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Panthers president says empty seats 'not acceptable'

Fans staying away from Panthers games in droves is nothing new, people. AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee

I have to admit I'm a bit puzzled by the outpouring of dismay and outrage over the poor attendance in South Florida for the woebegone Florida Panthers early in this season.

Um, are you new?

You think the acres of empty seats viewers were treated to Monday night when Ottawa rolled into town just appeared out of nowhere to magically replace nightly sold-out shows?

Nope. This is life in South Florida for a team that has not won a postseason round since 1996 and has missed the playoffs 12 of the last 13 seasons.

Think on that for a moment.

It's amazing, quite frankly, the team is still viable (OK, a relative term), given that legacy of failure.

Having said that, we were in Florida three seasons ago (not sure which of the many names was on the rink marquee at that point) when the Panthers were actually a factor in the Eastern Conference. I was on hand for a rollicking game against the Boston Bruins late in the season. While not entirely full, there were 16,000 or so on hand for a big win by the Panthers.

It was a terrific tilt and a great vibe. Who knew?

The Panthers would go on to win the Southeast Division and then lose in Game 7 in overtime in the first round to a New Jersey Devils team that would go on to the 2012 finals.

Florida recorded sellouts for all four home playoff games that spring with reported attendance of 19,119, 19,248, 19,513 and 19,313.

Now, is it embarrassing to see cameras pan across thousands of empty seats at BB&T Center this early in the season? Sure.

President and CEO Rory Babich admitted Tuesday that the vacant seats and the attendant Twitter derision directed at the team during Monday's 1-0 loss to the Ottawa Senators was embarrassing.

"That's not fun," he told ESPN.com. "And it's not acceptable."

Babich is part of the new ownership/management structure that accompanied the sale of the team to Vincent Viola a year ago, Babich having come aboard less than a year ago to try to restore order to the team's business operations.

The team has redesigned its business model, and an offshoot of that is the team no longer papers the house with heavily discounted tickets or what are outright freebies.

The Panthers have simplified their ticket pricing strategy (fewer complicated packages), and the price point is, the team believes, competitive with some season-ticket packages providing lower-bowl seats for $25 a game.

But the reality is that folks who were used to dirt-cheap or free tickets to Panthers games are no longer getting those. That's why you end up with an announced crowd of 7,311 for Monday’s game, the lowest announced crowd in franchise history (and the lowest in the NHL in three seasons), and a howl of protest from media and fans who wonder why the franchise still exists in its current location.

One league source familiar with the team's situation said the move might mean short-term pain but had to be done.

Viola "is a really smart guy," the source said. "He had to rip the bandage off."

Part of the outrage over the team's poor following is linked to the league's overall health.

The NHL has plugged a lot of holes in its organizational dyke in recent years, including finding ownership groups in troubled spots Long Island, Arizona, Dallas and Florida, where Viola and his investors insist they are committed to building a winner in South Florida, the operative words being "winner" and "South Florida."

Still, the optics of crowds like Monday night's simply fuel speculation that the idea of hockey in South Florida is simply past its best-before date, especially with new NHL-ready arenas being built in potential relocation markets Quebec City and Las Vegas.

Adding to the uncertainty surrounding the Panthers is the fact that the team is waiting to find out whether it will be able to rework its lease with Broward County, which owns the team's arena. The county has hired a consultant to examine a series of amendments to the lease proposed by the team.

There is a perception that if the county doesn't agree, it would open the door to the team's relocation, although there are still 13 years remaining on the lease.

Still, the league insists that it expects the team to remain in South Florida long-term, and the vibe is certainly different than the one that surrounded the dysfunctional Atlanta Thrashers in the months leading up to their unceremonious departure to Winnipeg at the end of the 2010-11 season.

And anyone who has followed the league for any length of time knows that commissioner Gary Bettman isn't in the habit of simply putting teams onto moving vans and shuttling them about. I don't expect the Panthers situation to be any different, no matter how ugly it looks.

Babich insists the team has not considered relocation and that the focus is on establishing a new business plan and putting a competitive team on the ice.

“We haven’t explored looking into moving,” Babich said.

And in the team's defense, the Panthers did spend the offseason bringing in veteran Willie Mitchell, who assumed the team’s captaincy, and former Stanley Cup winner Dave Bolland to join former Vezina Trophy winner Roberto Luongo, who was repatriated from the Vancouver Canucks at the trade deadline in March.

Will things get better in South Florida?

The Panthers are 0-2-1 and have scored three goals while giving up nine, so the answer early on is, no, they haven't.

And while history suggests there are Panthers fans who will come out to support a competitive team, coach Gerard Gallant has his work cut out for him getting this team to that level.

In the meantime, it's likely the fans will continue to stay away from the rink and the talk about where the Panthers could end up playing won't be going away. Not that any of this is particularly new.