LBC Florida Panthers Roundtable: Winning Back the South Florida Community

It's going to take more than rubber rats and an abundance of "red".

There has been much discussion in the hockey world, certainly here at LBC, about the very notable drop in attendance the Panthers have witnessed in home games so far this season. We can point at a myriad of reasons to explain the drop: early calendar season before snowbirds arrive, lack of giveaways prior management engaged in, uninteresting competition for the local market that has never been into attending Devils, Senators, or Coyotes games; you name it, we've likely heard it or thought it.

That said, the LBC crew has been speaking off-board and behind the scenes both about why this apparent fan collapse has occurred and (more importantly) what can be done to remedy it. Here then, from the top secret roundtable, deep in an abandoned hunting shed in the Everglades, we once again gathered to hash this one out. It is our hope that all of you will chime in with your own thoughts and ideas.

After two epically horrible seasons, the Panthers are off to as solid a start as we've seen since 2011-12. Why, in your opinion have the fans disappeared early this year, when they are generally playing a better, more entertaining brand of hockey?

JC: The South Florida market generally does not support losing franchises. It has been the same for University of Miami football, the Marlins- despite their gorgeous new stadium, and even the Dolphins and Heat saw notable attendance drops when they were not winning. I recall the late 90's when the Dolphins made the playoffs and a local television station had to buy up remaining seats to get the game televised. We at LBC went over this fact in our prior article on attendance issues- but this is generally true in most cities in most sports. There are hockey fans in this region, they are just not coming out to games anymore. My opinion is that this is because fans do not deem the team worthy of the ticket cost. Two seasons of last place-or 2nd to last place- with awful hockey being played does not make a person want to go out and buy a ticket or 2 or 3, pay for parking, and feed themselves. This is perpetuated by local media- who provide little or no coverage, and by the North American hockey media which barely covers the Panthers and only offers negative assessments when they do. The general malaise continues to grow.

Todd: The two terrible seasons in a row, another off-season that didn't address the team's scoring woes, and a winless preseason combined with relocation rumors and no more freebie tickets has seriously tanked attendance. We all knew it was coming and thought it would be bad, but that it's this bad is a little surprising, as well as worrisome. Yes, I mentioned the preseason record. I know the games were meaningless, but when the perception around the team is that it sucks and they did the same old, same old during the summer, it didn't help, trust me.

Shane: I'll admit straight up, if I was still located in South Florida, that I would not be going to the games. The team has done right by giving the season seat owners the stuff that they deserve (free parking, no freebie tickets, etc), but besides that, the team has been so inept and pathetic over the course of their history that they have no true fan base. After going all in on the free agency market (the jury's still out on that one) the fanbase was optimistic headed into the new season. As Todd mentioned, going winless in the preseason gave a lot of people the perception that this would be the same old Panthers team.

Ryan: Winning cures all, but what really helps is an exciting team full of name recognition. Florida hasn't had either of those two things for quite some time, and even now as the team is winning and playing vastly better, they're not lighting it up every night and no one player is standing out as a true all-star caliber guy, aside from the goalie. Media coverage is pretty terrible overall, and the NHL and the team owners will need to address that this season, but the players will have to give everyone something to talk about, too.

Donny: The elimination of "comp" tickets. Period. Recent years still drew inflated crowds but only half of attendees were paying customers. Doesn't mean the folks in those seats weren't fans, only that until the on-ice product improves to a point where prospective ticket buyers can look upon Florida's record & roster and confidently state "I very well could see a victory tonight regardless of the opponent and I'm inspired by what I've seen/learned about this group of players, so it's time to open my wallet", many continue the wait-and-see approach. And who can blame them? Value - and demand - in the tickets will only increase as the team progresses.

Where have the Panther fans of old gone?

JC: When you drain a lake you find the evidence of years of dumping and crimes. The Panthers are no different-this has been a war of attrition that is finally turning out some ugly results. Years of season ticket holder abuse have depleted the base. I know too many former season ticket holders who were mistreated by former ownership, whose frustration grew to the point that while they appreciated personal calls from Dale Tallon, Rory Babych or Coach Gallant this summer, it still was not enough to bring them back. These are the hockey diehards the Panthers must have at games. Some of them were tossed from their seats by Club Red. Others, the Panthers could never find their accounts or names when called. Mainly you heard the complaint that they were being joined in their seats by discount ticket purchasers or people coming down from the high levels of the stadium and too often those folks were obnoxious visitors in the visiting team's jersey. In essence, they were keenly aware that their ticket prices were far overpriced. Combine that with the loss of faith in the team after years of losing that got even worse the last two seasons and the season ticket holders flew the coup.

