Panthers seeing dismal crowds to start season
SUNRISE, Fla. (AP) — A half-hour before the Florida Panthers’ home opener, there were people waiting outside the arena to buy tickets.
A total of 11 people, to be precise.
The Panthers aren’t winning, either on the ice or at the box office in the early portion of this season. Their announced crowd of 7,311 on Monday night was not only a franchise all-time worst, smashing the previous low of 10,063, it was the smallest attendance figure for an NHL game in almost three years.
Through two home dates, the Panthers have drawn 18,730 fans — total. There were eight teams that averaged more than that for home games last season, and entering Tuesday the Panthers’ two home games to date had drawn the two smallest crowds in the league this season.
“I don’t even like talking about it because it’s out of my control,” Panthers defenseman Brian Campbell said. “I have to go work hard on the ice. If you let that affect you it’s just going to make you not play at the elite level. So I stay away from it. I don’t talk about it.”
The Panthers’ ownership group said last month that the club has steadily lost money for more than a decade, and there’s been speculation — which the team has vehemently and repeatedly shot down — that the franchise may be moving, possibly to a Canadian city.
“It’s a little disappointing,” said Ottawa fan Andy Lalonde, who was vacationing in South Florida and caught his team’s game there on Monday. “This would never happen in Ottawa, even on a Monday.”
Of the last 20 NHL games with an announced attendance as bad as the one Florida had Monday night, mitigating circumstances played a role in at least 10 of those. An Associated Press review of those games found that nine were on nights where winter storms held crowds back, and another in Dallas went up directly against a Texas Rangers game in the American League Championship Series.
The other 10 games, based on official numbers posted to the NHL’s web site: Eight were in Arizona, which has struggled with attendance for years; one was a home game for the New York Islanders against Minnesota when both teams were out of the playoff picture; and then Florida’s crowd on Monday.
“You didn’t like the atmosphere,” Ottawa’s Clarke MacArthur said after his team’s 1-0 win. “It was tough. You’ve got to create your own energy for sure. That’s an understatement. . There was a lot of air and a lot of silence up in the stands.”
One obvious plus for the Senators from playing in an empty arena on the road: Hearing coach Paul MacLean bark out commands was easy.
“That’s for sure,” MacArthur said.
Attendance woes are common in South Florida. The Miami Hurricanes struggle to get people to football and basketball games unless it’s a marquee opponent, the Miami Marlins are traditionally near the bottom of baseball’s attendance rankings, the Miami Heat were draping off sections of their arena a few years ago to reduce capacity, and the Panthers have rarely seen full houses.
It also can’t help that the Panthers haven’t won a playoff series since 1996.
“This city seems to need wins, whether it’s football, baseball, basketball,” said Senators goalie Craig Anderson, a former Florida player. “You need to win games to get fans in the building. A couple of years ago they were in the playoffs and they had great crowds. It’s a matter of them putting some wins together and getting the fan base to come back.”
The commonly accepted reasons for small crowds in the Miami area include the distraction of nearby beaches; that many residents either aren’t native to the South Florida region or even the U.S. so there’s no deep allegiance to teams; and that traffic plays a role in keeping fans home.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay — which struggles to draw for baseball’s Rays — has traditionally seen hockey’s Lightning play to nearly full houses.
“I don’t pay attention to that stuff when I’m playing,” Panthers goalie Roberto Luongo said. “I try to focus on my job. If we want to get some people in the stands we’re going to have to start winning some hockey games.”
AP freelance writer Paul Gereffi contributed to this report.