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Smarter scheduling could help Florida Panthers attendance continue to rise

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The Cats have done a lot recently to turn their fortunes around. But smarter scheduling could benefit them and their Sunbelt brethren in the stands for those opponents that just are not an interesting draw, no matter how good they or the Panthers are.

Robert Mayer-USA TODAY Sports

Another Florida Panthers attendance article? I know, I know. It all seems like excuses or justifications for why South Floridians aren't breaking down the doors of the BB&T Center to watch the Panthers eat breakfast like they do in Canada. This is more of a suggestion article than anything else. The Panthers have been turning their attendance woes around by doing something crazy: winning. Amazing, I wonder if that's how it worked for other teams (*cough* Chicago, *cough* Pittsburgh).

But there are just some opponents, no offense to those organizations or their fan bases, that you just look at the schedule and think, "mama mia, I have no idea what that team's about." And those teams tend to have tiny fan bases that are not big transplants in South Florida as compared to other regions. It's the same in all sports. Can anyone here can name someone who plays for the Sacramento Kings, San Diego Padres, or Los Angeles Rams right now without struggling? Anyone know someone who is a fan of those teams that moved here? Very few of you likely. For those games, it is mostly all about just enticing casual fans with your team's play.

For the past decade, the Florida Panthers have had what is known as the "holiday homestand" - a stretch of games in which the Panthers play at home for the weeks encompassing Christmas and New Year's. Much to the chagrin of Cats die-hards, these games are notorious for being the ones against South Florida's biggest snowbird imports from the Northeast, namely the New York Rangers, Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins. These fans travel well and of course many are transplanted here in South Florida. Yet no matter how much fans hate seeing their building look like a road game, these are the Panthers' best selling games of the season.

Most of the Cats fans' anguish comes from the fact that the Panthers were terrible, which pushed the percentage of away fans to something like 75% or more of the total crowd on those nights. South Florida, like most cities, isn't keen on supporting a loser let alone one that couldn't even begin to compete. However, the tides are turning in Florida's favor as evidence by the rise in attendance (with no more Yormarkian giveaways) with the club's rise in the standings. A game against the Columbus Blue Jackets, one of the NHL's historically bad franchises that also has a small fan base, drew a crowd of close to 17,000. And those snowbird games have been Panthers majorities for the first time in years.

However, outside of the "holiday homestand," the Panthers have an issue with some less popular teams, especially those from the Western Conference. Take for example the 2015-16 visit by the very good St. Louis Blues, which only drew 13,000 or so fans. What can Florida and the NHL do to help with these types of opponents? Here are some suggestions.

Schedule less popular opponents for Friday nights at an 8 pm start time

Playing the Panthers at Central time may seem a bit weird but let's think about this for a second by taking into account the typical South Florida resident on game day coming from Palm Beach or Miami. You get off of work at 5 pm on average. You then most likely want to head home or have to pick up kids or spouses someplace else. It is also the rush hour period where the major South Florida freeways, I-95 and the Turnpike, are bumper to bumper. And South Florida's public transportation options are pathetic as opposed to other major cities. For many of us, it takes a good hour or more just to get home. If you're lucky, you get home around 6 pm and want to decompress a bit before wanting to head out to the game. Take another 30 to 45 minutes and it's suddenly 6:45. But wait it's still rush hour and traffic might likely even be worse than it was at 5 (especially in Miami). Now you have to account for another hour or more. You get to Sunrise, at best, 7:45. You're late.

Now imagine if the Cats pushed that start time to 8 pm for Fridays only. Maybe just maybe a few folks who think it's not worth the headache may just brave it knowing the next morning they are likely not going to work or at least not coming in as early or staying as late. Until there is a great mode of public transportation to Sunrise on par with the subways in the Northeast, then the Cats and the NHL may want to take into account the woes of this area. And maybe implement this strategy in other large, car-centric metro areas with NHL franchises.

Take advantage of the other major sports schedule

The Panthers are in one of the few places in North America that has all four major sports leagues represented and accounted for. It would be smart for the NHL to schedule Florida strategically with some big opponents the Dolphins, Heat or Marlins are facing. The Heat less-so because the NBA and NHL schedule coincide with each other, plus some ownership groups either own stakes in both leagues or at least share a building with a basketball club.

The Panthers tend to schedule some of their less-appealing opponents in October to mid-November and then sprinkle them throughout January, February and March. But there may be a way to salvage those dates and get a few more seats sold.

For baseball, the Marlins start their regular season mainly in early April and usually end in late September (unless by some miracle they make the playoffs). However, Spring Training officially begins in all of the state of Florida in mid-February, and games are hosted from late February through March.

The state hosts 15 teams:

1) Miami, 2) Tampa Bay, 3) New York Yankees, 4) New York Mets, 5) Boston Red Sox, 6) Philadelphia Phillies, 7) Pittsburgh Pirates, 8) Washington Nationals, 9) Baltimore Orioles, 10) St. Louis Cardinals, 11) Minnesota Twins, 12) Toronto Blue Jays, 13) Detroit Tigers, 14) Houston Astros, and 15) Atlanta Braves.

From that list of 15 teams, 12 of them share a market with NHL franchises. The closest baseball practice facilities are in Ft. Myers (BOS, MIN) and Jupiter (STL, MIA) with West Palm Beach opening a new one in 2017 (WSH, HOU). The NHL could have the Wild and Blues, two teams that traditionally do not draw well for Florida, and time them for when Spring Training opens for the Cardinals and Twins. How about the Devils and Islanders, two teams that don't hold a candle to the draw the Panthers receive when the rival Rangers come to town? Maybe when the Yankees or Mets are close by they could grab a few of their underdog multi-sport fans. They could even schedule the big snowbird teams for when they swing by Jupiter, West Palm Beach or Ft. Myers which could make the drive to Sunrise for some multi-sport snowbirds worth it to see a game. Heck, you could even host them at night on the same date as most Spring Training games occur during the day.

This could also have massive benefits as well for the Lightning but moreso, the Coyotes who are all alone in Arizona. The Phoenix area hosts San Francisco, Oakland, both Chicago teams, Los Angeles, Anaheim, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Texas, Colorado, and Arizona as the regions that share NHL and MLB franchises.

For football, the Dolphins play on Sundays and have only 8 games a year at home. The Dolphins play in a division that includes Buffalo, the New York Jets, and New England Patriots. The NFL schedule guarantees that the Fins will host these teams at least once in Miami. Why not have the Sabres, another traditionally poor-draw, come in that Friday or Saturday to face the Panthers? Finally, the NFL schedule could help in some regards as the Fins will not face every opponent this season but will likely face a few that share a region with an NHL franchise. How beneficial would it have been for Florida in 2015-16 if instead of the Stars coming here in October on a weekday they could have placed that game near the Sunday the Fins hosted the Cowboys in 2015? Maybe a slight help but better than the alternative.

The Dolphins are slated to host in 2016, along with their divisional opponents, the Cleveland Brown, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tennessee Titans, Arizona Cardinals, and San Francisco 49ers. Sounds like the Blue Jackets, Predators, Coyotes, and Sharks ought to swing on by Sunrise a few weekends from October through December.

Conclusion

A couple of suggestions, but ones that I feel could benefit Florida and the league as a whole a tiny bit. Let me know what you think or perhaps any readers out there have their own ideas. We all have a little Bill Veeck in us.