Tepper may ask the city for millions in stadium upgrades for Major League Soccer bid

Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper may ask the City of Charlotte for up to $215 million toward Bank of America Stadium renovations and other costs associated with acquiring a new Major League Soccer franchise.

That’s what city officials told city council members during a closed session Monday night, sources told the Observer.

Officials told the council that MLS could award a new franchise within weeks.

Council members were told Tepper would contribute over $400 million in franchise fees, team salaries and other costs associated with the team. The city would be asked for $100 million to $215 million, a source said. That would be used for stadium upgrades as well as a practice center and team office.

The money would come from tourism-related taxes, not property taxes.

Asked about MLS Tuesday, Panthers President Tom Glick said, “We continue to be in very close contact with the commissioner’s office (regarding expansion). There’s no timetable, but we’re very confident in our candidacy. We don’t have any further update than that right now.”

A Panthers spokesperson would not comment on the city council session.

Arguably the most significant holdup in Charlotte’s bid is the outdated nature of Bank of America Stadium, which opened in 1996 and is one of the NFL’s oldest venues.

MLS prefers its teams to play in soccer-specific stadiums, but through a variety of high-profile soccer matches, Charlotte’s expansion group has attempted to prove that the stadium can support a team as is.

That includes Gold Cup matches in June that featured the Mexican national team and drew almost 60,000 spectators, as well as a five-year deal with Relevent Sports Group to continue bringing high-profile International Champion’s Cup games to the stadium. Charlotte is the first and only city with a long-term commitment from the ICC.

Tepper, the Pittsburgh venture capitalist who bought the Panthers last summer for $2.275 billion, has made clear that he would like an MLS team and even mentioned that possibility as far back as his introductory press conference in July 2018. Over the past year, he and Glick have made substantial moves toward achieving that goal.

That began as early as February when MLS officials first visited Bank of America Stadium, Glick previously told the Observer. Those meetings were preliminary gave MLS officials an understanding of the stadium’s infrastructure and how a professional soccer team might operate within it.

The Panthers also sent an offseason fan survey to permanent seat license (PSL) ticket holders gauging their interest in an MLS expansion franchise. One result of that survey was a desire for “a more intimate soccer configuration to create an exciting game-day atmosphere for MLS home matches,” which could be achieved with stadium renovations.

In April, MLS commissioner Don Garber announced the league would expand to 30 teams. St. Louis was recently awarded the league’s 29th franchise, and Sacramento is the favorite to receive team No. 30, although Garber has previously said another team could enter the mix if either Sacramento or St. Louis did not fulfill the outstanding issues with their expansion bids. Garber added he did not anticipate that happening.

But Tepper and Glick’s aggressiveness has kept Charlotte in the discussion for that 30th expansion franchise. Panthers officials, including Tepper and Glick, met with MLS executives in New York in July to present their formal bid for a team. A source told the Observer that Garber later visited Charlotte Bank of America Stadium in early August, the commissioner’s first such visit to the city for expansion purposes.

Glick previously told the Observer in June that MLS likes how Bank of America Stadium is set up, although the team and the league would remain in contact about stadium “enhancements” that would better suit a professional soccer team.

In August, Tepper told reporters at Panthers training camp that he would like to build a new stadium with a retractable roof to accommodate larger national events, such as a Final Four. At the time, Tepper said he hadn’t yet spoken to city officials about a “10-year plan,” but added that “we need to be aspirational because this is a great area. We need to realize how great it can be.”

Charlotte first appeared close to getting an MLS franchise three years ago.

In 2017, Mecklenburg County commissioners voted to invest $118 million in a $175 million soccer stadium to replace Memorial Stadium. But the Charlotte City Council canceled a vote on its part of the deal.

The council’s cancellation threw the deal into limbo.

That effort was led by Charlotte Motor Speedway CEO Marcus Smith. The expansion fee at the time was $150 million.