Todd: Most of the people I know that like hockey gave up on the Panthers years ago and the 2011-12 season wasn't enough to win them back. They still root for their old teams as 1A, but the Panthers are no longer 1B or 2 in their minds. Missing the playoffs that many years in a row is a very hard thing to overcome. It's going to take a solid run of playoff appearances to win people back for good. The club basically has to start all over again, but without the "shiny new toy" thing you get with an expansion franchise. A lot of polishing is going to have to be done for South Florida to stop thinking of the Panthers as a turd.

Shane: To the couch. Why pay to watch them lose when you can do it at home for free? The atmosphere of a losing team isn't something worth paying for.

Ryan: They're likely not interested in the club anymore because of past wrongdoings by previous ownership and those beneath them, and are either watching on TV or not at all. Once you salt the earth, it's hard to grow new crops, and the last few ownership groups (and Michael Yormark in particular) dumped half the salt in the Pacific Ocean onto this franchise. Dale Tallon has barely had enough actual capital to create a team that can compete and fill the seats, and we're only just starting to see how they can maybe turn that around.

Donny: I don't think it really matters in the Big Picture where "they" went, though I agree with all of my pals above on each point. The club was too terrible with too many broken promises and far too many years of former overlord Mike Yormark's antics. Ask any - any - current or past season seat owner from the last ten years what their three biggest complaints about the organization were and I'd wager heavily that "losing atmosphere" and "Michael Yormark" are on that list. Back to the original question: Wherever "they" went is of no consequence. Getting them back is the challenge, but an easier task than appealing to those without any hockey background at all (and they're coming for you, too).

Do you think things are as bad as the crowds would indicate so far, or is this a factor of the opponents played and calendar month?

JC: I do not think things are as bad as the home games so far. I think we all expected a solid crowd for the Philadelphia game and it was alarming to see it as small as it was. Everyone was aware that the other 3 games would be poorly attended, just not this bad. But the poor attendance at the home opener and for the Flyers does start some alarm bells ringing. This has the possibility to be our worst attended season ever. To get this thing going again is going to be like getting one of those long freight trains that always block State Road 84 at rush hour moving: its going to take a while and a lot of winning, smart marketing, and patience. More locally relevant visiting competition, snowbirds, wins, it will bring people to games, but its not going to happen overnight.

Todd: Things are definitely bad, when you attract less than 10K for a team like the Flyers that's concerning, however, the NHL schedule maker certainly did this team no favors in the early going. Lousy draws to start the home slate and too many off days between games is not the tonic for a largely apathetic fan base.

Ryan: There are a few factors here, but the main thing to note is we're seeing what actual attendance should have looked like for probably the last two to three seasons. No more freebies inflating attendance figures is a big deal, and you're seeing the result of that in the stands. I think it would be naive to not take this as a very alarming and very bad sign, but the NHL and the new ownership group will exhaust every avenue towards fixing this, as it not only reflects poorly on the Panthers, but the league as a whole.

Donny: Could it be "that bad"? It could but I firmly don't believe so. An entirely new generation of eyeballs suddenly found themselves rooting on the Cats in April of 2012, and they made themselves known. For such a short period of success local television and radio stations began catering to that crowd as demand for information increased. It will happen again. Look, we all know the reality of the South Florida sports market: win or I stay home. That isn't going to change.

On that note, do you think we will see marked improvement in crowds heading into December?

JC: Yes, just not at an average rate that we have seen in years past.

Todd: Yes, as we get into the meat of the season and more large market teams come to town, things will improve. To what degree they improve is going to be really interesting to see.

Shane: All depends on whether or not the Panthers improve their record. If they do, people will come. If not, then it could just get worse and worse.

Ryan: We will see more improvement as the snowbirds nest, but we should also see more if the Panthers continue to win and stay relevant. What is unfortunate, however, is the fact that all those empty seats will likely be filled with fans of the visiting teams, not Panthers fans. That being said, you reap what you sow, and a decade-plus of failure has indeed caught up with the club, destroying most of the local fanbase.

