South Florida’s Heat and Panthers pursue NBA and NHL titles

South Florida’s Heat and Panthers pursue NBA and NHL titles
Connected media – Associated media

Lifelong friends Martin Schwartz and Matthew Mandel revel in a rare sports moment as Miami teams vie for championships.

Martin Schwartz and Matthew Mandel are experiencing a dream come true. The lifelong friends and South Florida residents have hit the sports jackpot with the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers both making it to the finals, competing for the NBA and NHL titles simultaneously.

Schwartz and Mandel, who have shared season tickets to both teams for years, have seen their fair share of ups and downs. They endured tough seasons, like the Heat’s 15-win campaign in 2007-08, and watched visiting fans dominate the stands. They celebrated the Heat’s championship runs in 2012 and 2013, powered by Dwyane Wade and LeBron James, and enjoyed the Panthers’ occasional playoff appearances. However, they never imagined both teams would enter the playoffs as No. 8 seeds and upset top-tier opponents to contend for titles.

“I was very pessimistic when the playoffs started,” admitted Schwartz, a former batboy for the Florida Marlins in the 1990s, who wore a Panthers jersey to a Heat game on Wednesday when they lost to the Denver Nuggets. “But we realized it’s all about the playoffs. You have to enjoy them. You only get one chance.”

This marks the tenth time two teams from the same market have played in the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals in the same year. The last occurrence was in 2016, with the Golden State Warriors and the San Jose Sharks both falling short. The Bruins and Celtics have achieved this feat three times since 1957, and the Knicks and Rangers twice, but no region has seen its hockey and basketball teams win championships in the same year.

This week, South Florida has become a hotbed of excitement, with the Heat and Panthers playing four consecutive home games. Their arenas, about 40 miles apart, host fervent fans, some of whom, like Schwartz and Mandel, support both teams. Both teams are trailing 1-2 in their series as they head into the Heat’s game on Friday.

“It almost never happens, so we wanted to give it a try,” said Raul Arias, a Miami native who attended Heat and Panthers games on consecutive nights with his brother, father, and a friend.

This is the first time two teams from a Southern market have chased titles simultaneously, a testament to the growing sports landscape in Florida. The state’s major leagues have been expanding their presence here for years, seeking new fans, sponsors, and viewers as American demographics shift south and west.

While the Rangers and Bruins have historic roots dating back to the 1920s, the Heat arrived in Miami in 1988, and the Panthers joined the NHL in 1993. Since then, the league has added teams like the Columbus Blue Jackets, Winnipeg Jets, Nashville Predators, Minnesota Wild, Seattle Kraken, and Las Vegas Golden Knights.

The Panthers’ final against the Las Vegas Golden Knights is a prime example of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s “southern strategy,” despite financial struggles in some new markets. Teams in northern markets, such as the Devils and Islanders, have faced similar challenges. Southern teams like the Tampa Bay Lightning and Dallas Stars have found stable footing, though Atlanta’s team relocation remains a cautionary tale.

Bill Daly, Bettman’s assistant, mentioned that Utah Jazz owner Ryan Smith has expressed interest in bringing a hockey team to Salt Lake City, further diversifying the league’s geographic footprint.

Older team fans might scoff at another “non-traditional” hockey market addition, often criticizing South Florida fans for their perceived lack of loyalty. Yet, this phenomenon isn’t unique to Florida. Transplants and fair-weather fans exist everywhere, even in New York and Los Angeles. Florida’s population boom over the past decade has seen many newcomers embracing local teams. Playoff games have been sell-outs, with ticket prices soaring on the resale market. Since May 1, sales of Heat and Panthers gear have skyrocketed 460% compared to the same period last year, according to Fanatics. Sports radio buzzes with talk of basketball and hockey, alongside soccer excitement after Lionel Messi’s announcement to join Inter Miami.

“The more they win, the busier we get,” said Norma Shelow, co-owner of Mike’s at Venetia near the Kaseya Center, noting a 40 to 50 percent business boost during playoffs.

Regulars, including NBA referees, frequent the bar, but newcomers also pour in, often requiring reservations despite the bar’s first-come, first-served policy.

“I’ve lived here all these years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Abel Sanchez, 50, an amateur sports historian. “If one of the two wins a title, it’s a matter of time. If they both win, who will get the rights to the film? And if you want to jump on the bandwagon, there’s room.”

Schwartz and Mandel’s story isn’t unique. Many transplants adopt new home teams or split loyalties. For example, my father was a Giants baseball fan growing up in New York, then switched allegiance to the Mets when our family moved to Long Island in the 1960s. He still loved Willie Mays and took me to see the San Francisco Giants when they came to town. When he moved to West Palm Beach in the 1990s, he adopted the Marlins, who rewarded his loyalty with two World Series titles.

Florida has seen a population surge of four million new residents over the last decade, including many from Latin America and South America who have flocked to Miami. Some of these newcomers have embraced the Heat and Panthers as their home teams, even if they have never played basketball or hockey themselves. Cheering for a sports team is one of the most communal activities in American life, and it’s no different in South Florida.

“I agree with Jimmy Butler,” said Adam Trowles, a Briton who splits his time between Miami and London, where he watches Heat games in the early hours of the morning. “I would marry him if I could.”

On Wednesday, Trowles searched for tickets to attend Game 3 against the Denver Nuggets. The cost was prohibitive, so he and his girlfriend, Gessica Jean, watched the game at Duffy’s Tavern in Coral Gables.

Despite the excitement around basketball and hockey, football remains the undisputed king of sports in Florida. The Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes still command the highest fanfare when they win. Tampa celebrated wildly in 2021 when the Buccaneers claimed the Super Bowl and the Lightning secured the Stanley Cup.

However, basketball and hockey have carved out their niches. Transplants from Canada, the Northeast, and the Upper Midwest have remained loyal to their teams, but new fans are being born, even for the Panthers, whose home ice at FLA Live Arena in Sunrise, Florida, is nestled between a shopping mall and the Everglades Wildlife Management Area. For many locals, this season has been a parade of riches.

At Quarterdeck, a sports bar just ten minutes from the arena, Tyler Craig watched the Panthers clinch an overtime victory against the Golden Knights on Thursday.

“It’s almost exhausting how many games we’ve watched,” he said.

South Florida is buzzing with anticipation as its teams fight for glory. Whether the Heat and Panthers can both secure their titles remains to be seen, but for fans like Schwartz and Mandel, the journey itself has been unforgettable.

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