Carolina Panthers

NFL teams are building state-of-the-art practice palaces. Is 'Panthers Park' coming?

Vikings TCO Performance Center

Minnesota Vikings' new performance center and headquarters will be the center of future commercial development, Vikings Lake.
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Minnesota Vikings' new performance center and headquarters will be the center of future commercial development, Vikings Lake.

The Minnesota Vikings recently opened a $125 million suburban headquarters and practice facility, a corporate park designed to give the team a competitive edge.

But the new complex is also something else. It's a springboard for the larger Viking Lakes commercial development on 200 acres, with a four-star hotel, medical offices, restaurants and stores. The team's principal owner, Zygi Wilf, who made his fortune as a residential real estate developer, is spearheading the project.

The Carolina Panthers may follow his lead.

At his introductory news conference after buying the Panthers for $2.275 billion, new owner David Tepper mentioned a secondary "development" that a league insider said could be a new headquarters and practice center — and possibly a commercial real estate project surrounding it.

As NFL teams have squeezed as much revenue as they can from their stadiums, through suites and club seats, new suburban mixed-use developments may be the next frontier in making money. The idea is to create a football-focused destination that will attract fans year-round, not just on a handful of Sundays.

"It's a live-work-play development — with the Vikings as the anchor tenant," Vikings executive vice president Lester Bagley said while pointing to a drawing showing plans for a sprawling development surrounding the team's new headquarters.

The Carolina Panthers today have one address: Bank of America Stadium.

The team-owned stadium hosts games and serves as home for its owner and executives. It's where players lift weights and watch game video with coaches.

NFL insiders expect that will change.

"It's a trend in the league," said Marc Ganis of Chicago-based Sportscorp, which advises teams on stadiums. "Usually it's the team owner's expense to build them. That's why a for-profit commercial piece makes so much sense."

Through his spokesperson, Tepper declined to comment for this story.

Charlotte Observer columnist Scott Fowler recounts some of the historical highlights of the home stadium of the Carolina Panthers, including a Billy Graham crusade and the team's first home playoff game in 1996, in light of the team's impending sale.

A new NFL trend

Ten years ago, the New England Patriots became one of the first teams to combine a football venue and commercial development with Patriot Place next to the team's Gillette Stadium. The development includes a hotel, movie theater, stores and a team museum.

Patriot Place did not receive any public money, according to the town of Foxborough, Mass.

In 2016, the Dallas Cowboys opened The Star in Frisco, a suburb 40 miles from their stadium. The Star has a $115 million team headquarters and practice facility, along with a 16-story Omni hotel, 20 restaurants and stores. Fans can also live at what the team calls a "Dallas Cowboys-themed campus" — apartments are under construction.

The Cowboys had the city of Frisco pay for the $115 million complex with public money. The Cowboys help pay for maintenance and operations, according to the Dallas Morning News.

Last year, the Green Bay Packers started building Titletown, a mixed-use development with an ice skating rink, medical offices, stores and a hotel next to their stadium.

"The old model was making money from 10 games a year," said Charlotte developer Ned Curran, who's followed other teams' developments closely. "The new model is getting more direct revenue from things like a team store, and indirect revenue from things like office and retail."

In Minnesota, the Vikings this month formally opened the Twin Cities Orthopedics Performance Center, a 277,000-square-foot complex in suburban Eagan, on the site of the old corporate headquarters of Northwest Airlines. The team will use 40 acres of the 200-acre site, and the rest will be the commercial development.

For perspective on how large 200 acres is, Carolina Place Mall in Pineville is about 85 acres.

The entire Vikings Lake project will likely boost the team's bottom line, as more of the complex is developed. The NFL shares television revenue and some stadium revenue among all teams. But money generated from the Performance Center development will stay with the Vikings.

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A real estate company affiliated with the Minnesota Vikings plans to develop 160 acres surrounding the team's new headquarters and practice center. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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This is the view from an office window at the Vikings' TCO Performance Center. The development group associated with the team plans to build a four-star hotel on the other side of the lake. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Taxpayers helped pay for the Vikings' downtown stadium. A development company tied to the team paid for the headquarters and practice facility. The city of Eagan paid for some roads and sewer lines but said that's common for new developments.

Carolina Panthers minicamp concluded June 14, 2018 after three days in the heat. Observer beat writers Joe Person and Jourdan Rodrigue recap what happened for the team and what to look forward to going into training camp in July.



Competitive advantage?

Besides trying to make money on real estate, the Vikings are also looking for a competitive edge on the field.

