Before stepping foot into the BankAtlantic Center, I wasn’t entirely sure of what to expect. Some touted the modern design and features of the arena while others complained about the invasion of visiting fans and gimmicky advertising initiatives. My two visits to the BAC didn’t give me too much time to explore every nook and cranny of the building and surrounding area (I’m still scratching my head wondering how I missed the ‘obvious’ Billboards) but what I did see was a building surprisingly full of Panthers fans cheering on their team despite their struggles this season and the nine before. In reality I had expected to be sitting in a half empty section while being pelted by T-shirts from the Party Patrol but instead I walked out of the BankAtlantic Center encouraged by the game experience in hockey’s southernmost city.
I had seen the Panthers play once before in a disappointing 3-0 shutout loss against the Colorado Avalanche last March in Denver, but I literally knew nothing about the BAC at the time other than that it was located in Sunrise, Florida and the fans threw rats on the ice. Upon joining LBC and with the aid of the great fans here I was able to learn quite a bit about the team and what to expect when I stepped in the doors of the BankAtlantic Center, but let’s start from the beginning. About two hours before doors opened I wandered about the massive Sawgrass Mills mall across the street and made my semi-annual Panthers hat purchase and ate some dinner. Though the mall is not on the BAC grounds, its proximity to the arena gives you a great opportunity to kill some time before the game starts. Closer to game time we took full advantage of the free parking by pulling into a space that would have cost at least ten dollars at the Pepsi Center and strolled to the doors enjoying the 80 degree heat. People were congregated under the cool green umbrella things and waiting to enter the building. The first thing I noticed were the Panthers Ice Dancers and tables with free promos. After filling my pockets with free stuff (believe me after driving 2500 miles to get there I wasn’t shy about getting some freebies) and a few minutes perusing the dancers it was time to enter the arena. Sure, the outside entertainment wasn’t spectacular but it was more then I had ever seen at other hockey games (where people practically break through the gates to escape the bitter cold).
Once inside I made a quick sweep of Pantherland to see if anything caught my eye (I couldn’t add to my puck collection because I couldn’t find any Panthers pucks though!), visited the men’s restroom to see the infamous little Panthers bull’s-eyes and sauntered around the carpeted lower level to see the sights. The Den of Honor was hands-down the best part of the BAC, for a relatively new fan like me who really has no grasp of Panthers history, the Den offered something that no Wikipedia article could, the real jerseys, the rats and sticks and pictures, the newspaper articles and video clips that one cannot possibly search for on the internet. I must say this one thing as an outsider who had never visited the arena to season ticket holders and Panther regulars—I know it is really easy to complain about every inch of the arena being plastered in advertisements and every stoppage of play to be sponsored, but it took real class to set aside prime lower level real-estate for the exhibit. The Den wasn’t deserted either, numerous people were looking through the glass at living history from the team’s glory days, they were interested. What a great opportunity for some of the history of the Panthers to rub off on visiting fans who seem to think so lowly of the Panthers, I thought that the first-class effort put into the Den of Honor made up for all of the urinal stickers and cha-chings after the Panther goals. For anyone making their first trip to the BAC, the Den of Honor should be the first thing you see.
The best part of traveling down to Florida is that we were able to purchase row 5 seats in the lower bowl for around $60, a value that simply cannot be matched. The seats were also at the attack-twice end (which wouldn’t pay off as Michal Repik scored the only goal of the night during the second period at the other end). In fact, we payed more for row 18 seats during the Pittsburgh game than for the row 5 ones, confirming my theory that it’s not always the location of the seats, the team being played also factors into determining prices. Tickets to the games are quite affordable, and even the 400 level seats offer a good view of the game. I had assumed to see lots of empty seats in the lower bowl as I had seen many times on the telecasts, but to my surprise the arena was pretty full at both games, 92% capacity against Ottawa (much higher than I had expected) and 107% capacity against Pittsburgh. Granted, I saw the Sens and Pens not the Thrashers or the Islanders, but still the fact remains that the Panthers draw average crowds much larger than people give them credit for. If you don’t believe me, look around you midway through the second period, that’s when the majority of the people are in their seats. It was a frequent occurrence seeing the visiting team’s jerseys in the crowd, but that was expected. I thought that the Senators and Penguins fans behaved quite well and I harbor no animosity towards them.
The game experience was considerably better than I had expected, the fans around me were into the game and for the most part kept their phones in their pockets. To tell you the truth, the Party Patrol and little games during commercial breaks didn’t bother me at all, I have seen way too many games where those things were so distracting that they drew attention from the game on the ice. At least when the Party Patrol descended into the stands you could ignore them, at the beer-league games they would assert themselves until you were thoroughly annoyed. After missing the playoffs for a decade the fair-weather fans must have died off because the Panthers fans I saw during both games obviously loved their team. When the Panthers scored, the place went wild and practically everyone I saw stood on their feet and applauded, when the Panthers had a short lived lead against Pittsburgh, the fans were absolutely buzzing. For every apathetic fan I saw playing with technology I saw 3 jersey wearing fans surrounding them watching the game intently and cheering on the team that they paid good money to see. Snowbirds and traveling visitors aside, the fans didn’t look like they had been watching a team lose for ten years, they supported the Panthers regardless of how they were playing. Even down 4-1 against Ottawa, fans stayed in their seats until heading to the exits until the last five minutes—any hope of winning that game had been crushed two periods ago but the fans watched anyways. Anyone who claims that the Panthers don’t have fans certainly didn’t go to the games I went to; I only wish I could have witnessed the arena if the Panthers had won those two games.
Some other notes on the BAC experience:
• Yes the scoreboard is aged but when you get a new one it’ll be all the sweeter.
• I didn’t purchase much food at the games—good thing to because the cheeseburger and bottled soda I did buy cost a whopping $14! I’ll admit it was a good size and quite delicious, and in buying that burger I was given some priceless life advice from the guy manning the cash register.
• Please do away with the cha-ching after the Panthers score, you can count your money during the offseason.
• I noticed another potential advertising joke waiting to happen while watching the warm-ups; the ‘have you lost money on a bad investment’ advertisement running across the ribbon boards. Now how ironic is it that the ‘end the southern experiment’ camp can take down that number and send it to Gary Bettman’s office demanding compensation.
• Free parking is awesome
• It was very quick and easy to exit the parking lot after the game ended which was especially nice since we needed all the sleep we could get after driving 3 days to get to Florida.
To put this bluntly, I had planned long ago to make the trip down to Florida for the sole reason of seeing Panthers play at home before they relocated. I was more than a little naive at the time and was drawing hearty sips from the Canadian Kool-Aid pitcher but as I became more informed about the state of the Florida Panthers organization, it became evident that the team wasn’t going anywhere and there was no need to bid a fond farewell to my favorite team. My motivation to see a Panthers home game switched from seeing the team before it relocated to seeing the Panthers before they won a Stanley Cup, to see how one team could be transformed from annual basement dwellers to an exciting and dangerous team, to see a fan base reinvigorated and recharged. My two game trip has given me the ‘before’, now it’s just a matter of time until I can see the ‘after’. I truly enjoyed the two games at the BankAtlantic Center even though the Panthers lost both, and I would encourage anyone with the lingering thought to see a game at the BAC to do so, it was a well worth it.