Don’t overreact to the Panthers flirting with South Carolina

Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (center) breaks through a hole in the New Orleans Saints defense during first quarter action on Monday.
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (center) breaks through a hole in the New Orleans Saints defense during first quarter action on Monday. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It’s hard to top a late-season swoon or the star quarterback’s bum shoulder, but the winner for Headline Carolina Panthers Fans Didn’t Want To See Right Now is likely one that had nothing to do with the team’s on-field woes. Instead, it was a report from the Charleston Post and Courier that the Panthers plan to build a team headquarters, practice facility and a development of hotels, retail and residences over the South Carolina border in York County.

But fans in Charlotte — and especially Charlotte officials — shouldn’t overreact to the report, credible as it appears. Let’s break down what it means and what it doesn’t.

At least a few things could be happening here. The Panthers could be looking to expand their Carolinas footprint while finding a more affordable place to build the kind of PanthersLand retail and entertainment complex that owner David Tepper has envisioned since he took over the team. The Panthers also could be dangling the South Carolina possibility to get a better deal for a similar complex in Charlotte. Or this could be a very early negotiating ploy to soften up Charlotte officials for talks about improving or replacing Bank of America Stadium.

As for the first possibility, the team has long wanted to represent both Carolinas, and York County would likely be able to provide cheaper real estate — and lots of it — to fulfill Tepper’s multi-use vision. Losing the team’s 300-plus jobs would sting Charlotte, but such a move shouldn’t be seen as a harbinger for a larger Panthers move. Although not impossible, it’s unlikely the team would buck a trend of pro sports franchises building stadiums in downtown areas instead of the lesser-populated suburbs. Given that, building a splashy new headquarters in nearby York would be good news — a signal of a longer-term Panthers commitment to the Charlotte area.

Still, it’s curious that few officials in York seemed to know anything about the Panthers’ plans. That’s sparked some speculation that the team is merely trying to remind Charlotte that its headquarters (and perhaps even its stadium) are not tethered to uptown. The report did set some hearts racing in the Government Center, and even N.C. Gov. Roy Cooper reportedly visited with Tepper this week in Charlotte to discuss the importance of the team remaining in the city. So if the speculation about York was simply a negotiating tactic, it wasn’t a bad one.

None of which is comforting to Charlotte fans or public officials who remember the heartache of losing the Hornets to New Orleans 16 years ago. But the political climate surrounding pro sports franchises and cities has changed since then. There’s more pushback against public officials opening the vault to keep teams from leaving, especially in progressive cities where leaders recognize the many other needs that demand our public dollars. Just this week, when Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver threatened to move his NBA team if an arena deal fell through, the backlash was so severe that Sarver retreated and said the team is committed to the city.

Charlotte remains a thriving NFL market that the league likely has no interest in leaving. The team remains an integral, valuable part of the city’s brand. As we’ve said in this space, there’s opportunity for the city and team to get creative, perhaps by partnering on a sizable uptown entertainment district near Bank of America Stadium. What Charlotte shouldn’t do is panic, no matter how discomfiting a headline may be.