Wake up, Charlotte: If you want to keep the Panthers, you need to pony up for a new NFL stadium

Poor, naive Charlotte. You don’t seem to fully understand your position here regarding the Carolina Panthers. Let me assist.

You are the hostage.

You do as you are told.

You hold none of the cards.

And the stakes are enormous.

I mention this because I heard you snickering about how James “Smuggie” Mitchell of the City Council is already rolling over to please the next owner of the Carolina Panthers. Mitchell, who chairs the powerful economic development committee, says he’s eager to meet and see what can be done to ensure the team will remain committed to Charlotte.

You took that as a threat to spend public money on a new stadium for the new owner. You think you have a perfectly good stadium – low mileage, original upholstery – and don’t need a $1 billion replacement.

What you don’t realize is that what could happen next to your local franchise would make a new stadium for Charlotte look like a bargain.

The Panthers have been a successful expansion team. Long string of sellouts. A few lean years, but overall a good franchise. Small market, big envelope.

But Jerry Richardson’s sudden abdication couldn’t come at a worse time. Those who cling to the parochial fantasy that some local syndicate will swoop in to save the team and keep it in Charlotte ignore the obvious.

Even if the billions can be found, there is no guarantee that the NFL’s owners, 31 of them plus Richardson, would have any sentimental attachment to keeping a team in the Carolinas.

Mark Washburn John D. Simmons jsimmons@charlotteobserver.com

This is a time of dramatic challenges and upheaval in the league. Billion-dollar football palaces, like the one just built in Atlanta, are rising in the West, teams are abandoning longtime homes for greener gridirons and the league is laser-focused on reversing sagging attendance and slipping TV ratings.

Mexico City, possibly Toronto and improbably London are destinations the NFL wants to colonize. Even a mild success in any of those outposts could bloat the league’s fortunes for decades to come.

NFL teams don’t come on the market very often. And bidding should be brisk for this sudden, surprise sale.

Some teams’ roots run so deep that they simply cannot be dislodged. They have decades of history and fans flung far from their borders. They have names like Cowboys and Steelers, Packers and Patriots. When they play in a town like Charlotte, they draw so many followers they enjoy a sort of home-team advantage. More importantly, on national TV, they draw fat ratings.

In their league in name only are teams called Jaguars and Cardinals, Texans and Titans. Casual fans have to pause to remember where they’re from. They are movable pieces, and the Panthers are among their number.

You need to keep the Panthers far more desperately than the NFL needs to keep them here. Charlotte is an aspirational city, one that punches far above its weight, and nothing validates a city’s stature like a pro football franchise.

When you court new industry, you point to the NFL and NBA to show you can play with the big boys. Uptown surges with energy a hundred times a year because of its various sports. Lose them and you go back to getting excited about Saturday-night tractor pulls.

So here’s what you’re going to do.

You’re going to snap out of it. You’re a business town and you’re going to start acting like one.

You’re going to find half a billion dollars to toss at a new stadium and pray the new owner doesn’t demand more. You’re going to tear down the government center if necessary to make room for it.

You’re going to dispense of this naive notion that local ownership is likely or that the NFL has any attachment to Charlotte.

You’re going to fight like mad to keep the franchise here, for the good of the town, for the two states it represents and for the generations to come.

And finally, you’re going to call Smuggie and apologize for rolling your eyes. And you’re going to do this because, so far, he seems to be the only one with a game plan.

Email: mwashburn76@gmail.com