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In tetherball, it keeps coming back around

The deal Charlotte’s City Council approved with the Carolina Panthers Monday night will not make the Plays of the Week. It was more like a one-yard pick up on 3rd and 1 from your own 20. Enough to keep possession and move the chains, but nothing more.

Better than punting the ball away to Los Angeles, to be sure, but the city didn’t have to be stuck in this cloud of dust.

The City Council voted overwhelmingly Monday night to give the Panthers $87.5 million. In exchange, the NFL team commits to playing the next six seasons here, or pay the city back a chunk of that money.

This so-called “tether” is not worth much. The Panthers have no intention of moving anytime soon. Owner Jerry Richardson, 76, says he would never move the team from Charlotte. Taking him at his word, the Panthers become a flight risk only after Richardson’s death. His will stipulates that the team be sold within two years of that, and new owners could move the franchise to Los Angeles or another city.

We’re not actuaries, but the fact is that the team very well might be here in six years in any case. And the tether the City Council agreed to Monday is so weak in the out years that a new owner could easily cut that ankle bracelet off and flee. (By the way, council members, because the Panthers are definitely playing in Charlotte this year, isn’t it really a five-year tether, not six?)

Helping a wealthy NFL owner with taxpayer dollars is controversial from the start. But if you’re going to do so, you need something meaty in return – like the 15-year tether the Panthers had agreed to if the city gave them $144 million.

That’s a deal the city might have had if it hadn’t misplayed its hand so badly. In need of $56 million (since it already has $87.5 million available for the Panthers), the City Council went to a conservative, anti-tax legislature with a proposal to raise a local tax by about $1 billion over 30 years. That’s almost 20 times more than needed to give the Panthers all they sought from the city. You’ll be shocked to learn that the legislature did not allow that.

If the city had gone to the legislature with a proposed tax hike one-twentieth the size it did, who knows what would have happened? Alternatively, there were a number of ways to raise the money locally without the legislature’s approval. Some of those have been discussed, incidentally, for a proposed streetcar extension.

What’s lost is the tether for years 7 through 15, which are the years in which a Panthers departure is a significant threat.

We’ve said all along that the Panthers are valuable to Charlotte, and the city should be prepared to make a reasonable public investment. Call Richardson a bully if you like, but it’s the reality of being an NFL city. In fact, Charlotte’s public investment over the past 20 years has been minuscule compared with almost every other city in the league.

But if you’re going to do it, do it right. This deal guarantees only one thing: That the city will be back at the negotiating table all too soon.

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