Charlotte wants to bring more events to Panthers stadium while it still can

The city of Charlotte is potentially wasting a cost-saving opportunity to book events at Bank of America Stadium every year, a perk promised to taxpayers who helped fund the facility’s renovations.

Emails obtained by the Observer through a public records request show how the city is looking to rectify the situation.

Charlotte city leaders have been exploring a range of entertainment options, from a battle of the bands to a professional Spanish soccer match, to fill the rent-free days at the stadium, according to the emails.

Still, the stadium’s off-season schedule remains relatively quiet — at least as far as city-booked events are concerned.

The city receives five rent-free days as a perk from the deal it made with the Carolina Panthers in 2013 to provide $87.5 million in public funds to help renovate the stadium. Also as part of the deal, the Panthers agreed to be “tethered” to Charlotte through at least 2019, with further penalties for leaving in 2020-23.

In years past, however, Charlotte has not used all of the available rent-free days, which provide a savings of $250,000 per event to the city.

The city has contended that the stadium’s off-season renovations, which wrapped up last year, have made scheduling extra events difficult. The window for booking the rent-free days is limited: Jan. 30 through Labor Day.

The facility’s off-season schedule wasn’t limited by renovations this year.

But so far, the city has only three rent-free days booked at Bank of America Stadium for 2019: The CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer match in July, the Belk College Kickoff (University of North Carolina against University of South Carolina) Aug. 31, and the Belk Bowl in December.

Assuming no other days are booked, by the end of the year, Charlotte will have accumulated 15 unused rent-free days at the stadium, worth $3.75 million in rent, since the start of the renovations-funding deal with the team.

Former longtime deputy city manager Ron Kimble, who still works for the city as a consultant, helped negotiate the deal with the Panthers. But Kimble said Wednesday it is unclear if the rent-free days expire if they go unused by 2023, or if they roll over for multiple years. Kimble said he hopes to discuss roll-over options with David Tepper, who bought the Panthers last summer.

“We’ve done all we could to get mega-events in the stadium,” Kimble said. “We did not achieve all the dates we have in our agreement, but we made a great effort to book as many as we could.”

Soccer, marching band options

According to the emails, city officials have been working on a few ways to fill more of the days.

“The more we can have community events at Bank of America Stadium, the more the city feels like it is its facility. It’s a point of pride for the citizens,” at-large Charlotte city council member James Mitchell told the Observer.

Last spring, team officials met with city leaders and Derek Webber, a local marketing executive, to discuss holding the annual Queen City Battle of the Bands marching band competition at Bank of America Stadium that summer. The event, which Webber started in 2010 to provide scholarships to participating historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), had outgrown its previous home at Memorial Stadium, Webber told the Observer.

Scott Paul, executive director of stadium operations, informed Webber that a pre-season game conflicted with the timing of the proposed event, but the team remained interested in hosting in the future.

“We will still send Derek a revised expense estimate and would be happy to discuss an event in 2019,” Paul said in an April 11 email.

Instead, Webber received an offer from the city of Houston last fall to host the Battle of the Bands for three years at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL’s Texans. Webber said he went back to Charlotte officials to gauge their interest again, but received no response.

“It’s like a girlfriend you’ve been dating for a long time,” Webber said of his event’s relationship with Charlotte. “You take each other for granted sometimes.”

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Another event that city leaders have been pushing for is a La Liga soccer game. In an Aug. 22, 2018, email, Kimble forwarded a link to a Bleacher Report story on La Liga to city officials and Paul.

“I believe this is something that should be raised as a future possibility with Mr. Tepper,” Kimble wrote of the story, called “La Liga Is Coming to America — and This Is Just the Beginning.”

In response the next day, Paul wrote that the Panthers reached out the week prior to Relevent Sports, a promoter that works on bringing European soccer to the U.S. “We will continue to have conversations and will bring you in when they start looking at dates and cities,” Paul wrote. “Charlotte has a very good story to tell.”

Professional soccer matches have drawn large crowds at Bank of America Stadium in recent years.

Last July, Charlotte hosted an International Champion’s Cup match between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund. According to the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the game had an attendance of 55,447 and generated a total economic impact of about $21 million.

City leaders have said in the past that the $250,000 savings in rent helps, but other costs arise that makes hosting large events like soccer games difficult, including security, marketing efforts and staffing concession areas. Those costs can amount to nearly $300,000 per event, Kimble said.

Another factor that has limited the city’s options is that under former owner Jerry Richardson, the team was “very protective of their field,” Kimble said.

Still, Mitchell said he’s likely to bring an HBCU football game back to the stadium one day. N.C. A&T and S.C. State used to play in a “Battle Of The Border” at the Panthers’ stadium, then called Ericsson Stadium, in the late 1990s.

In the months since he bought the Panthers last year, Tepper has said multiple times that he wants to bring more events to the stadium. In his introductory press conference in Charlotte in July, for instance, Tepper mentioned concerts and high school state championship football games as possibilities.

To be sure, the Panthers could book any event they wanted to at any time of the year, since they are not bound by the city’s rent-free day agreement.

Since opening in September 1996, the stadium has hosted just two concerts: The Rolling Stones in 1997, and Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw in 2012.

“We’re telling people we’re open for business. We’re having a lot of conversations with promoters,” Paul told the Observer.

As the retail and sports business reporter for the Observer, Katie Peralta covers everything from grocery-store competition in Charlotte to tax breaks for pro sports teams. She is a Chicago native and graduate of the University of Notre Dame.