The Panthers know you're always nervous about your first time

Anyone who braves the head-pounding frustrations in navigating through their local Department of Motor Vehicles deserves something for the effort. We just didn't think it would end up being Florida Panthers hockey tickets.

In a season (and an economy) that's demanded innovation from NHL ticket sales departments, the Panthers have come up the "First Timer" program:

"If you've never been to a Florida Panthers hockey game, your time has come. It's the Florida Panthers "First Timer" Program. All you need is a Florida driver's license, and you get two great seats to a Panthers game ... one time ... on us."

The fine print:

"Invitation is good one time only. Program will remain in effect until everybody in Florida experiences the excitement of a Panthers game at least once."

Wonder how many folks will make the 11-hour drive from Pensacola ...

As The Two-Line Pass points out, you can apply for the ticket giveaway even if you don't have a valid driver's license, as the Panthers make an aggressive push for the all-important gardeners and dishwashers demo.

Two-Line Pass, which broke the story this weekend, predictably uses this promotion to mock the popularity of the Panthers. James Mirtle sees this as part of a larger problem with ticket freebies in Florida, and wonders how the season-ticket holders will take it.

Both of these complaints, and I imagine the majority of others, entirely miss why this program is ingenious.

The giveaway is only good for the first 500 tickets available per game, and thus far only extends through the end of November.

Here's why the "First Timers" program works. First, I don't believe it devalues the Panthers' tickets, because quite frankly they've been giving tickets away from years. If and when the team improves, this practice will naturally die off. For now, the "First Timers" club isn't doing any more damage than what's already been done. Besides, 500 extra mouths to feed, thirsts to quench and bodies to clothe per game isn't exactly bad economics, either.

But this isn't about the tickets: It's about the names. The information. The potential return customers down the line. Every person who applies for the "First Timers" giveaway has his or her name, address, phone number and e-mail address captured by the team and put inside a database, which could be rival the Glengarry leads for their latent value.

"That's the hope," said Matt Sacco, a public relations manager for the Panthers. "And hopefully we won't need the database because they'll see hockey live and will be hooked."

My initial concern about the program was that fans who have previously attended Panthers home games would abuse it.

"That's the problem we face," said Sacco. "Fortunately, we do a whole lot of database capture. So if they've been in our system before, we'll know they've been to a game. Anybody who's ever bought a ticket from us, we have their info."

Part of that fail-safe is to maintain the integrity of the program, and part of it is to ensure that the team's season-ticket buyers don't feel too insulted by the freebies.

"As much as we want to expand our fan base, we can't jeopardize the loyalty of our current fans," said Sacco.

When your franchise has been mismanaged into a nearly decade-long tailspin, this sort of ticket promotion may seem like an act of desperation. And it is: They are desperately trying to get a generation of sports fans in Florida interested in hockey at a time when the team sucks, the economy sucks and the NHL isn't exactly at the forefront of entertainment options for casual fans.

As we've said before: Judge this franchise when it's winning. If the arena still looks like a meeting of the empty seat society during the week when the Panthers are a playoff team, then we've got serious issues. Until then, killing the team for a program that could, in the end, dramatically increase their ticket-buying base is just hitting an easy and well-worn target in a non-traditional market.

But we can't completely exonerate the Panthers for this "First Timers" plan. Not when three games -- The Detroit Red Wings (Nov. 14), New Jersey Devils (Nov. 26), New York Rangers (Nov. 28) -- that fall under the team's outlandish variable pricing scheme are available for free to 250 Florida drivers/hockey newbies.

I think you can realistically explain to individual ticket buyer why the "First Timers" program is essential.

I don't think there's any rationale for charging an individual ticket buyer a $25 surcharge for a Red Wings/Panthers game while some guy who's never been to a hockey game before gets two tickets for free. It's completely idiotic and insulting; i.e. it's variable pricing.

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