Carolina Panthers

The city invested millions in Panthers stadium upgrades. Will new owners want more?

Celebrities raise their hands to be the next owner of the Panthers

With the inevitable sale of the Carolina Panthers, here's who could be the next owner of the team.
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With the inevitable sale of the Carolina Panthers, here's who could be the next owner of the team.

Under owner Jerry Richardson, the Carolina Panthers never said that Bank of America Stadium needed to be replaced.

In public statements, the team said they liked playing in what it called a “classic bowl” stadium, and former team President Danny Morrison often said that the 22-year-old stadium had “good bones.”

But what if a new owner feels differently?

Richardson announced Sunday he would sell the team, just hours after a Sports Illustrated report outlined allegations of sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson toward former Panthers employees.

Bank of America is now one of the oldest stadiums in the NFL. A new ownership group might want a more lavish stadium with a retractable roof, which would allow the city to host the NCAA Final Four and the Super Bowl.

“Bank of America Stadium, for the fall, is a fabulous facility for football,” said Marc Ganis, a sports consultant who advises NFL owners on stadium deals. “The concept that Jerry (Richardson) has of a ‘Stadium in a Park’ has worked very well there.”

We got a look at the inside of the newly renovated Bank of America Stadium as the Panthers prepare ahead of the 2014 season.

But Ganis said the new owners and the city would have to decide whether Charlotte wants a stadium that would allow the city to host large conventions and other championship games. That’s been the strategy of Indianapolis, Atlanta and Dallas, which have $1 billion stadiums that are indoors or have retractable roofs.

“How much is sports tourism important to the community?” Ganis said. “In Atlanta it’s a convention town, it’s a tourist town. Minnesota (which built a $1.1 billion domed stadium in 2016) people wouldn’t have thought of it that way. But they started getting those events. There is no reason that Charlotte with its location and great weather couldn’t be a major event and convention location. It just lacks that facility.”

While several NFL cities have built domed stadiums to hold other large events, most cities have not. Philadelphia, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, Seattle, Cincinnati and others have stadiums similar to Charlotte’s.

Experts say it’s unlikely a new owner would buy the team with the intent of moving it. After all, the Charlotte metro area is now the nation’s 22nd largest, and Charlotte was the 11th fastest-growing city in the nation in 2015-16, based on population growth. The city also has supported the team well through ticket sales.

But in the last two years, St. Louis (20th largest metro area) and San Diego (17th largest metro area) both lost NFL teams to Los Angeles over stadium fights.

In 2013, Charlotte City Council began negotiating with the Panthers about a public-private partnership on stadium improvements that would anchor the team to the city.

As negotiations continued, a representative for the team told City Attorney Bob Hagemann that Richardson might sell the team if the city didn’t help pay for stadium renovations. The city feared the new owner might move the team to Los Angeles.

Soon after, the city agreed on a deal to spend $87.5 million on stadium improvements and game-day expenses in exchange for a “hard tether” that would keep the team playing in Charlotte for six years.

After the end of this season, the hard tether covers one more NFL season, in 2018-19. The agreement officially expires in the summer of 2019.

Former Deputy City Manager Ron Kimble, who led the city negotiations with the team, is now a consultant for the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. He said the team hadn’t approached the city about receiving more money, even as the tether neared its expiration in 2019.

Of the city’s $87.5 million, $75 million was slated for capital improvements to the stadium, such as new escalators and video boards. Kimble said the Panthers still haven’t spent $7 million of the $75 million but plan to make more improvements after this season.

Under the hard tether agreement, the city could seek an injunction in Mecklenburg Superior Court if the team attempted to leave early. But after the 2018 season, the team would have to pay only a small financial penalty.

If the team leaves after June 2019, the contract says the city would have the option of buying the stadium for $1 or the Panthers would pay the city the remaining debt payment on the city’s $75 million investment.

The city didn’t have exact numbers of how much debt is remaining. The Panthers still plan on spending $7 million of the $75 million in the off season on improvements.

Kimble said the city has been paying off the debt at about $7.5 million a year. That means there would be about $35 million to $40 million left on the debt.

Here are some of the options as to how a new ownership group might approach Bank of America Stadium:

▪ Keep the stadium, but seek more publicly funded improvements.

This is what city leaders had assumed would happen. The city’s tourism taxes – hotel/motel taxes and restaurant taxes – have enough money to cover a second round of improvements at a similar price point of $70 million to $90 million.

During the 2013 negotiations, the Panthers floated the idea of having the city build the team a parking deck. The city declined. (The Panthers control hardly any of the parking surrounding the stadium, and the Panthers have said in the past that costs the team revenue.)

The Panthers don’t have their own separate practice facility, as several NFL teams now have. The Dallas Cowboys recently opened a new $262 million practice facility and small stadium in the suburb of Frisco, with taxpayers contributing $90 million.

The Green Bay Packers recently opened a large team store and team hall of fame that’s connected to Lambeau Field. The store and hall of fame are designed to make the stadium a year-around attraction.

▪ Build an entirely new stadium.

Kimble has told council members that the city’s tourism taxes can’t cover the city’s share of a $1 billion stadium. That share could be $300 million to $500 million.

In 2013, the city considered raising the tax on prepared food and beverages by a penny for every $1 spent. That would have brought in more than enough money for a new stadium, but the General Assembly rejected that proposal.

Any new tax would likely need General Assembly approval. One Republican lawmaker said the state would be reluctant to contribute financially if the next owner wanted a new stadium.

“I’m a huge Panthers fan, but I just don’t see a role for government doing that,” said Sen. Jeff Tarte, a Cornelius Republican. “There’s better ways to finance public sports arenas other than public dollars.”

Former City Council member Michael Barnes, who was part of the 2013 negotiations, said one problem with a new stadium is finding a site.

There is land south of Morehead Street near the stadium, but Charlotte Pipe and Foundry bought much of that 18-acre parcel from Beazer Homes in 2011.

“Where are you going to build it?” Barnes said. “There just isn’t any land, unless you are are looking at North End.”

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs

Comparing stadiums

Here are the NFL stadiums older than Bank of America Stadium, which opened in 1996:

▪ Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium, 1972 – $375 million renovation in 2010.

▪ Jacksonville’s EverBank Field, 1995.

▪ Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, 1987 – $350 million renovation in 2016.

▪ Green Bay’s Lambeau Field, 1957 – renovated in 2010.

▪ Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, 1923 – temporary home for Los Angeles Rams, who are moving to a new stadium.

▪ Mercedez-Benz Superdome New Orleans, 1975 – $182 million renovation in 2006 after Hurricane Katrina.

▪ Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum, 1966 – Oakland Raiders are leaving for Las Vegas because stadium is too old.

▪ Chicago’s Soldier Field, 1924 – $690 million rebuild in 2002.

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