Kemba Walker gave an extraordinary interview to reporters last week in Charlotte. It happened a few hours after ESPN reported that the Charlotte Hornets were making Walker, their star point guard, available in a trade. Walker was worried – and maybe a little hurt – that the investment he’d made and the life he’d built in Charlotte might be wiped away. It’s not that he didn’t understand that trades are part of his sport, but he’d done a lot for and in this city – and shouldn’t that count for something?
It was a remarkably candid back-and-forth. It also was something many of us can recognize, because for a moment at least, Kemba sounded a little bit like a fan.
Across uptown, with Charlotte’s other major league team, a similar conversation is happening. At least some Carolina Panthers season ticket holders are less than thrilled that the Permanent Seat Licenses they purchased might not be so permanent if a new owner gets to build a new football stadium in Charlotte.
There’s not much legal fuzziness here – the PSL contract says holders have rights and obligations “for as long as the team plays in the Stadium.” But fans are unhappy because they feel they did more than agree to a transaction. They invested in the team and helped build the franchise, and well, shouldn’t that count for something?
This is what happens when the emotion of sports gets interrupted by the business of sports – when one kind of investment meets another. Get ready for that kind of tangle again soon in Charlotte. Jerry Richardson is selling the Panthers. The new owner is going to ask the city to help build a new stadium. At some point, someone will suggest that another city might be willing to do so if Charlotte doesn’t.
Fans will be wounded then – even betrayed – because they thought the team and community were in this together. Some will say the Panthers are holding Charlotte “hostage,” when it’s really something else. It’s leverage. And it’s good business.
If you manage to sift the emotion from sports, we all have our bottom lines. Teams calculate the best deals they can get with players, cities and fans. Cities calculate the economic and branding cost – and most definitely the political cost – of saying no to those teams. Fans decide if writing that check for tickets – or for PSLs – is worth it.
Of course, you can’t completely untangle emotion from sports or most any business. Which is why the Panthers will have to determine if the windfall of making PSL holders pay all over again is worth the marketing cost of alienating core fans. Teams regularly make that kind of calculation, including the Charlotte Hornets this week. After fans loudly panned the idea of trading Kemba Walker, owner Michael Jordan told the Observer’s Rick Bonnell he’d do so only if he got an All-Star in return. Which means that a trade isn’t going to happen – at least not now.
There’s no doubt the Panthers and Hornets are operating from different places. The Hornets don’t want to ding an already fragile relationship with fans. The Panthers have little problem getting Charlotte to turn Black and Blue. (That bond is something the Panthers promote, by the way. That’s good marketing, too.)
But the reality is, we’re buying and they’re selling. We’re in this together until we’re not in this together. And with the Panthers, we’re going to be reminded of that soon.
Peter: @saintorange; firstname.lastname@example.org