The Florida Panthers aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Tuesday, the Broward County Commission voted 5-3 in favor of an $86 million financial package that will help keep the Cats in Florida for at least the next eight years. The deal itself is a 13-year agreement running through to 2028, but there will be an out for the Panthers after eight years should they lose $100 million in the first seven seasons of the agreement, meaning hockey will stay in Sunrise until at least 2023.
“What the county did was…allow us to put a professional product on the ice and bring world-class entertainment to Broward County,” said Panthers co-owner Doug Cifu, via the Miami Herald’s George Richards.
The $86 million will come from tourist taxes, most of which are produced from the beach districts. Two of the three commissioners from the beach districts voted against the grant, Richards reported.
Le Journal de Montreal’s Renaud Lavoie reported in October that the Panthers had lost $154 million over the past 18 seasons, including an all-time high $36-million loss in 2014-15.
Broward County and the Panthers had been in discussions about a financial aid package for the club since the 2013-14 season, when Florida asked for $78 million from the county. That was upped to the $86 million figure in recent months and the Florida Sun-Sentinel’s Brittany Wallman reported in October that Broward County commissioners were willing to explore the deal.
“This is an opportunity for us to keep a team here,” Broward mayor Tim Ryan said in October, according to Wallman. “…It means something for Broward County to have a professional team within our boundaries. That stands for something, in my view.”
The deal is not without some stipulations, though. First, per Richards, should owners Cifu and Vinnie Viola decide to sell the Panthers, the county would get 10 percent of the deal. In addition, should the NHL expand to one or both of Las Vegas and Quebec City, the county will receive part of the expansion fees the Panthers receive. The Cats will also be responsible for continuing to pay $5 million each year to pay off construction costs on the BB&T Center, the Panthers’ home arena.
Another interesting note is that, according to the deal, the NHL will bring the All-Star Game to Florida in the next several years and invest $1.5 million in youth hockey. That money can potentially build grassroots programs that create lifelong Panthers fans.
In 14 home games this season, the Panthers have averaged 12,961 fans per game. That’s a healthy increase over the 11,265 Florida averaged in 2014-15, and the team’s on-ice competitiveness has certainly helped grow the fanbase. On average, the BB&T Center was filled to 66.1 percent capacity during the 2014-15 campaign. That has risen 10 percent this season to 76.1 percent capacity per game.
The Panthers were in the playoff race until late in the season in 2014-15 and finished only seven points out of the post-season. This year, the Cats are right in the thick of things again and sit only one point back of the Boston Bruins and two points behind the New Jersey Devils in the race for a wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. By getting the deal, the hope is the Panthers can continue to improve on ice and executive chairman Peter Luukko told Richards the deal gives the team the financial stability to invest in the team.
And if the Panthers can build a winner, things could turnaround in South Florida, just as they have in Tampa Bay where the Lightning have gone from filling 78.4 percent of their building in 2009-10 to having capacity crowds at each home game this season. The Panthers want that, and Cifu didn’t shy away from saying his intention is to keep the team in Florida forever.
“We have no intention of moving this team, we never want to move,” Cifu said Tuesday, via Richards. “We want to be here. I don’t speak French and I don’t want to go to Seattle or Kansas City or anywhere. We want to be in Broward County. We’re trying to build the right culture here. The outpouring of support, frankly, has been overwhelming.”