The cultural, financial, and population center of the area of the Florida East Coast known as "South Florida" is Miami, yet South Florida's hockey team, the Florida Panthers, are not in Miami - well, not anymore. They currently reside in the $185 million arena built by Broward County, the BB&T Center (formerly known as the BankAtlantic Center), which is also the second-largest professional-sports arena in the US, behind only the Blackhawks' United Center in total seating capacity (but as you'll soon read, not actual capacity).
Despite their relatively-short history, this is the second home to the Panthers. Their original home (as well as the NBA's Miami Heat) was the Miami Arena, located in downtown Miami. Opened in 1988 in time for the Heat's first season, the arena soon came under scrutiny for being too small to handle the demand for either team. Soon, the hunt was on for a new home for each, and with a deadline imposed by the Panthers' owner of August 31, 1998, the city of Sunrise and the Broward County officials came through in 1996 with funding to build a new home for the Panthers near the popular Sawgrass Mills Mall.
The arena opened 33 days after the deadline on October 3, still in enough time for the 1998-99 season to be played entirely in the new arena. Given the nickname of "The Center of It All" in the corporate naming deals and for the fact they constantly draw big names even with the Heat's AmericanAirlines Arena's location next to the core population, this arena has a lot to live up to. Especially since the Panthers aren't quite the draw they used to be.
The FANFARE scale is our metric device for rating each stadium experience. It covers the following:
Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
The best thing about the concession stands at the BB&T Center is that the windows and stands do not open directly into the concourses; instead, they are built in little alcoves off the concourses, complete with high-stop tables and decks for overlooking the city and the Everglades (more on that in a moment). This helps keep the concourses clear for their intended purpose, and also helps feel less rushed in queues, when they do crop up, usually only during intermissions.
The food is good, though some things are a little pricey. My favorite there was the Cuban, which is comparable in price ($5 for a half, $9 for a full) and superior quality to the only other pro sports stadium I've been to that serves them, Tropicana Field. In fact, they are even served with a dill pickle spear to supplement the pickles already on the sandwich. Heavenly.
Also available are an unlimited drink cup (with receipt, don't throw it out or you're out-of-luck) and a kiosk for the Brooklyn Water Bagel Co., a regional chain that serves (what else?) bagels made out of water imported from Brooklyn.
This is where things start to go downhill for the BB&T Center. The building itself is very glitzy and glamorous, with all the features you'd expect in South Florida; however, this is not the case with the outdated dot-matrix hexagonal scoreboard not-that-high over center ice. Nor does it help when there was no real fan support to liven up the mood (more below).
And for the love of God, turn down the air conditioning, please! I'm a warm-blooded person who has worn the Florida standard-issue t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops before to the Tampa Bay Times Forum without an issue. However, here, by the beginning of the 3rd period, I was begging for my roommate, his girlfriend, and our friend to huddle in as close to me as possible, in their hoodies and hockey sweaters. Trust me, it was not a pretty sight.
The thing that hurts the atmosphere the most, though, is where precisely this arena is located in South Florida. The city of Sunrise is more of a suburb of Fort Lauderdale than it is Miami, and even that is kind of a stretch. Located about 30 miles from downtown Miami, and almost 20 from downtown Fort Lauderdale, the BB&T Center abuts the biggest piece of untouchable real estate in the south, the Everglades and its East Coast Buffer. They even accentuate this aspect with balconies overlooking the connecting Sawgrass Expressway and the expanse of virgin land immediately beyond.
To say it's "The Center of It All" is a bit misleading, to say the least.
Considering its location, this score is a little high. However, this is because - while it may be on the edge of oblivion - it is located across the street from the second-largest mall in Florida, Sawgrass Mills, which has had a neighborhood grow up around it. However, there's nothing more than the typical casual-dining establishments you find around all American malls, and some condo towers.
It's not a hidden fact that, on any given night, there are more-than-enough seats to go around for last-minute buyers. This because the Florida Panthers' fans seem to watch from home. Granted, the night I went was preseason versus their cross-state rivals, the Tampa Bay Lightning, but when Tampa Bay drew two-thirds capacity (over 13,000) for the same matchup in Tampa the night prior, the Panthers only had about 9,000 people come through the turnstiles. In fact, to encourage sellouts, the top 12 rows of the "400 level" (equivalent to 300 in most traditional arenas) are tarped-off, a first I've seen in an arena geared toward professional sports.
Those that were there were passionate and did know hockey very well. They even had a chant where the PA announcer, when announcing the goal just scored, would say, "The Panthers..." and the crowd replies "GOAL!!!" Small things like that show there might be life in these Panthers yet, if only people would or could make the trip out there.
Despite being at the very perimeter of South Florida's metropolis, getting there couldn't be easier. Being located along the Sawgrass Expressway, one of the main toll roads in the network of toll roads of South Florida, it has its own exit with direct access to the parking lot, one that is expansive. Plus, according to the team's website, for a Panthers game, "Parking is included in all ticket purchases," so that gets two big thumbs up from me.
