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NHL Leaked Finances: Lightning And Panthers With Two Of NHL's Lowest Revenue Streams

In a recent leaked financial document, it was revealed that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers both had among the lowest revenue streams in the NHL last season. Should this be a cause for concern?

I'm a bit new to this whole hockey thing, so excuse my ignorance for a second: is it common for the Toronto Star to get their hands on NHL financial data? They just released the 2010-2011 gate revenues for every NHL team, and it appears that they released 2007-2008 gate revenue data in the past. What's up with that?

For a second, let's ignore the general sketchiness of these leaked finances (I'll get to that later). Taking a quick scan of them -- you can find the full list of data here, thanks to Tyler Dellow -- there's nothing all that radical about the news. Oh, so the Lightning and Panthers don't make as much money as Canadian hockey teams? The Islanders are struggling like woh? The New York Rangers make oodles of money? I'm shocked, I tell you, shocked.

But I am surprised with how low the Lightning and Panthers both rank in terms of overall gate revenue. Last season, both Florida clubs brought in around $18 million in revenue, ranking them #26 and #27 overall in the NHL. Only the Islanders, Thrashers, and Coyotes came in lower.

This strikes me as odd because the Lightning and Panthers both drew much better than their revenue dollars suggest. The Bolts averaged 17,200 fans per home game (87% capacity) and the Panthers drew slightly worse (15,700 per game, 82% capacity). Both teams are drawing even better so far in the 2011-2012 season, so there is local interest in the clubs. I guess the only conclusion to draw is that the Bolts and Cats can't have as high ticket prices as other clubs?

This is likely true -- I can't say I know average NHL ticket prices off the top of my head -- and again, it doesn't seem like anything too radical. Florida sports teams (non-football edition) are never going to be among the league leaders in revenue, as there are so many other sports teams locally to compete with. That doesn't necessarily mean that the teams are unsustainable or unhealthy; the Lightning have a strong local fanbase that has been re-energized by their playoff run and the Tampa Bay Times Forum renovations, and even the Panthers are seeing better attendance now that they're actually a competitive team.

So here's the rub. Nobody is explicitly using this report as an excuse to bash Sun Belt hockey (at least, not that I'm aware of), but as with all leaked financial data, you have to keep in mind that there was some agenda behind this leak. The Toronto Star didn't just stumble upon NHL financial data two of the last five years, and I find it highly unlikely that the NHL would let such data leak multiple times over unless they had some reasoning behind it. Someone wanted this data out there -- the only question is, why?

For a glimpse at the answer, just take a look at how the five teams with the lowest reported revenues in 2007-2008 have fared since then:

  • New York Islanders ($22.5 million) - The Islanders have been the most stable of the five lowest teams, with no major changes in ownership or the front office since 2007-2008. They have been angling for a new stadium, though.
  • Atlanta Thrashers ($22.5 million) - After living with an ax over their head for a number of season, they were sold to a new owner and relocated to Winnipeg.
  • Chicago Blackhawks ($20.5 million) - They got a new President, spent big on free agents, and turned themselves into a powerhouse that brought in $1.10 million in 2010-2011 (t-7th best revenue stream in the NHL).
  • Florida Panthers ($20.5 million) - After Dale Tallon was demoted from the GM role in Chicago in 2009 (after he'd rejuvenated that franchise, in other words), he was hired by the Panthers and has since spent liberally to revamp the entire roster. They're looking like a competitive team at the moment, so who knows how it'll play out.
  • Phoenix Coyotes ($18 million) - Bought by the NHL due to deep financial issues. The NHL has since threatened to move the club multiple times, using that as leverage to blackmail the city of Glendale into paying them millions of dollars each season to keep the team around.

In the new financial report, there were five teams that brought in less than $19 million in revenue in 2010-2011: the Thrashers, Islanders, Coyotes...and the Lightning and Panthers.

What does any of this mean? I have no idea. We've already seen painful situations happen in both Phoenix and Atlanta, and the Islanders aren't likely to go anywhere due to the size of the New York market. The Panthers and Lightning don't seem in imminent danger, as the NHL still needs to figure out what to do with the Coyotes (not to mention there's a limited number of markets suitable for relocation). And anyway, the Bolts and Cats are both looking on the upswing -- their attendance is up this season, and both teams are looking competitive again. Neither ownership group has been hesitant to spend money, so I don't forsee any issues with the NHL coming up.

Yet...there is some agenda behind this release. We know that. Could someone be trying to make a point about the two Florida franchises? I feel ridiculous for thinking this, but the NHL's new realignment plan looks almost ominous in how it places the Panthers and Lightning in the same conference as all the Northeastern and Canadian hockey teams. Foreshadowing much?

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that the people responsible for this leak wanted to put more pressure on Phoenix and the Islanders' stadium situation. Again, it doesn't seem likely that the Bolts or Cats are in any imminent threat -- I imagine the NHL gives them another 3-5 seasons to turn things around like the Blackhawks -- but I just get a sick feeling in my gut if I think about it too much. Why did this information get leaked? Who wanted it out there, and what point were they trying to make?

Photographs by, thelastminute, turtlemom nancy , fesek, kthypryn, justinwright, sue_elias, pointnshoot, and scrapstothefuture used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.