Donny: Goes without saying that out-of-towners will be relied upon as heavily as ever before but if the Cats can win more than they lose in regular consistent bursts regional attention will follow. It always has.

What, if anything, is management doing wrong right now?

JC: I am around many South Florida hockey communities: kids ice hockey, adult beer league hockey, street hockey, officials, even public skate sessions, and the Panthers are not present at all in the majority of locations. Yes, they run some clinics at Panthers Ice Den, but even there they have a very limited exposure. I do not see any television or radio marketing, no billboard ads anymore. Very little, or nothing, is being done to grow the game in this non-traditional market. The only organization doing anything on that front is USA Hockey, and even their efforts are limited here. Putting it very simple- with the older fans having left the team, new fans must be grown here, and its not being done. The original Panthers grew the game here and it persisted through thick and thin for a long time, but its now time to start it all over again. This team needs to start acting like a new expansion franchise again in how it attracts fans because it's in a similar situation.

Todd: The Panthers need to have more of a presence in the community and its media outlets. Occasionally, I see a billboard here or there, or an ad on the radio, but that's about it. They need to push harder to get more coverage, especially if the team keeps winning. Get in people faces that it's not the same old Panthers. Find a way to get more highlights on TV and get the sports-talk hosts in town (the ones that are actually capable of it) to actually talk some hockey without the tired old negative spin. Start marketing your interesting player that have a personality and are actually performing on the ice.

Shane: This team needs to stop letting the league screw them over. I know this doesn't really relate to getting people out to the games, but they need to pitch to the league that this is a team that could be marketed. If there's a lot of improvement in the roster this season, there's no reason as to why the Panthers shouldn't be able to get a good number of games televised nationally. Also, can we do something to get the refs and the Department of Player of Safety to be reasonable when it comes to games involving the Panthers? Radko Gudas and Keith Yandle both got off for hits that should have been suspended.

Ryan: I hate to say this, because it's something they can't really control beyond free agency, but they need a superstar. Stamkos, Crosby, Ovechkin, Getzlaf, McDavid... doesn't matter who it is, this team needs star power. The Heat were not super-relevant in Miami until the biggest name in basketball showed up, and hockey will be no different. I also agree with JC and Todd that more needs to be done locally, especially in the youth hockey medium.

Donny: Dale is hamstrung with an abundance of contracts the club no longer wants; no news there. Granted, he offered those contracts - necessitated by a requirement to hit the salary floor (and hey, they did make the postseason), but the deals signed three years ago are now an albatross on a team bursting at the seams with young talent hungry for roster spots. That said, deeming management's handling of the current contract situation as "wrong" would be inaccurate in my mind. Now that injured players will begin returning in the coming days/weeks, big decisions will have to be made: hang on to the big-dollar veteran(s) or trade him, likely for nothing, in order to open a spot for the Grimaldis and Trochecks within the organization? Call it a work in progress.

What, if anything, do you think management is doing right?

JC: Protecting season ticket holders. This is a must, whether painful or not. And "no" I am not a season ticket holder. Showing patience through this process and keeping their mouths shut about threats of relocation since the letter to fans has also been excellent. They have responded to long time fans and family fans and made the in-game experience much better. We hear more organ music, can chat with friends, family and other fans because the music is not at 4000 decibels and we are not constantly being pounded with activity between periods and timeouts. You actually see fans talking with one another and its a pleasure. Excellent job by the management team.

Todd: The biggest thing management did right was loosening the purse strings this summer, although how wisely they spent all that money... but that's another topic I suppose. I've been to a few games already and the arena experience does seem to be less annoying. Keeping up the "we're here to stay" talk would be a good thing too, especially until the crowds start to improve. Building value back into the tickets was an absolute must. Short term pain for hopefully some long term gain.

Shane: To me, the best thing that the new ownership is doing is taking the financial losses now to build the long term success. Even though they could beg and plead with the league and the city of Sunrise to either let them sell the team or relocate, they're staying put and taking the business losses. It's reassuring to see.

Ryan: As everyone else has said, they have prioritized current season ticket holders and remade the in-house experience into one that focuses on hockey first. Too frequently the arena and the team was used to market an upper-crust, luxury experience, when in fact it's the diehard beer-and-pretzels fans that comprise the heart of the fanbase, us included.

