Panthers may soon depart Florida Numerous move options include Nashville, Tenn.


FORT LAUDERDALE, Fla. -- Words like "slap shot" slid into the South Florida vocabulary. Parents began thinking that kids

playing hockey in Florida was as normal as kids playing soccer.

Now a cruel political reality is melting the dream.

As one after another last-minute deal to build a sports arena in South Florida has fallen apart, the realization is sinking in that South Florida and hockey may not be meant for each other.

But people -- and potential team owners -- in other cities are starting to think that maybe the Panthers are just what they need.

"It's a little discouraging," said Michael Danz, a three-year Panthers season ticket holder. "The team is pretty exciting to follow. You get involved. Our problem is we're involved and soon to be cut off."

Political leaders have been unable to put together a plan to build an arena with tax money. And that's the only way that H. Wayne Huizenga can keep the team in South Florida.

Huizenga says he is losing $1.2 million per month with the Panthers playing in the Miami Arena. He had hoped to find a way to build an arena that would allow the Panthers to make money in South Florida.

The fan base is strong enough -- with almost 97 percent of available seats sold last year -- but the Miami Arena does not have enough capacity or luxury suites to allow the team to break even, much less be profitable.

Huizenga aides and spokesmen have said publicly that the team is entertaining offers from other cities, but still hope an agreement can be reached in South Florida.

The hope dimmed again on Tuesday. In separate actions, officials in Broward and Dade counties shot down ideas to keep the Panthers in South Florida.

Members of the Miami Sports & Exhibition Authority all but resigned themselves to being proprietors of a one-tenant Miami Arena.

"In my opinion, the Panthers are gone," said Neal Harrington, who took part in negotiations to keep the Panthers in South Florida. Instead, the authority renewed discussions of renovating the arena for the Miami Heat.

An idea to put a $5 ticket charge on Panthers tickets to help pay for a new arena was shot down by the authority. For now, all meetings between Dade County officials, team owners and private negotiators are off.

Broward County officials poured cold water on an arena financing plan assembled by Fort Lauderdale City Manager George Hanbury.

The package is still at least $20 million short of the estimated $160 million needed to build the arena, and would require a contribution from Huizenga, who does not want to pay. A plan by the city of Sunrise, a western suburb of Fort Lauderdale, has a similar shortfall.

"The numbers don't work out," County Administrator B. Jack Osterholt said. "We're just where we were this summer" when Huizenga rejected Sunrise's financing plan.

The County Commission did agree to ask the Tourist Development Council whether it would support raising the 3 percent tax on hotel stays to raise money for an arena. But hoteliers and tourism leaders have been cool to the idea.

So the Panthers are looking elsewhere. The No. 1 contender is Nashville, Tenn., which has a new arena with luxury suites under construction to open in September 1996. The city has offered $20 million cash to any owner who moves an NHL or National Basketball Association team to the new arena. Other incentives allow the team to get most of the revenues from parking, luxury suites and advertising in Nashville.

"We'll just say we're very interested in obtaining an NHL or NBA franchise," said Alan Hall, vice president of Nashville-based Gaylord Entertainment, which is building the arena with the city. "The Panthers and every other team are aware of our interest."

Hall would not say if negotiations with Huizenga have begun.

Atlanta may also be a contender, if Turner Broadcasting can get a deal to build a new arena for its Hawks basketball team. Turner wants an NHL team -- but only if Atlanta antes up for an arena. Newspaper reports last week said Turner and the city are "close to a deal."

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