is everything

Unlike Canadian NHL Markets, where games are sold out nightly – regardless of team performance – there is a common pattern to all of this: winning. The Panthers have been a bottom feeder team for most of their existence and have given no motivation for even fair weather fans to come out and watch the games.

With the owners losing $20 million dollars annually and low numbers of fans appearing at their games, it’s not hard to speculate that a potential relocation is on the rise. At the end of the day, teams do operate like businesses and succeed in markets where there are more fans.

If these low attendance figures keep on happening, the Panthers may have to migrate to Las Vegas, Seattle or even Quebec City.

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