Breaking down Florida Panthers attendance: what it reveals about SoFla market

Joel Auerbach

Abundance of losses over past decade doesn't negate area's unique desire for a winner

A recent New York Times Article from earlier this month titled "Baseball Anyone? Anyone?" highlighted troubling attendance figures in some markets in that most American of mainstream sports: baseball. The Times noted that attendance can be "spotty" in the early baseball season, often due to poor weather, but that this 2014 season has been "especially bleak." In part, this is because in some of the games, weather had nothing to do with attendance. Certainly, in Cleveland the paid attendance of 9,029 at the recent Indians-Padres game could be in part blamed on weather, and the paid attendance in Kansas City of 13,905 at the Royals-Rays game could be similarly written off. But in Toronto and Miami, the respective teams were playing under domes and still had few fans in seats. Toronto only sold 13,123 tickets for the game. Further, in the massive New York market, the Mets announced paid attendance for their game with the Nationals of 20,561 produced likely less than half that of actual fans in seats. What, if anything, can we take from these figures and others I will look at in this article? Do attendance figures tell the story of a market and its capability of supporting a team? After all, the main argument used by (mostly) Canadian based sports media outlets for removing the Panthers from this market is poor attendance.

Looking at all professional sports, attendance can generally tell a person two things: 1) whether a team is playing well, and 2) whether a team is ingrained as part of the "thing to do in town." The first of these is much easier to determine and explain. Successful teams sell tickets, and sustained success leads to higher ticket prices due to that increased demand. One need only look at the Boston Bruins and the ticket price increases their fans have witnessed after their recent Stanley Cup run victories to prove that last part. In 2008-09, the Bruins attendance average jumped to 17,039 per game. The prior season they averaged 15,384. In 2006-07 the Bruins averaged 14,764; in 2005-06--16,211; in 2003-04-- 15,133; in 2002-03-- 15,029. I myself have seen this firsthand in baseball. I used to regularly attend New York Yankee games in the Bronx in the early 1990's, sitting in an upper deck behind home plate for many weeknight games that was virtually devoid of fans. Of course, those were terrible years for the Yankees without playoffs, World Series victories, or Derek Jeter. Come the late 1990's and the Yankee's success, tickets became hard if not impossible to obtain at games in the Bronx and the ticket prices became extraordinary.

This is the same in all sports, and with most teams. The Tampa Rays averaged only 16,139 in paid attendance in 2004, but jumped to 22,259 in 2008 when they made the World Series. In 1997, the Cleveland Indians made the World Series and averaged 42,295 in paid attendance. That average would drop by nearly half, to 22,726 in 2011. The Chicago White Sox would go from an average of 23,165 in 1997 (when they finished one game under .500) to 30,877 in 2008, as the team became more competitive and won the American League Central title for the first time since 2005. In the NFL (the strongest of professional sports in ticket sales) the highly respected Pittsburgh Steelers market would go from average ticket sales of 63,485 in 2009 (the season after they won the Super Bowl) to 57,311 in 2013, as the team's fortunes dropped and they had their worst start to a season since 1934. The Buffalo Bills would see a drop from 71,054 in 2007 (when they went 7-9 for the second consecutive season) to 62,694 in 2011 (with another abysmal 6-10 finish). The Kansas City Chiefs would see a drop of almost 10,000 in ticket sales from 2007 to 2009. Success equates to ticket sales, but, conversely, the longer losing goes on, the worse attendance declines.

Looking at the hometown Panthers, there has been success, and corresponding ticket sales, but that success has never been sustained. The Panthers have made the playoffs four times: in the 1995-96 Stanley Cup run, 1996-97, 1999-00, and 2011-12 seasons they made first round exits in the conference quarterfinals. Until 1997-98, the Panthers played at Miami Arena, which had a hockey capacity of 14,703. During the Cats' historic Stanley Cup final run in 1995-96, they averaged 13,388 in paid attendance, and the following season, in which they made a first round exit from the playoffs, the Panthers averaged, yes, averaged, the maximum capacity of 14,703. In 1999-00, the next season they made the playoffs, Florida averaged 15,989, good for 17th in the NHL in paid attendance. In 2011-12, when the resurgent Cats surprised everyone by making the playoffs, their attendance jumped to an average of 16,628, followed by a small bump the following season, partially locked out, of 16,991. Does success bring fans in the door? Even in South Florida, without question: yes.