Donny: Off-ice? Doing homework. I received a call from a (non-sales) team rep last week, not because of my involvement with LBC, but due to a Panthers phone list I placed my number on 9 years ago, before the blogging thing. Again, it wasn't a sales pitch, just an effort to reach out to fans from the past and learn what they thought about the brand: on the ice, management, arena, anything and everything one wished to volunteer. That's an expense they wisely undertook to gain a greater grasp on the market and those who expressed a minute interest in the team, even many years ago.

What do you think the Panthers should be doing to improve on the marketing situation?

JC: Maybe I am just in the wrong places, or watch and read the wrong things, but I don't see ANY marketing going on. This could be strategic, waiting until the snowbirds return and the team (hopefully) remains competitive. Hispanic heritage night was a great idea, but it needs to be pushed hard on Spanish language television and radio, and most importantly- in elementary and middle schools in predominantly Hispanic areas of South Florida. Which brings me to where I think the most lucrative market is: kids. As a parent, I see the kids in school who are open to an interest in hockey, and when exposed to it, often fall in love with the game. Several kids in my child's elementary school class (who do not come from "hockey families") have developed a great interest in watching and playing the game. The Panthers cannot hand out ticket vouchers for free- I agree it is a disservice to season ticket holders. However, make this exception: pick an elementary school for each home game and hand out 60 or 70 vouchers for game tickets. If 20-30 show up a healthy percentage will fall in love. Do the same at the local ice arena "Open Skate" nights. The kids in hockey programs at those arenas are already hockey fans, but they got there (in many cases) from going to an open skate, or a Panther game. The kids and families at open skate are a ripe market as well for that reason. So many fall in love with skating, so many come over to the other sheet of ice at the rink to watch kids playing hockey and want the same. Once the kid loves the game, the parents start bringing them to games, having birthday parties at the arena, buying souvenirs, food- you have to market to the family. Whichever school you voucher that particular game (and start with those in closer proximity to the BB&T- those people are more likely to keep making the drive), have the kids and families recognized and welcomed on the big screen- they feel wanted and excited and walk away feeling good about the Panther experience. Start a "date night" package for two club level seats at a special price- the dinner options will present themselves, and if anyone has been to a movie theatre in the past ten years your aware of what a hellhole that is. In conclusion- you have a better team now, playing mostly competitive games that keep us on the edge of the seat, a better in game experience, get people in the door with the kids and you get many of them for life. It sure worked for me going to a Washington Capitals game as a 1st grader and becoming hooked for life. Finally- you have some real characters on this team with Roberto Luongo, Scottie Upshall, and Sean Thornton, amongst others. Market them, comedy clips, first on the website, later at the games, some may go viral? How about Lu guest hosting a sports night on local t.v. like the comedy routine from TSN where he was the new intern? Kids reading day at the local kindergarten with Thornton or Upshall reading? Hilarious video. These are the types of things the "originals" engaged in and they need it again.

Todd: Basically anything and everything short of giving away tickets. I'm not sure what the answer is, but the quantity and quality of marketing needs to be markedly better. Maybe more of a zany minor league approach, with discount/food beer or merchandise giveaways, is what is needed until people start to believe the organization has turned the corner. Put on more "special" type games like Hispanic Heritage Night or maybe on holidays wear a one-off jersey, for example a green Panthers sweater on St. Patrick's Day. Oh yeah, and in addition to winning more games, acquiring a superstar type offensive player whether by draft, trade or free agency would make marketing this team a lot easier. When Pavel Bure was here, people got into it more. We need another player like that on the roster, one that attracts both local and national attention.

Shane: I agree completely with JC. Really couldn't have said it better myself. Get people out to games, make them feel good about going, and perform well on the ice. They'll be motivated to come back.

Ryan: Focus on the local scene first. Inject yourself into the local media, host community events at the arena, focus on becoming very active in youth hockey, run ticket specials for a variety of situations. While doing that, preach to the powers that be to get more national exposure, though don't risk doing so when more than half your arena is a ghost town. In summary, start local to get the community back, and then go bigger.

Donny: Winning is the finest form of marketing in this town.

Your take? Head for the comments...