How the Panthers brought the NHL All-Star Game back to South Florida after a 20-year wait

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Almost a month ago, the Florida Panthers were in dire straits and Matthew Tkachuk was about to become an All-Star in his first season with his new team. His debut campaign was not going quite the way he had hoped, with the Panthers sitting eight points out of postseason position, and yet he vowed the 2023 NHL All-Star Game would not be bittersweet. Florida, he promised, would be firmly back in contention for the 2023 Stanley Cup playoffs by the time FLA Live Arena hosts the NHL All-Star Game on Saturday.

Four weeks later, the Panthers have made up five points in the Eastern Conference standings and Florida’s hope is back alive. Even though this isn’t where the Panthers expected to be less than a year after winning their first Presidents’ Trophy, the key component of why the organization believes now is the perfect moment for Florida to host the All-Star Game has finally returned.

Attendance numbers are as high as they’ve been in a decade. Television ratings are up once again. The team has multiple All-Stars for the first time since 2016 and only the eighth time ever, and, most importantly, The Athletic’s projections favor the Panthers to make the Stanley Cup playoffs for the fourth straight year and only the ninth time in their history.

“It’s a great validation for how far we’ve come,” CEO Matt Caldwell said of the NHL’s decision to bring the All-Star Game back to South Florida for the first time since 2003. “The franchise has certainly taken another step.”

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After a 20-year wait, All-Star weekend is finally back in Broward County and it wasn’t some fancy new arena or series of renovations which sold the NHL on bringing its biggest neutral-site game of the year back down to Sunrise. Instead, the Panthers just made a solid pitch to the league — based on increasing fan and local support, and, of course, some pretty good weather — and their case to host the game is even stronger now than when they first made it about five years ago.

FLA Live Arena is averaging 16,393 fans per game — the most since the 2012-13 NHL season, when the lockout meant each team only hosted 24 home games and Florida was coming off its first trip to the postseason since the 2000 Stanley Cup playoffs. The Panthers are tracking to top 650,000 total spectators for only the third time ever and have an outside shot for their best total attendance ever — they’re on pace to come up less than 10,000 short of the 681,763 they had in the 2011-12 NHL season.

Television ratings on Bally Sports Florida and Bally Sports Sun are also up about 10 percent from last season, Caldwell said.

“You get that engagement and they’re all excited about the following season. It’s like a domino effect, so even though this season our record’s not as good, our attendance numbers are better than last year. ... When you win, they don’t come right away,” he said, then made a concession. “The flipside is true: They don’t leave right away if you’re not playing well.”

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After owner Vincent Viola purchased the franchise in 2013, the new ownership and management group took a few years to reshape the Panthers in their image, and build up an infrastructure, then targeted a few major events. Florida hosted the 2015 NHL Entry Draft and it essentially served as a test run to see if the Panthers could take on a bigger league-wide vent. The Panthers first made the pitch to host the All-Star Game in about 2018, Caldwell said, and won the 2021 NHL All-Star Game in 2020, a few months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the United States.

The 2021 All-Star Game never happened because of the coronavirus, so the NHL gave Florida the 2023 game. It’s even better timing, Caldwell said.

“The league wants to make sure that these host cities are ready to take it on and are serious about promoting the game,” he said. “We’re proud to showcase and show that this is a hockey town now.”

The festivities actually kicked off Sunday, with a beach sweep in Fort Lauderdale, and continued Tuesday and Wednesday with local festivals, in Sunrise and Coral Springs, respectively. A three-day beach festival began Thursday at Fort Lauderdale Beach Park and lead into two days of events at the arena: The NHL All-Star Skills Competition on Friday at 7 p.m. and the actual All-Star Game on Saturday at 3 p.m.

Altogether, it’s a chance for the Panthers to show off what they’ve built in their nontraditional market — and to keep building.

“The No. 1 reason why you do it is to grow your fan base and show people that you’re relevant,” Caldwell said, pointing to the festivals, in particular, as a chance to cultivate new fans. “It was a lot of Panther fans. It was also a lot of folks that we haven’t seen at games, and maybe come here and there, but they were super jacked about the fact that we were able to put Sunrise on the map.”