What's happened to all the Leaf fans in South Florida? Are the Ontario-based snow birds staying home due to global warming and /or the high cost of renting a one-bedroom efficiency in Broward County these days?
Used to be a time when the Panthers could count on the Blue-and-White to help fill the CorporateSponsorship Arena in the swampland. Those days aren't over just yet, but they ain't happy either.
The Leafs -- Team Canada in some circles -- was another attendance bust at CSA Thursday. Despite the team giving away ticket vouchers in bars/restaurants and selling choice tickets for $7 online, seats were available en masse. Section 411 had two people in it midway through the first.
And empty seats for games with the Leafs in town must mean the franchise is in trouble. That seems to be the take of the Toronto media, anyway. ESPN.com ran a column by the Toronto Star's Damian Cox DESTINATION NOWHERE? in which the future of hockey in South Florida is question. Truth is, when the Toronto media is here, the joint has pretty much been empty. Doesn't look good and doesn't dispel preconceived notions about this market.
I'm not saying the Panthers are the strongest organization in the game, but they're giving it a shot and seemed to have settled things down a bit. I wish they wouldn't paste an ad on every available empty space in the arena, but it seems to be making them a buck or two. One man's cheese is another's gravy I guess (a Poutine reference. Yes!)
But the Panthers ain't going anywhere folks (read that sentence as if Brent Musburger was saying it. Makes for a fun game).
The people selling all these ads run the arena, and they can't sell anything if there is no hockey team in town. You think The Miami Herald -- or BankAtlantic or Toyota or the Rainmaker -- is putting its name on the scoreboard if there isn't a hockey game for it to be on? The scoreboard heads to the rafters during concerts and the lights on the side boards are turned off.
No hockey means nothing to sell and these folks love to sell. In fact, coming into the arena tonight one of the team's executives tried to get me to lease a new Camry. The deal was enticing, but I declined. I did sign a one-year deal for an exterminator, though.
OK, back to the Leafs. Why don't they sellout down here anymore? Sure there were a lot of Leafs fans in the building, but no more noticeable than any other team that comes through here. In 2003-04 (the year before the lockout), the Leafs sold out one date and came close to selling out the other. Last year, there was an announced crowd of 11,215 for one and 16,802 (weekend game, Panthers still in playoff hunt) for the other. This year? The first date with the Leafs drew an announced 13,323 (so subtract 1,500 for a more accurate number). Thursday was probably less than that.
And don't forget, the Panthers and the Heat play in two separate buildings unlike many of the NHL/NBA cities in the league. And guess who was playing down in Miami on Thursday? The Heat, of course. I know the Raptors can't compete with the Leafs in Toronto, but this isn't Toronto. The Heat, with their title and their lineup and the fact that they haven't played a home game in weeks, matters here. True hockey fans pick the Panthers sure, but casual sports fans in this market are probably picking the Heat when the two play on the same night.
Leave (Leaf?) me your thoughts on why Toronto doesn't draw down here like it once did. Can't be the price of tickets (not if you've ever tried to get them at Maple Leaf Gardens or the ACC) or parking. Maybe the lure of Denis Potvin and Dave Strader on TV is just too much to give up. I can see that.