Florida Panthers have to find better way for BB&T Center capacity

Bigger Not Always Better For Hockey Capacity

The only thing that's seeing red at the BB&T Center is its checkbook and the empty seats.

The only thing that’s seeing red at the BB&T Center is its checkbook and the empty seats.

Hockey fans and pundits love to pounce on anything attendance related to the Florida Panthers, and while some of it is fair, there is a lot more the team can do to manage its monster arena.

Starting two seasons ago the team decided to bring Party City on as a sponsor and use tarps to cover some seats up high in the 19,250-seat BB&T Center, then called BankAtlantic Center (hooray bank buyouts?). Starting in the 2014-2015 season, the tarps could come back along with some large black curtains to partition areas of the upper bowl, according to George Richards of the Miami Herald, a sister paper of the people who pay me at the Bradenton Herald. The capacity would be around 15,700, making it only bigger than the MTS Centre in Winnipeg. When the Barclays Center welcomes the New York Islanders, hockey capacity is expected to be 15,813.

I’m glad the Panthers are finding a way to reduce capacity because if they were able to concentrate the same number of people attending games into a smaller space, it creates more energy and visually tricks you to think more people are at the game. Yet, a curtain covering up the empty seats is a mighty metaphor for masking the team’s problems, so maybe the owner is poetic.

What bothers me is that the aesthetics of how owner Vincent Viola is reducing capacity looks minor league. He thinks otherwise, and is right in pointing to some other stadiums doing this, but I don’t recall any hockey arena doing this. What comes to mind is Tropicana Field, home of the Tampa Bay Rays, which don’t remove the tarps to open up more capacity for sell-out crowds, and the Oakland Athletics who are playing in a football stadium with horrible dimensions.  Arenas need atmosphere as much as they need logistics to move and seat thousands of people. And they need customer friendly features.

I attended a few games at the BB&T/BankAtlantic and I’m always amazed how big the lower bowl is, especially the top row that seems to connect forever without a break in the seats. The concourse definitely has the feel of being in a hockey arena for the Florida Panthers. You only see Panthers signs, wall wraps and a Den of Honor area that is full of team memorabilia and high school hockey jerseys. The bowl itself, though, has a lonely castle vibe. At least they have a nice giant HD screen now that replaces a glorified Atari screen shown in my main photo above.

The cavernous castle gets even more lonely when you factor in the Club Red that encouraged people to not sit in the seats most visible to television broadcasts and have them schmooze in the lounge above the seats. Thankfully that’s being tinkered, too, to get people in the seats.

I’m used to the Verizon Center in D.C., which holds 18,506 now after years of reductions.  The Capitals have claimed consecutive sell-outs for more than 220 games, so reduced capacity and a good team helps. The arena has a lot of other factors that make it a success though, including a Metro stop underground and being in the heart of a metropolitan city. Not a whole lot changed, but it shows you that even successful franchises–that still lose money despite winning–reduce capacity for better experiences.

The Panthers owners of before should have never chased an arena that would hold 19,250 in a small town west of Fort Lauderdale. Not just because of the location away from the heart of Panthers fans, according to many longtime fans there, but do you realize how big 19,250 is in comparison to other NHL arenas? Only five arenas hold more people (not including standing room only):

  • Montreal’s Bell Centre
  • Detroit’s Joe Louis Arena
  • Chicago’s United Center
  • Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center
  • Calgary’s Scotiabank Saddledome

Bell Centre holds 21,273 while the Saddledome holds 19,289 to give you the high and low end of that list.

No use in whining about the past because the franchise seems to endlessly be in a mode to fix mistakes by previous ownership and hockey operations groups. The only thing the franchise should borrow from the past is past successes of other franchises reducing arena capacity in an inviting way.

All Vincent Viola and Broward County have to do is look to their Sunshine State hockey neighbors in Tampa for a snazzy way to reduce seating with heart.

Verizon Center at capacity during 2011 playoffs.

Verizon Center at capacity during 2011 playoffs.

The Tampa Bay Times Forum reduced capacity from 19,758 to 19,204 when it took out eight suites for a place for fans to plunk food down and watch the game on the lower concourse and removed an entire section in the 300 level to build a bar arena that features a badass organ with color-changing pipes coupled with another electric Tampa Bay Lightning sign in front that also changes colors. (The pre-game show is a sight to behold). You know who paid for it? Owner Jeff Vinik, and he isn’t asking for a handout from its owners, the Hillsborough County Commission, for a $40 million reimbursement. Hell, I’m sure it paid for itself when he hosted the Republican National Convention. Still, I can’t believe this place was larger than BB&T.

Chicago’s 300-level renovation in 2009-2010 that embraced the Madhouse on Madison moniker, reduced hockey capacity from 20,500 to 19,717 to create new bar areas, concourse food eating that includes seating with sightlines to the action. The United Center was the largest American hockey arena until that capacity was reduced, falling a spot to the Joe, which has 20,066 seats.  The arena is privately owned between the Wirtz family who owns the Blackhawks and Jerry Reinsdorf, owner of the Chicago Bulls. The owners are looking for $85 million in public money for the next renovation.

Back in D.C. at the Verizon Center, the arena seating changes started in 1999—two years after the arena opened at 19,740—and gradually down to 18,506 since 2011. The changes were mainly tweaks in the luxury dining and suites, some areas for broadcast purposes and the lodge seating were redone over the years, to my recollection. Though the arena was privately financed by the late Abe Pollin, the arena, conceived as the MCI Center, received some tax breaks. For the renovations starting in 2007, D.C. did pony up $50 million.

Look, we call can’t be the Most Famous Arena On Earth, which dropped about 1,000 seats during one year of its three-year renovation and restored seats by cramming some seats on a skybridge.

But this shit ain’t simple. Never is. The BB&T Center is mightily profitable for concerts, which is probably what has kept the team afloat and here aside from its lease that runs through 2028. Physically cutting out seats could hamper the concert operations, but there has to be a middle ground through offering more premium packages for the concerts with the creative upgrades for hockey. But I’m sure the concert operations are doing just fine at similar arenas, too.

So, Vinnie, it’s time to cut the curtains. And the seats.

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