Near former NHL player Shawn Thornton’s Florida home, he can run trails winding through the Everglades.
Now the senior vice president of business operations for the Florida Panthers, Thornton has been thinking of ways to keep fans engaged, while also ensuring the team is giving back to the community despite the NHL being on hiatus.
“As I’ve been running now, I’ve never seen so many people around my neighborhood,” Thornton said. “Everyone has nothing but time on their hands. So I started doing some rabbit hole digging and saw these virtual 5Ks.”
As in-person running events across the country have been canceled and postponed because of the coronavirus outbreak, races have gone virtual. Thornton also saw it firsthand – a team put together by his foundation was scheduled to run in the Boston Marathon, which got moved from April 20 to September 14.
With the desire to bring Panthers fans together, the team will host the Territory Trot Virtual 5K on April 17. It will be presented by Baptist Health South Florida.
“It was really, ‘Why can’t we do this?’” Thornton said. “We have the Panthers Foundation and our huge platform, and we can give people some encouragement to get out, be active with something they can attach themselves to while staying safe, and raising money for a good cause.”
Thornton said the entry fee was kept intentionally low – $10 minimum, with the raised funds going to South Florida’s COVID-19 response. Where the money exactly goes is yet to be determined, as the team wants to find where it’s most needed.
The actual practice of running the Territory Trot will be simple, Thornton said, and anyone across the country can participate. Thornton said participants could track their runs on any fitness app, record their time, and send it in.
The Panthers are also asking runners to submit videos of the runs, and they’ll put together a montage video for the team’s social media channels.
“We’re just trying to give everybody a platform to unite and engage with our brand while going through these tough times,” Thornton said. “Trying to bring the community together through fitness.”
Beyond the Territory Trot, the Panthers are trying to make sure the team’s stakeholders are staying connected. The team is hosting “Chats with the Cats,” which are virtual town halls with several hundred season ticket members and a player or two. The ticket members submit questions, and Panthers broadcasters moderate the discussion.
Thornton is also keeping tabs on the team’s partners and said the staff is in constant communication about opportunities to engage. When sparkling water company La Croix wanted to get water to local hospitals, the Panthers helped connect them with local health care companies, including the Cleveland Clinic.
Thornton isn’t sure if the virtual 5K trend or live stream chats with players are going to stick around beyond the next few months, but the team will continue to evolve its fan engagement efforts as the break in play continues.
“We’re all adapting and who knows how long this goes on,” Thornton said. “Everything is so fluid, so we’re following [NHL Commissioner] Gary Bettman and the NHL and CDC’s leadership and will continue to look for ways to bring our community together.”