The BB&T Center, tucked away in a corner in Sunrise across the street from the Sawgrass Mills Mall, has been the home to the Florida Panthers since 1998, when the team moved from the old Miami Arena. This was two years after the Cats made their historic run to the Stanley Cup Finals, where they were eventually swept by the Colorado Avalanche. Since then, the team has languished in mediocrity and despair, missing the playoffs and entrenching itself in the lowest rung of the South Florida sports landscape totem pole.
Ice hockey in South Florida just isn’t the same draw as pro basketball, or pro football, or even pro baseball. Yet success can be had. Just 280 miles north west, the Tampa Bay Lightning has a huge following. The Lightning came into the NHL a year before the Panthers, yet have had been a bigger draw with fans there since. This is probably due to the fact that the team has made the Stanley Cup Finals twice — winning it in 2003. But it also might have to do with its name. The Tampa Bay Lightning represent the Tampa Bay area. The Panthers, on the other hand, represent... Florida?
In 2014, a blog post by BrowardBeat.com suggested that city officials in Fort Lauderdale were cooking up a plan to re-name the team “the Fort Lauderdale Panthers.” The reasoning, the site said, was to give the team a more regional feel. Nothing further came from that report, but it did stir things up a bit within the city’s government halls. And the idea has been bandied about even before the report.
“I’ve heard and read about that rumor for several years,” Fort Lauderdale Mayor Jack Seiler tells New Times. “I’ve been approached by numerous people over the years who have suggested that the name change would benefit the team, the City, and the Greater Fort Lauderdale area.”
But, Seiler insists, the conversation never went further than that.
“I haven’t discussed the name change with the current ownership or management of the Panthers,” he says.
Still, there are five reasons why the city should reconsider taking this up.
1. Civic Pride: When Wayne Huizenga was awarded the team in 1993, he named it the “Florida Panthers” in honor of the endangered wild cat, but also because he wanted the team to represent all of Florida. This was misguided. Because if sports has taught us anything, it’s that fans go maniacal not so much for the uniforms, the arena the team plays in, or even the players, but for the city the team represents. Fans cheer for laundry and the name of their hometown emblazoned on it. The Panthers have no city. They were born in Fort Lauderdale, played its first few seasons in Miami, and now host games in Sunrise. Yet the name remains part of the problem. Giving them a recognizable city name would give the team greater exposure.
2. Cooler Looking Swag: Florida is big and it has a rabid sports culture. As a result, regional rivalries have formed in the other pro sports leagues. The Dolphins versus the Buccaneers, the Heat versus the Magic, the Hurricanes versus the Seminoles. These games matter because fans like to brag about their city being the best. And this is where merchandising comes in. A new logo with “Fort Lauderdale” written on it would immediately make the Panthers not only represent a city in Florida, but would give it identity. Imagine, instead of the old palm tree and hokey stick logo, a panther wearing sunglasses riding a yacht throughout the intracoastal. That new panther logo would be, as the kids say, "on fleek."
3. Better TV Ratings and Ticket Sales: If people are given a reason to be proud to represent their city, they’ll show up to games. And when they can’t go to the games, they’ll watch on television. Sports is all about regional pride. City names matter. Florida Panthers brings no such pride, because the name is vague and over-broad. Fort Lauderdale, on the other hand, would give the team and the city a boost of pride and self-respect. That leads to people buying tickets.
4. The Marlins Did It: The Florida Marlins changed their name to the Miami Marlins in 2011. Now, yes, they too are struggling with attendance and their logo design is probably the worst in baseball but… okay … bad example.
5. Fort Lauderdale Needs a Pro Team: Fort Lauderdale has everything you want in a cool-ass city. Except a pro sports team. When it comes to pro sports teams, Miami claims them all. And sure, an argument can be made that the Panthers don't actually play in Fort Lauderdale. But the Dolphins practically play in Broward County. Fort Lauderdale has the beaches, the boats, and the night life. Having a pro sports team to call its own would make the circle complete.
So, how real is this to happening? Not very. Because the City of Sunrise would have a say, and that could make things complicated.
“It would be ridiculous to name a team that plays in Sunrise after another city,” Sunrise Deputy Mayor Donald Rosen says. “The team has a contract to play here for thirty years.”
Sunrise Commissioner Neil Kerch, who attended the recent NHL Draft with Panthers ownership, also seemed appalled by the very suggestion.
“The Panthers have always been great partners with the city, and I look forward to continuing our relationship with such a great organization as the Panthers,” he says. “My discussions focused on ways to build a stronger partnership between the Panthers and Sunrise, a name change was never mentioned to me.”
Still, if the Panthers want to compete with the Miami Heat, Miami Dolphins and Tampa Bay Lightning, a city name-change would be a good start.