Hockey in South Florida seems like a bit of an oxymoron. Indeed, the Florida Panthers are one of the NHL’s most lackluster teams in league history, but their record is not always indicative of their effort on the ice. Nonetheless, this unrealized potential in one of America’s largest sports markets screams of a team and a stadium experience right on the edge of exploding into one of the best in the country.
After going over 10 years without a playoff appearance, the Panthers rebranded themselves to their original red color scheme and spent a lot on big-name players, helping propel the team to its first ever conference title and a playoff berth.
Towards the end of that fateful 2011-2012 season, crowds began to swell at the BB&T Center, creating a truly electric atmosphere. However, those times have changed and the Florida Panthers are beginning to be in the news for drawing low crowds.
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".
As with any sports arena, food and drinks include the standard burger, fries, hot dog, and chicken fingers variety. However, BB&T center adds to this with specialty items scattered throughout the arena.
One of the biggest draws for beverages is the Tim Horton's coffee carts in the arena, a must have for coffee lovers and hockey fans alike. Additionally, throughout the year, specials will run in conjunction with beverages purchased (the particular night I went recently, with the purchase of a Coke Zero came a free Willie Mitchell Florida Panthers limited edition pin).
There is also a candy only station and an all kosher food station in addition to the traditional fare available.
Pricing is higher than you would pay at a restaurant or store, much like it is at most stadiums, so it won't come as a shock to most sports fans. Additionally, the bottomless soda that comes in a collectible cup is a must have for large families who don't mind sharing a drink and running down to refill it throughout the evening.
When asking about the atmosphere at a Panthers game, you're asking a very loaded question.
At the start of the 2014-2015 season, the Panthers drew their smallest official attendance in franchise history, barely creeping over 7,000 fans (not to mention that the actual butts-in-seats number would have read even lower).
The Panthers are not exactly the biggest draw in the league and despite how passionate of a fan base a team may have, if there aren't many of them at a game, it is certainly difficult to drive up excitement for a game if nobody shows up.
Two factors, however, can change this.
First comes the Miami sports fan factor; if you are a Miami sports team, you will not draw fans unless you win and make the playoffs consistently (see Miami Heat circa 2008).
When the Panthers finally made the playoffs, games were packed and the fans were just as excited as any others in the league.
The second factor is the visiting fans. South Florida is a haven for Canadian snowbirds who come down for the winter. While here, they pack the BB&T Center whenever the Jets, Canucks, Canadiens, Flames, Maple Leafs, Senators, or Oilers come to town, creating a near-home arena effect for the visitors. Similar crowds arrive for Sabres, Rangers, and Flyers games.
The BB&T center is situated in a great area of South Florida. Nestled literally on the edge of the Everglades, the other side of the arena is bordered by Sawgrass Mills Mall, full of shopping and eating options. Several nice neighborhoods surround the area, with homes always looking well manicured and roads remaining clean and clear. The people are friendly and welcoming, and that's certainly more than many other stadiums can say.
For fans, it is almost as loaded of a question as asking about the atmosphere. Having to deal with many of the aforementioned issues, fans in South Florida are among the worst when it comes to being fair-weather fans. However, the Panthers are unique as they have a small but extremely passionate fan base and group of season ticket holders that buy into the team wholeheartedly. They buy every new jersey, every new gimmick the team comes out with (beware of the cow bells from the late 2000's PR push), and they scream as loud as anyone in the league, when they show up.
Getting to the BB&T Center is very easy. The arena is situated literally feet from one of the biggest highway interchanges in South Florida, with I-75 and I-595 meeting, giving equal access from Miami to the south, Ft. Lauderdale to the east, Ft. Myers to the west, and Palm Beach to the north. Additionally, there is an exit right off of the highway that literally empties into the parking lot of the arena.
For the average fan looking to find tick off a stadium from their list of NHL arenas, BB&T Center is a decent one to visit. The Panthers are hit-or-miss in terms of on-ice performance, but a friendly and family friendly atmosphere adds to it. In a strange way, the emptiness of the games can be charming. It feels more intimate. You can talk to the people next to you and surely get a great story out of them as to how they became fans or why they came down last minute to see the game.
When it comes to giveaways, the Panthers aren't exactly liberal with their freebies. Opening night came with a free calendar magnet...how exciting! Throughout the game, there are entertaining games played by fans and the in-arena host Andrea Ocampo (a fantastically talented young woman with a fresh and energetic personality) gives away prize packs or tickets to an upcoming concert. The team did away with their cheerleader-esque "Ice Dancers" after the 2013-2014 season, but fans are split on whether or not it was a loss or a blessing (many watchers of their dances would be overheard commenting on their lack of coordination and synchronicity).
All-in-all, the Florida Panthers are a family friendly team with a quaint atmosphere.
In the world of pro sports however, quaint may not be what you are going for.
A lack of packed houses constantly fuels relocation rumors, but the Cats keep fighting and their small but loyal fan base continues to cheer at the top of their lungs. The stadium is always clean and well-presented, and the colors go with the team's colors so not to clash too harshly with their look. The fans are friendly, the neighborhood inviting, and the experience a must for anyone who is a pucks fan or looking for an easy transition into the hard-hitting world of hockey.
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.
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.
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?
The Florida Panthers have only made the playoffs twice in the 21st century, but their home ice is one of the best in the NHL. The BB&T Center, the Panther’s home venue since 1998, is a great arena to watch a game, and it offers fans the coolest of seating and dining, and is a true sporting experience.
Getting great seats to see professional hockey is not that difficult in South Florida. Fans can come close to game time and buy seats near the glass from the box office. The fan is not to miss hard-hitting hockey action from any seat in the facility, but for those that are hardcore and want to sit near the glass and see all of the checks as they are about to be delivered, the BB&T Center in the place for you.
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