It’s fun, isn’t it?
It’s fun to live in a place with a pro sports team on a serious playoff run. It’s fun to see a skyline draped in team colors, to see people sharing a common escape from trudgier things.
This past week, the Carolina Panthers gave their fans an extra dose of NFL playoff pleasure. It was another week of wearing jerseys to work, of planning game-watching with friends, of seeing pictures on Facebook of pets in black and blue gear.
OK, so maybe it’s not all good.
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But in some NFL cities, it’s not good at all.
Earlier this month, St. Louis lost its NFL franchise for the second time when its owner, Stan Kroenke, screeched out of town with his Rams to Los Angeles. San Diego might still lose its team, as the Chargers can negotiate joining the Rams in their splashy new stadium. Oakland didn’t lose its team, but only because league owners rejected the Raiders’ application for Los Angeles.
In each place – except L.A., of course – fans are lamenting the greed of owners and the disloyalty the league shows to the cities that support it. And those fans are right. The NFL, more than any other major sports league, lets its owners chase the flutter of dollar bills to new locations.
Which is why Charlotte has one more blessing to count this weekend. It has an NFL owner in Jerry Richardson who hasn’t had wandering eyes all these years. Other than a message-sending 2012 meeting with the then-L.A. mayor, he hasn’t played the how-much-do-you-love-me game that owners often play with their cities.
Richardson has long understood how an NFL team and a mid-size city can thrive together. He also understands that there are ebbs and flows that test that partnership, especially in smaller NFL markets. Yes, it’s easy to be mutually devoted on weeks like this one, when the town is buzzing and the stadium will be full. But it wasn’t so long ago that the Rams were the team contending for titles and drawing fans, and the Panthers were struggling through a dismal stretch.
Richardson didn’t look to bolt then, and it’s telling now that he was among the owners who advocated keeping the Rams with a city that was trying hard to keep it.
Of course, Charlotte has also done its part, providing a devoted fan base, not to mention $75 million toward a stadium upfit. It’s likely we’ll be faced with another bill in the next few years, and it might include more zeroes as Bank of America Stadium ages and the team’s deal with the city expires.
There will be a bigger debate then about how much the city should spend to keep the Panthers here. Some will point to the economists who overwhelmingly say that pro sports don’t help a city’s bottom line. Others will insist there are intangibles, such as a city’s branding and its attractiveness to businesses and workers, that make NFL teams worth the money.
It’s easier on weeks like this to see the latter – that pro sports can be a piece of what makes a city strong. We hope Charlotte and the Panthers can responsibly keep that partnership strong, but this much we know for sure: Charlotte has an owner who’s spared us from the worst of the NFL. For now, we can enjoy the fun.