Lighting the Lamp with Rick Ackerman
Pity tonight's visiting Florida Panthers and their fans. Not that they have a lot of fans. They don't. The Panthers are second to last in NHL attendance, averaging slightly over 12,000, 71% capacity at the BB&T (Branch Banking & Trust) Center in suburban Sunrise, around 30 miles (roughly 45 minutes on the Florida Turnpike when traffic is light, which is almost never) from downtown Miami. Even though the entire metropolitan area has a population of almost six million inhabitants as of 2014 (more than double the population of the St. Louis metropolitan area), apparently not that many like hockey. Strike one!
Florida has finished at or near the bottom of the standing for 13 out of 21 seasons since 1993, the year the team joined the league, only qualifying for the playoffs four times. The Panthers did manage to win the Eastern Conference in 1996, defeating Boston, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. Colorado ended the Stanley Cup dream, though, sweeping Florida in four straight games in the finals. They have not won a series since then. The Panthers did win the Southeast Division in 2012, yet were knocked out in the first round by the New Jersey Devils, who won game seven in double overtime, 3-2 on Florida's home ice. Strike two!
The Panthers finally took a big step forward last season and new coach Gerard Gallant had them in the playoff race down the stretch. Obtaining 38 year old Jaromir Jagr near the trade deadline and putting him on a line with youngsters Aleksander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau bolstered the team, yet even though they won 38 games and earned 91 points, the Panthers finished seventh in the Atlantic Division and did not qualify for the playoffs. Worse, attendance fell 18% to a NHL-low 11, 265 average. Nevertheless, Florida looked to improve this season with a rejuvenated Roberto Luongo in goal and a good mix of players including number one overall draft pick Aaron Ekblad, veteran defenseman Brian Campbell, young centers Nick Bjugstad and Vincent Trochuk, former Bruin Reilly Smith and veteran winger Jussi Jokinen. Hopes were high for a playoff slot in the relatively weak Atlantic Division, yet the Panthers are currently languishing in sixth place in the division and are struggling to stay ahead of Buffalo and Toronto. Strike three!
Of course, the Panthers are not "out" and do not appear to be going anywhere soon despite lagging attendance and a lack of profit revenue. The NHL apparently wants a team in south Florida, and the BB & T Corporation, with $184.7 billion in assets, apparently needs the tax write-off and will continue to help bankroll the team. Florida's Panthers are ranked dead last (30th) on Forbes list of the worth of NHL teams with a value of $186 million. The Blues are currently ranked 24th at $270 million, quite a bit more than the $180 million paid by Tom Stillman's group in 2012. The New York Rangers ($1.2 billion) top the list, followed by Montreal ($1.18 billion) and Toronto ($1.15 billion).
According to Forbes, "Hockey has been a catastrophe in Miami." An October report from Stifel, Nicolaus & Company and Barrett Sports Group announced that the Panthers' owners had to inject almost $100 million into the team to cover losses at the BB&T Center. It was just two years ago when the group headed by Vincent Viola bought the team for $160 million. So, a team currently worth $186 million has now cost the owners approximately $260 million, with a debt/value ratio of 62%. Yikes!
Even the NHL's recent Canadian television deal and a new digital media agreement with MLB Advanced Media will not be enough to cover the Panthers' losses which explains why the team is seeking an $86 million (taxpayer) bailout from Broward County. The County has only received one profit-sharing distribution during the past 19 years: $331,000 in 1999, so it is highly unlikely the county commissioners will pony up and throw good money after bad. When the BB& T Center broke ground in 1996, it was projected the County would receive $76.6 million in profit sharing over the following decade. Obviously, neither the hockey team nor the arena has been a profit generator for the county or the taxpayers. It can only be hoped that those politicians and spokesmen who want to build a new football stadium in St. Louis are reading this article and can learn from the experience of taxpayers in Broward County.
There are no games scheduled for tomorrow or Thursday, yet starting Friday, the Blues' schedule will cram six hockey games into the following ten days, including back-to-back games this weekend with the Islanders (there) and the Maple Leafs (here). The following weekend also features back-to-back home contests with division rivals Stars and Avalanche. After that, the Blues play the Flames at home on Saturday and then to the east coast for another back-to-back series on Monday with the Flyers and Tuesday with the Bruins. Then it's back home for a three day Christmas break, followed by four games in the remaining six days in 2015. I am exhausted just from writing this paragraph.
Nevertheless, ten of the remaining fourteen contests in December are at home and the Blues simply must take advantage of this scheduling quirk despite so many matches in a short period of time. St. Louis' depth will be severely challenged, yet it is still a good opportunity for players like Jori Lehtera, Robby Fabbri and Dmitrij Jaskin to step up the offense since the Blues have only scored 24 goals in the last ten games.