In addition, if you own a Lexus, you get your own special lot to park in, right in front of the venue with its own escalator, lest you have to walk up the stairs.
The concourses are super-wide, the bathrooms are clean, and even the staff is probably the friendliest I've ever experienced at any pro sporting event.
The Panthers don't have much history. In fact, the only banners hanging from the rafters are celebrating their Eastern Conference Championship in 1995-96, one for having the best record ever for an inaugural year team, hosting the 2001 NHL Draft, the 2003 All-Star Game, and the inaugural event at the then-BankAtlantic Center, a Celine Dion concert.
Because of this dearth of pedigree, the fact the seats I sat in had a face value of $40 a piece (front of 400-level, goal-end) is pretty ridiculous. Due to the low demand, the reseller's market is the way to go; after negotiating with the gentleman, and eventually walking away when he wouldn't budge, he ran after us and reluctantly accepted our offer. I got 4 tickets for $20 total ($5 a piece, an 88% discount). That should be proof that buying from the box office is rather foolish.
Down in the main concourse on the opposite side of the entrance, there is an area dedicated to the hockey greats from South Florida and the Panthers organization, called the "Den of Honor". It's a must-see for any hockey aficionado.
Also, there are numerous different special private and public restaurants and bars, including The Patron Platinum Club, the Chairman's Club, the Black Velvet Club (all located on the Suite Level), and Duffy's Sky Club, located high above the 400-level.
Finally, one of the best things about the BB&T Center is also its worst feature. To the northwest of the building is the Everglades, the largest expanse of wetlands in the US. While it kills the Neighborhood and Atmosphere scores for putting the arena on the edge of existence, it is absolutely beautiful to look across the endless expanse and watch the sun set.
When, in 1996, the Panthers' owner demanded a new arena by mid-1998, the only area of South Florida to step-up was the sleepy, distant suburb of Sunrise, and suggested the furthest point in the city to build it. It's big, beautiful, and very much in-tune with its South Florida architecture and ambiance.
However, being so isolated hurts the hockey fans of South Florida. They've tried to make amends by offering free parking and cheap tickets, but the idea that it's literally bordering the Everglades hurts the perception of this otherwise great facility. That said, the fan base seems to be apathetic, because I went to Sawgrass Mills before the game and it was packed like it were Christmas. So, it's not as isolated as people believe.
I don't know what needs to be done, but it's rightfully a shame that this building has to be in this location. Make the drive there; the BB&T Center won't disappoint. The fans probably will, though.
Opened in 1998, the glitzy BankAtlantic Center is the home of the NHL Florida Panthers. When the Panthers departed from their original home, the old Miami Arena in downtown Miami, they wanted to place with a more central geographic footprint in the massive Dade/Broward market, so their new digs were built near the more upscale communities of Sunrise and Plantation. Being in a non-traditional hockey market, with salubrious warm weather and the lack of a natural fan base, have posed challenges. Yet the Panthers soldier on.
Since 1998, the BankAtlantic Center has been the home of the Florida Panthers, the first having been the now demolished Miami Arena. The BAC was built out at the edge of the Everglades in Sunrise in order to attract fans from Broward and West Palm Beach counties. Sunrise is an outer suburb of Fort Lauderdale, home mostly to gated developments, strip malls and the Sawgrass Mills mall and outlet center.
While the Florida Panthers set the bar high early with the best ever record for an expansion team their first season and a Cinderella run to the Cup final in their third, the team has only been to the playoffs once since they moved to their current home, back in the 1999-2000 season. Nevertheless, the eternally optimistic hardcore fanbase return year after year in hopes that this is the year.
I was intrigued to hit the BankAtlantic Center, as the experience of the Florida Panthers has one of the worst reputations in the league. In Ontario, the radio personalities joke that you get free tickets when you buy a bottle of vodka at the liquor store!
I was mildly impressed with the experience. Some of the things that have been viewed as poor in the past were just fine for me. As a traveller, and not a local, being far away from central Miami is no big deal. In fact, being next door to the largest outlet mall ever was perfect. Day at Sawgrass followed by an evening of hockey. Free parking was awesome of course. The game we were at was well attended, probably because it was over the Christmas break and they were playing the Canadiens ... in front of thousands of Quebecois! What impressed me about the fans was their resiliance. They stayed true to their team, fought with their Go Panthers Go cheer, and serenaded the leaving Canadiens fans with Go Home Habs upon leaving after a Panthers victory.
What I didn't like were probably the worst concession prices I've experienced. Way too high. I also felt that my ticket price was also too high.
I loved the return of the "Victory Rat" and the return of the rat motif from back in the 90's. The highlight of the game was watching the rats fly on the ice after the Panthers won.
Overall, we had a good time, but my question is: are some of the Panther problems due to price points and not location, or apathy?
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