But there are markets where success need not be part of the equation on a sustained basis, where tickets will still be sold. Perhaps the greatest example of this is the Chicago Cubs. This doormat of a baseball team, "lovable losers" as some call them, are so ingrained in the culture of the North Side of Chicago, in their famous Wrigley Park, that win or lose, they sell tickets, and often at an inflated price. The terrible Cubs averaged 37,258 last season, 40,743 in 2008, and 39,138 in 2004 (just to include a random sampling of losing and "o.k." seasons). The same can be said for hockey starved fans of the Winnipeg Jets, who were so desperate to get the pro game back have sold out every match in their small arena at equally inflated ticket prices, whether they win or lose. Obviously than, winning is not necessarily the sole factor in driving ticket sales and attendance. There are certain sports, in certain locales that can sustain attendance despite losing seasons.

In hockey, this does not, however, equate to all northern or Canadian markets. Some markets that may be considered "ingrained" (as I have coined that term for this article) hockey meccas have seen lean years when success eluded them for long periods of time. The Blackhawks are my prime example here. Ticket sales plummeted throughout the early 2000's as the team foundered in long-term mediocrity and an even longer-term lack of locally broadcast home games. The club's resurgence in 2008-09 resulted in an average attendance of 22,247, while a year earlier they averaged 16,814 (mostly due to crowded late season games as they made a failed playoff push--early in that season there were homes games that averaged 9- or 10,000). In 2006-07 the Hawks averaged 12,727, in 2005-06- 13,318, and in 2003-04? 13,253. Of course, the Hawks have become the ticket de jour in the Windy City in this day and age. Boston's numbers were noted above, and had dropped from a high average of 17,474 in 1995-96 (and we all know very well what occurred in the playoffs that season!), into the 14-16,000 range until the team's resurgence in 2008-09. Nor is this simply to point out American markets. The Vancouver Canucks have had an average attendance over 18,000 since 2002-03, but as late as 1999-00 they were averaging 14,641. This is not to be critical of these markets; simply to point out that there are few markets completely immune to attendance effects due to sustained losing.

On the flip side is a market like Toronto, where the team is so much "the thing to do and be seen at" that corporations buy up large blocks of tickets, leaving a limited and expensive supply for individual fans. It is a huge market with an enormous number of hockey fans, as well as a lot of lesser "fans" who are simply entertained by the game or go to games because it's "the place to be". For a great fan viewpoint, check out this "Voices" section from the Toronto Star, especially the post by a "Sean Mitchell" from 2007:

This is the problem with Toronto. Since Leaf tickets are a "business investment" for 17,000 season ticket holders who will never part with the seats even if the team lost 70 games in the year. This is only going to affect 1000 people a game who can actually buy tickets from the box office. Until people realize this team won't improve until people stop paying at whatever cost to see a poorly managed/owned team, there is no hope this team will improve.

Whether fair, good, or wrong this equates to a very, very successful market...in terms of ticket sales, and according to at least one poster in the link above, increased ticket sales for the nearby Buffalo market that they write is far cheaper and more accessible.

But ticket sales also show a market in South Florida. Despite a ten-year absence from the playoffs before 2011-12, the Panthers consistently averaged over 15,000 in paid attendance throughout that sorry period of time. In fact, in 2003-04, the Panthers were 17th in the league in paid attendance despite a 28-35-15-4 record. Coming out of the (completely lost) lockout season of 2004-05, the Panthers averaged 16,014, for 19th best in the league the following year. In fact, until 2013-14, the Panthers never averaged fewer than 15,146 at what is now the BB&T Center, and that 15,146 was in 2009-10 (when they were 24th in attendance in the NHL). This is, of course, with less corporate support than many larger markets or northern markets receive. What is especially telling was playoff ticket sales in 2011-12. The Panthers had 4 home games, and only failed to sell out for game 1, in which they sold to 99.3% capacity. They made up for that in home games 3 and 4 when they sold over 100% capacity to a standing room only crowd of over 19,500. Obviously, an excited hockey market is ready and waiting to be tapped once again in South Florida.

