Weekly Whip Around; South Florida's Attendance Problem

By: Trace Welch, @twelch88

Ahh South Florida, the land of beaches, sunshine, palm trees, and…ice hockey? These first three items listed are synonymous with the tropical climate of South Florida and are common images when an individual thinks of places such as Miami, St. Petersburg, Fort Lauderdale, and Fort Myers.

The predominantly winter sport of ice hockey is not, however, a strong link that common observers would make with this tropical region of the United States of America. This creates a problem for the state’s two National Hockey League franchises, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Florida Panthers. Attendance for NHL franchises has been a volatile issue for as long as the league has been around, this can be attributed to the fact that ice hockey is a more regionalized sport than other sports such as baseball, basketball, and football.

This can be attributed to a variety of factors, the largest being the availability of facilities. Obviously, hockey requires the presence of ice to participate, ice rinks like most other athletic facilities are not cheap so they are few and far between.

However, in northern states and Canada, natural ice is readily available during the winter months allowing youth to participate in the sport without the use of an expensive facility. This increased participation in cold climate regions increases passion and enthusiasm for the sport, which in turn helps to boost attendance for the professional hockey teams in these areas.

In tropical climates where hockey is not an integral part of the youth sports environment, it is hard to raise passion and enthusiasm for the professional franchises that call these regions home. This fact is no more evident than by analyzing the attendance figures for the two NHL franchises in the state of Florida.

The Florida Panthers located in Sunrise, Florida (a suburb of Miami) currently are dead last in attendance for the 2014-2015 NHL season[1]. Their home attendance average of 9,365 is almost 4,000 less than the next worse franchise in terms of attendance, the New York Islanders. This is coming off a year when the Florida Panthers finished second to last in average attendance[2]. For the home opener of the Florida Panthers season, they saw total attendance of 7,311, which was a franchise all-time worst and the smallest attendance for an NHL game in three years[3].

This woeful figure was for the home opener, a game that is supposed to elicit hope and enthusiasm for a new season and a fresh beginning. An excuse that a natural observer may use would be the poor performance of the franchise, which has not been to the playoffs since 2012. This is a valid argument but one that I would like to counter with a look at the attendance figures for their neighbors to the north, the Tampa Bay Lightning. Despite being in second place in the entire Eastern Conference, the Lightning are barely in the top half of NHL attendance, being ranked 13 out of 30 teams. The prevailing thought in sports is that success will bring the fans to the games.

This is obviously not the case when it comes to the Tampa Bay franchise however; as they are one of the most talented teams in the NHL yet cannot even break into the top 10 in attendance in the National Hockey League.

I believe that the region and its connection to the sport has a lot to do with the attendance woes of these two franchises in a predominantly winter sport, however it is not just the NHL that often times has attendance problems in the state of Florida. Attendance woes are common in the region as the Miami Hurricanes, Miami Marlins, and until their recent success, the Miami Heat have had trouble getting fans to attend games. This could be due to the nature of the region, as there are many other entertainment options than attending a sporting event.

Instead, however, I believe that it is a part of a disturbing trend that is taking place in all regions of the United States of America. Division I Universities are having attendance issues at their marquee sporting events such as basketball and football, numerous Major League Baseball Teams are having trouble getting spectators to their games, and even the league that has shown the most growth in the last decade, the NBA, is having attendance issues with some of their franchises. Follow my next Weekly Whip Around as I examine the factors that are causing these attendance issues and what steps may be taken to reverse this disturbing trend.

[1] http://espn.go.com/nhl/attendance

[2] http://espn.go.com/nhl/attendance/_/year/2014

[3] http://espn.go.com/nhl/story/_/id/11700444/florida-panthers-seeing-dismal-crowds-start-season


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