In March, the Vikings flew free agent defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson to Minneapolis on the team's private jet and gave him a tour of their new stadium and the TCO Performance Center. He signed a one-year contract worth $8 million.

In his introductory news conference, Richardson said after touring the new practice facility that he didn't want to leave.

"Have you seen this building?" he said, laughing. "It's pretty nice, ain't it? Smells like new paint. Everything is brand new, top-notch state-of-the-art."

Players can order customized smoothies and other energy drinks at a Gatorade Fuel Bar. A locker room, with two fireplaces, resembles a Viking ship with light fixtures that look like oars. A rooftop deck overlooks the team's four outdoor grass fields.

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In addition to having four outdoor practice fields, the Vikings have an indoor practice facility with a 98-foot-high ceiling. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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The Gatorade Fuel Bar is available to players for snacks, drinks and smoothies. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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The Vikings' Performance Center has a 174-seat auditorium. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

The headquarters also has an auditorium that holds 174 people and a TV studio. The team has conference rooms and offices for its executives on the top floor. The Vikings' most famous coach, Bud Grant, who is now 90, also has his own office.

"Teams used to threaten to send guys to Minnesota," Bagley said about the team's previous stadium and practice facility.

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The Vikings' headquarters has a cafeteria for players, coaches and employees. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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The Minnesota Vikings have two locker rooms. One is at U.S. Bank Stadium. The locker room at their practice facility has a fireplace. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Next door is the team's indoor practice facility, with a roof that's high enough so the team's punter can kick inside. That wasn't possible in the old indoor practice facility.

The Panthers, by contrast, don't even have an indoor practice facility. When it rains, the team sometimes uses a ballroom in the Charlotte Convention Center for practice.

While the Vikings have four outdoor practice fields, the Panthers have only three.

Even though the Panthers' facilities aren't modern, the team still managed to reach the Super Bowl in 2016.

Small team stadiums

Besides practice facilities, the Vikings and Cowboys both have small stadiums at their headquarters.

The Cowboys have a 12,000-seat indoor stadium at their new headquarters. The team will use it and host high school football games and other sports.

The Vikings don't plan to use their 6,500-seat stadium much, except for the occasional scrimmage during training camp that's open to fans. Minnesota built the stadium to attract high school football games as well as other sports like lacrosse.

That will bring fans to the complex to help support the planned restaurants and shops. The Vikings are also building a new team store and museum.

The team has other ways to make the complex a year-round destination. This year, the team will hold its training camp there, after having it for 50 years in Manketo, a college town 80 miles southwest of Minneapolis. That will bring thousands of fans daily to the center.

"In the days when training camp was held on a college campus, you can't leverage your brand," said Mike Maguire, the mayor of Eagan. "Now you are seeing teams develop these partnered campuses and trying to keep all of their operations year-around."

The Panthers, by comparison, hold their training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C.

A new Panthers' headquarters?

Tepper said at his news conference in May he wanted to have a presence in both Carolinas.

That could give the team the ability to see who is willing to offer a better package of incentives for a new headquarters and practice facility: the state of South Carolina and the city of Fort Mill or Rock Hill — or Charlotte and the state of North Carolina?

The General Assembly this week passed a law exempting the Panthers from paying property taxes on the land at Bank of America Stadium, which is privately owned on city-owned land. That will save the team $350,000 a year.

It's possible a new headquarters and practice facility could also be exempt if it were on city-owned land.

But surrounding retail and commercial development could provide a big boost to whichever city gets a potential practice complex. For instance, the 42-acre Charlotte Premium Outlets in southwest Charlotte pays $761,000 a year in city and county property taxes.

Tepper is already familiar with state-of-the-art training facilities. The Pittsburgh Steelers, in which Tepper has had a 5 percent stake, share modern headquarters and practice facilities with the University of Pittsburgh Panthers. Tepper will sell his Steelers stake as he assumes control of the Panthers.

The City Council has not discussed the impact of Tepper buying the team. But some council members are thinking on their own about the Panthers' future and whether a new headquarters and practice facility would cement the team in Charlotte. Tepper and Mayor Vi Lyles have spoken on the phone once, but nothing substantive was discussed, Lyles said.

"We would be hopeful that if a practice facility emerged, that that would indicate they would be more likely to be here for the long haul," council member Ed Driggs said.

Kurt Badenhausen, an editor with Forbes, said teams have realized they can leverage their brand with real estate ventures. The New England Patriots did that with the commercial development Patriot Place next to their stadium, and other teams like the Cowboys and Vikings have followed.

"Developments like Patriot Place — it's the future," he said. "It's unshared revenue. It goes straight to the bottom line."

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs
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