The South Florida Heat and Panthers pursue NBA and NHL titles

Lifelong friends Martin Schwartz and Matthew Mandel enjoy a rare sports moment as the Miami teams compete for championships.

Martin Schwartz and Matthew Mandel are living a dream come true. The longtime friends and South Florida residents hit it big with the Miami Heat and Florida Panthers both reaching the finals, competing for NBA and NHL titles at the same time.

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

“I was very pessimistic when the playoffs started,” admitted Schwartz, a former Florida Marlins batboy 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 10th time two teams from the same market have played in the Stanley Cup and NBA Finals in the same year. The last time was in 2016, when the Golden State Warriors and San Jose Sharks fell short. The Bruins and Celtics have accomplished 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 became a hotbed of excitement, with the Heat and Panthers playing four straight home games. Their arenas, about 40 miles apart, host rabid fans, some of whom, like Schwartz and Mandel, root for both teams. Both teams trail 1-2 in their series heading into the Heat game on Friday.

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

This is the first time two teams from a Southern market have chased titles at the same time, a testament to Florida’s growing sports landscape. The state’s major leagues have been expanding their presence here for years, seeking new fans, sponsors and spectators as America’s 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 Golden Knights in Las Vegas is a great example of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman’s “Southern strategy,” despite financial difficulties 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 the Atlanta team’s relocation remains a cautionary tale.

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

Older fans may deride another “non-traditional” addition to the hockey market, often criticizing South Florida fans for their perceived lack of loyalty. However, this phenomenon is not exclusive to Florida. Transplants and casual fans exist everywhere, even in New York and Los Angeles. Florida’s population boom over the past decade has seen many newcomers embrace local teams. Playoff games were sold-out, with ticket prices skyrocketing on the resale market. Since May 1, Heat and Panthers gear sales have skyrocketed 460% compared to the same period last year, according to Fanatics. Sports radio is filled with talk of basketball and hockey, along with excitement for soccer following Lionel Messi’s announcement to join Inter Miami.

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

Regulars, including NBA referees, frequent the bar, but newcomers also flock here, 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 either one wins a title, it’s a matter of time. If they both win, who will get the movie rights? And if you want to jump on the bandwagon, there’s room.”

Schwartz and Mandel’s story is not 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 to the Mets team 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 past decade, including many from Latin and South America who have flocked to Miami. Some of these newcomers have welcomed the Heat and Panthers as their home teams, even though they have never played basketball or hockey. 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 looked 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 continue to receive the most fanfare when they win. Tampa celebrated wildly in 2021 when the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl and the Lightning secured the Stanley Cup.

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

At the Quarterdeck, a sports bar just 10 minutes from the arena, Tyler Craig watched the Panthers win in overtime against the Golden Knights on Thursday.

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

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

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