The one thing a person hears routinely regarding any attendance discussion is the paid vs. butts-in-seats argument, and the ticket price issue, which remains well below the league average. The latter goes a bit like this: find a blog concerning the NHL that many Canadian fans interact with and you will undoubtedly find someone saying, more or less, that "sure you sell tickets but the prices are so low how does the team make any money?" There is truth to this for sure. Toronto and Boston can raise ticket prices because they are, respectively, an "ingrained market" and a winning market. More than a bit of historical significance - certainly in the case of the Leafs - may apply here too. The Panthers' reign of awfulness means they cannot do the same, and only a string of successful seasons will change that. The raising of ticket prices and new charges for parking directly following the playoff appearance in 2011-12 was likely one of the dumbest things management did in Sunrise. Just at the time fans were experimenting with returning to games, prices and parking went up, and then a lockout occurred. Smarter management would have seen that time period as one in which to consider a gentle approach to continue bringing folks to the arena until the franchise was stabilized.

But even northern and Canadian markets suffer this same ticket price problem if they are not ingrained and not winning. A recent visit to stubhub.com (where many Canadian media and bloggers go to find/"expose" information on cheap Panther tickets) revealed that a person could find seats to the April 10, 2014 Edmonton Oilers game, in Edmonton, vs. the L.A. Kings for as low as $13.21. In fact there were many tickets from $13.21 continuing through $22.40 available for the game. That same night, a person could find a Canucks ticket for their home game against the Avalanche for as low as $37.70, $42.80, $47.80 and on up. Once again, losing and a non-ingrained market leads to lower ticket prices in most places. By comparison, the non-playoff bound Winnipeg Jets tickets on stubhub were over $100 per ticket minimum. This, of course, is the definition of ingrained, which is what the new Jets have become.

As for the paid attendance vs. people in the seats argument, well that matters but how much or to who I am unsure. The teams want the tickets sold. Yes, it would be good to have parking paying, beer buying, food eating, souvenir shopping fans in the seats, but as long as the seats are paid for, the team is getting the attendance money.

What does all this mean for the Panthers? Strangely, this has been a very resilient market. Ticket prices have not been able to rise, like in other places, but average attendance was maintained consistently through a losing time period that would have resulted in attendance damage in other, even more traditional markets (as seen by more drastic drops in attendance in those markets during their poor seasons). With less corporate support, Panthers ticket sales are driven more by the individual fan, and it appears there are somewhere in the neighborhood of 19,000 who would be willing to go watch an important hockey game- as evidenced by the playoff attendance in 2011-12.

Certainly the team has taken a beating in sales this season. To some degree this was the result of poor management: deciding to raise prices and parking after a single playoff appearance and during a lockout was nothing short of stupid. To another extent it was bad luck: the lockout's timing prevented the team from continuing to cash in on the playoff appearance of a season earlier and lost that excitement while also becoming the source of embarrassment for the team and league. There is no question that sooner or later all the losing seasons were going to take a toll. Attendance this season finally dipped under 15,000 (at the BB&T). Looking at other markets and their attendance in long losing periods, this should have been expected some time ago, so while troubling, it was bound to happen.

It's not all that fair for present management and ownership to be left holding the proverbial bag. Years of mismanagement have left the team in the doldrums for too long. This has cut the time period that Dale Tallon and his team have to turn things around, and that should not be the case. But whether fair or not, it is so. Only one thing will turn things around in the attendance department at this point, and that is winning. It has worked that way in all other sports and markets. Winning is a tonic to attendance issues. While the Panthers may never be an "ingrained" franchise, the consistent 15,000 fans of the lean years, and the 19,000 in their recent playoff run all point to the fact that there are plenty of hockey fans in South Florida. The trick will be bringing them back into the fold at a manageable pace along with a winning team. Much like the team itself, with all of its youth, the fans must be brought along slowly, with no more drastic and somewhat shortsighted moves (though necessary as the club wasn't spending pre-sale) like that following the 2011-12 season. What can attendance figures show us? Simple: like virtually everywhere else, and in virtually every sport, putting a winner on the ice will put behinds in the seats. This is a market that has/can/will support an NHL franchise.

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