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Wayne skating on thin ice of fan loyalty

July 23, 1995

Wayne Huizenga says he's moving or selling the Florida Panthers if somebody doesn't build him a new arena. Gonna get the puck out, he says.

The announcement came at a press conference during which a testy Huizenga expressed no fondness for Broward officials, who'd rejected a tax on tourists or restaurants to finance a new $ 165 million hockey rink.

Instead, the county had rashly suggested that Mr. Blockbuster himself should pony up a heftier chunk of the arena money—an option no self-respecting sports tycoon likes to contemplate.

The common philosophy is that sports fans should be so darned grateful to have a big-league franchise that they ought to subsidize it with taxes.

It's not enough to pay for overpriced parking, overpriced tickets, overpriced junk food and overpriced souvenirs. No, you should pay for the overpriced facilities, too.

Happens all over. That's how St. Louis lured the Rams from Los Angeles: new stadium, sweet deal. For many owners it's proved a successful extortion: Build me a new place to play, or I'll take my team elsewhere.

When the ungrateful citizenry of Broward balked at bankrolling a hockey stadium, Huizenga stomped off. Even if the county comes crawling back, he declared, the deal's off.

So there. Nah, nah, nah.

Huizenga says he needs help because the team is losing $1 million a month by sharing the Miami Arena with the Heat. He wants a new ice palace tiered with posh, high-priced skyboxes.

Not so long ago, politicians would've bellied across broken glass to appease Huizenga. The mood today is slightly less worshipful, and the reason is simple. Voters are tired of using public monies to enrich millionaire sports owners.

South Floridians have contributed heavily, if not knowingly, to the downtown arena, as well as a private Grand Prix track and a tennis stadium. It's welfare for the rich, disguised as civic boosterism.

Huizenga's grim account of the Panthers' finances is troubling. Here's a team (unlike other local franchises) that plays to 97 percent capacity, yet still manages to bleed red ink. That's quite a trick.

How did such a sharp businessman fall into such a stinky deal? Clearly, Huizenga agreed to share the arena only because he was sure he'd be getting a new one soon, courtesy of some hockey-crazed municipality. Unfortunately, he misjudged.

His assertion that more luxury skyboxes will save the Panthers is equally suspect, considering that the relatively few skyboxes in the Miami Arena aren't sold out.

One positive thing to come from Huizenga's tantrum is a possible partnership with Heat owner Micky Arisen, also in the market for a new venue. Together, they've got more capital to invest, and a better chance of turning a profit.

A similar joint deal worked well in Chicago. There, the basketball and hockey teams split both the cost and revenues from the new $175 million United Center. Both teams are making money.

But here's the real shocker: The Chicago arena was constructed largely with private funds. The owners, not taxpayers, picked up the tab. What a radical concept.

Unfortunately, building a new arena here would kill the old one, which isn't that old and wasn't so cheap. It would be better if Huizenga and Arisen joined forces (and bankers) to refurbish the current Miami Arena in the high style they desire.

Right now, the most valuable part of the Panthers franchise is fan loyalty, but that can change quickly. An owner's ultimatum for luxury skyboxes cuts no ice with the folks in the cheap seats.


Metro tumbled into sand trap with golf club June 26, 1994 | Kick Ass: Selected Columns of Carl Hiaasen | Let Broward have its arena —and the debt February 1, 1996







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