As headlines go, “New Yorker Moves to Fort Lauderdale, Buys Condo” isn’t exactly stop-the-presses stuff. However, when the New Yorker in question is estimated by Forbes to be worth $2.4 billion (that’s “billion” with a “b,” as in “Boy, that’s a lot of money”), it becomes more newsworthy. And when that billionaire New Yorker already happens to own Broward’s one major sports franchise – OK, you get the idea. Vincent Viola is a Venice of America guy now, and that matters.
Not that he hasn’t been a regular presence in these parts already. Viola bought the Florida Panthers hockey team at the beginning of the 2013-14 season and as he puts it, he’d been a regular visitor to South Florida a long time before that. Now though, they’ve made the situation permanent. In the future, they’ll also call one of the city’s most talked-about new developments home. They’ve bought a place in the Auberge Beach Residences & Spa, the luxury project now being built on the oceanfront site of the old Ireland’s Inn.
“We can’t wait for the Auberge to be done,” he says. “The fact that it’s beachfront, the fact that it’s Auberge, it’s just really cool.”
While Viola’s down here, he’ll be able to keep a closer eye on another building project – the Panthers. There’s buzz around the young team. “Not trying to jinx it,” NBC Sports hockey writer Scott Billeck wrote recently, “but [the] Panthers feel like a team on the brink — words not always uttered for this particular Florida-based team.”
Viola sounds similarly positive about a team that has made the playoffs just once in the five years he’s owned them, and only twice since the 2000-01 season. In the half-decade the team has been his, a talented young core of players has emerged. There’s also been controversy, not least in the November 2016 firing of head coach Gerard Gallant, less than a year after he’d led the Panthers to the postseason. (Gallant last year led the expansion Las Vegas Golden Knights to the Stanley Cup finals – something Panthers fans were frequently reminded of on social media.) Last year under highly regarded first-year coach Bob Boughner, the Panthers missed the playoffs by a single point. This year, there’s buzz around a team that’s spent much of two decades as an afterthought.
“We’re very, very pleased in that performance in the second half of the [2017-18] season,” Viola says. “The trend is definitely going in the right direction. We’re starting to get some evidence of [building] a competitive and long-term franchise.”
And now with his new digs, Viola will be able to check in on that franchise whenever he’d like. But listen to him talk about Fort Lauderdale and you get the idea that he possibly wouldn’t have been so keen to spend more time in his team’s city if he’d bought, say, the Buffalo Sabres.
When it comes to South Florida, the Violas are new residents but long-time visitors. Teresa Viola spent summers in Pompano Beach at her grandfather’s house. When the Violas’ three sons, now grown, were younger, the family had a small condo in West Palm Beach.
“When you grow up in New York City, Florida’s always been sort of an oasis,” Viola says. “When my wife and I were deciding where we would retire when the kids were up and gone, Florida was our number one choice.”
The Violas made the move permanent on January 2 of this year, and they haven’t regretted it. “We’re just loving it,” Viola says. “We try to walk together along the beach every single day. Most days we get it right.”
But he’s quick to add that it’s not just the walks-on-the-beach condo life that’s won them over. He grew up in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn in the days when it was a blue-collar neighborhood – long before it became a byword for cool-kids art and culture. Today, he sees much to compare between his new home and what his old borough’s become.
“Fort Lauderdale … to me, it’s like the coolest city, period. I always call it the Brooklyn of Florida. It’s got a great, great multicultural, diverse population and everybody gets along.
“The best stuff of New York was added to a tropical environment, and it’s really great. It has all the pluses of New York and none of the negatives. It’s got so many things to do down here. And we’re very committed to being participating members of the community.”
Much of that will come through initiatives Viola has started through the Panthers. In Viola’s time as owner, the Panthers have added new charitable and community outreach programs. One popular feature sees the team recognize a military veteran. (Viola is a West Point graduate and former US Army Ranger who was nominated for Secretary of the Army in 2016, but withdrew his name from consideration after deciding he couldn’t suitably disentangle his business interests.) Viola, who made his money in Wall Street trading, also wants to help budding entrepreneurs.
“One sort of new strategic initiative we’re doing now is … helping small businesses incubate and get off the ground,” he says. “We’re going to help support them and be available for them in some sort of capacity – help people who are hard-working get rewarded.”
Viola’s straightforward about why he promotes and sustains programs like this.
“We do it because it makes us feel good,” he says. “It’s easy to say you do it out of a sense of obligation or a sense of thanks; if you do it right it’s because it makes you feel good, it validates your beliefs.
“Sports teams are phenomenal vehicles to do good for the city and area they represent because people simply appreciate the excellence in professional sports. People want to be around the best of the best in the discipline they’re pursuing.”