The Florida Panthers Want $80 Million In Taxpayer Money, Just Because

The use of public funds on sports stadiums and arenas is bad enough, but at least there's a concrete goal: a new building, or renovations. The Florida Panthers have asked Broward County for $80 million in tax revenue with no specific end in mind; they'd just really like the cash.

The Panthers, one of the NHL's most cheaply run teams, claim they're losing more than $20 million a year (more on this in a second). According to the Sun-Sentinel, the team has asked Broward County to tear up its current arena contract and sign a new one that would release the Panthers from their annual payments on the BB&T Center, with the county using hotel taxes to cover the payments instead.

(When the Panthers argued for—and eventually received—$4.2 million from Broward County for a new scoreboard last year, their main argument was that the team hadn't received any public money for upkeep of the arena itself. But the county already contributes nearly twice as much annually as do the Panthers to pay down the arena's debt.)

There are at least two infuriating things in this paragraph—see if you can spot them!

The $185 million arena, which opened in 1998, was built with public financing for then-Panthers owner H. Wayne Huizenga. Broward leaders were sold on the controversial arena deal with promises that profits would return to the taxpayers. That has so far happened only once.

The owners of the Panthers, whose payroll sits around $50 million, the lowest in the NHL, claim they're hemorrhaging money. Don't believe it. The team itself doesn't draw, but the funny thing about the situation in Sunrise is that the team itself was never supposed to be the big profit. It's the arena.

The BB&T Center is run by Arena Operating Company, a division of the corporation that actually owns the Panthers. Since the arena was built with public money, AOC is forced to open its books. And audits consistently show that AOC turns a profit. Much of that comes from concerts, events, and sports other than hockey—running an arena is a true cash cow. But even when Panthers games are factored in, AOC is still in the black, to the tune of nearly $10 million a year dating back to 1998.

Even more suspicious for the Panthers' claim that hockey itself is a money-loser is a fact uncovered by the Edmonton Journal's Jonathan Willis. The audits don't break down AOC's profits by event, but Willis found that in fiscal year 2005, the season lost to an NHL lockout, AOC's revenues dipped 90 percent. AOC makes money, and this indicates that most of AOC's money comes from the Panthers.

For the Panthers to get their $80 million, the Broward County Commission would have to approve a rewriting of the county's contract with the team, and from their quotes in the Sun-Sentinel, they don't sound enthused. But the proposed deal does include one item with hockey implications—if the county assumes the team's payments, the Panthers would commit to a payroll "at a level competitive with the rest of the National Hockey League.'' Which sounds a bit like sports fan blackmail! Give us $70 million, and we'll finally ice a decent team.

Struggling Panthers ask for public cash [Sun-Sentinel]