The South Florida Heat and Panthers pursue NBA and NHL titles

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Longtime friends Martin Schwartz and Matthew Mandel enjoy a rare sports moment as the Miami teams battle for the championship.

Martin Schwartz and Matthew Mandel are living 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 NBA and NHL titles at the same time.

Schwartz and Mandel, who have shared season tickets to 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 seen visiting fans dominate the stands. They celebrated the Heat’s championship successes in 2012 and 2013, led 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 the No. 1 seeds. 8 and would upset high-level 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 Wednesday when they lost to the Denver Nuggets. “But we learned that it’s all about the playoffs. You have to enjoy it. You only get one shot.”

This is 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, with the Golden State Warriors and San Jose Sharks failing to do so. 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.

South Florida has become a hotbed of excitement this week, with the Heat and Panthers playing four straight home games. Their arenas, about 40 miles apart, are home to rabid fans, some of whom, like Schwartz and Mandel, root for both teams. Both teams are down 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 are chasing titles at the same time, 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 spectators as America’s demographics have shifted south and west.

While the Rangers and Bruins have historic roots dating back to the 1920s, the Heat came to Miami in 1988 and the Panthers joined the NHL in 1993. Since then, the league has added teams such as 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 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 a stable footing, though the relocation of the Atlanta team 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 footprint.

Fans of older teams may scoff at another “nontraditional” addition to the hockey market, often criticizing South Florida fans for their perceived lack of loyalty. However, this phenomenon is not unique to Florida. Transplants and fair-weather fans exist everywhere, including in New York and Los Angeles. Florida’s population boom over the past decade has seen many newcomers embrace local teams. Playoff games have sold out, with ticket prices skyrocketing on the resale market. Since May 1, sales of Heat and Panthers gear have skyrocketed 460% compared to the same time last year, according to Fanatics. Sports radio is buzzing about basketball and hockey, along with soccer excitement 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 in Venetia, near Kaseya Center, noting a 40 to 50 percent increase in business during the playoffs.

The bar is frequented by regulars, including NBA referees, but newcomers also pay the price, 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 them wins a title, it’s a matter of time. If they both win, who gets the film 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 while he was growing up in New York, then he switched 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 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 enthusiasm for basketball and hockey, football remains the undisputed king of sports in Florida. The Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes continue to get the most buzz when they win. Tampa celebrated wildly in 2021 as the Buccaneers won the Super Bowl and the Lightning secured the Stanley Cup.

Basketball and hockey, however, have carved out their own niches. Transplants from Canada, the Northeast, and the Upper Midwest have stuck with their teams, but new fans are emerging, even for the Panthers, whose home ice at 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 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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