Carolina Panthers

NFL stadiums are more luxurious than ever. Here's how the Panthers could keep up.

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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.

When Bank of America Stadium opened in 1996, the Carolina Panthers didn't imagine that fans would pay hundreds of dollars for a seat behind the player's bench, with a blocked view of the field.

But today, teams are building stadiums with field-level suites, where fans' feet touch the grass or artificial turf, close to the sounds, smells and (sometimes) sights of the NFL.

Teams in Atlanta, Minnesota, Dallas and New York have built $1 billion stadiums that include field-level suites, one way for them to squeeze more money from fans.

League insiders, and local business leaders, believe that new Panthers owner David Tepper will compare Bank of America Stadium with the NFL's newest stadiums, and decide whether more renovations — or a new stadium — are needed.

Tepper has not yet discussed business with city officials, said Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who had a welcome phone call with the new owner.

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Bank of America Stadium is one of the NFL's oldest but still considered a good venue. The team recently finished a $178 million renovation that began in 2013. It's the 17th most lucrative stadium, according to Forbes.

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.

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U.S. Bank Stadium was built with public and private money. It hosted the Super Bowl in February. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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A focal point of U.S. Bank Stadium is a Gjallarhorn that's blown before each game. Steve Harrison sharrison@charloteobserver.com


The Observer traveled to Minneapolis to tour the Minnesota Vikings new home, U.S. Bank Stadium, and a new practice facility and headquarters that cost $125 million.

The $1.1 billion stadium has meant more money for the team. While they were playing in their old home, the Metrodome, the Vikings ranked second to the bottom of the 32-team NFL in stadium-generated revenue, according to Forbes. U.S. Bank Stadium now ranks as the No. 16 most lucrative, according to the magazine.

The biggest difference between Bank of America Stadium and U.S. Bank Stadium is obvious: The Vikings' stadium has a roof.

If Charlotte wanted an indoor stadium, it would be cheaper to build a new one, experts say. But the team could add many features to Bank of America Stadium without starting from scratch.

Unlike the Panthers' stadium, U.S. Bank Stadium was built more for the casual fan.

Open areas offer fans a view of the field. One club has couches and modern, silver tables for drinks and food. TVs showing the game line the stadium's concourses.

"These stadiums are more like a cruise ship," said Max Muhleman, who helped create the Personal Seat License concept in the early 1990s that helped pay for Panthers' stadium. "It's like a cruise ship where you walk around and say, 'Do you want Chinese food or do you want to play ping pong?' You can also watch the game."

More suites

What the Vikings have: Field-level "Turf Suites" are behind the Vikings bench and one end zone.

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U.S. Bank Stadium has field-level suites that allow fans to be on the artificial turf. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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U.S. Bank Stadium is decorated with art celebrating the history of Minnesota Vikings. Steve Harrison Steve Harrison/sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

The Dallas Cowboys were the first team to sell field-level suites when they opened AT&T Stadium in 2009. The team found that fans liked being close to the game — even if they couldn't see all the action.

The Vikings' field-level suites are not as luxurious as some of their other suites, but their main appeal is each suite has its own area on the field that resembles a small patio. Fans can be 25 feet from the sideline.

Vikings executive vice president Lester Bagley said the team is upfront with people about what they can and can't see. When the action is on the side of the field, the view is great, he said.

When it's on the other side?

"You can watch up there," he said, pointing to stadium's 8,100-square-foot video board.

Connected to the "Turf Suites," the Vikings created a private club, the Delta Sky360 Club. When the Vikings leave their locker room toward the field, they walk through the middle of the club. Fans line both sides of the pathway, hoping to get a glimpse of the players.

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Members of the Delta Sky360 Club can stand next to Vikings players as they go to and from the locker room. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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The Minnesota Vikings have corporate sponsors for their different clubs at U.S. Bank Stadium. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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U.S. Bank Stadium has numerous clubs and private spaces for corporate meetings. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

What the Panthers could add: When the Panthers' stadium was built, team founder Jerry Richardson made sure the new stadium had plenty of suites, which had started to become popular. The stadium now has 151 suites on two levels with room for 4,350 people.

Over the years, the Panthers have squeezed in more suites and clubs.

The team's ability to jam in high-dollar seats is one reason the Panthers rank in the middle of the league in terms of stadium revenue, despite being in a smaller market.

David Wagner of Charlotte-based Wagner Murray Architects has worked with the team on several stadium improvements. He said he studied the feasibility of creating field-level suites at Bank of America Stadium.

The likely place would be in the corner of the stadium, where the team leaves the field and enters the locker room, Wagner said.

The problem, he said, is that the team would likely have to remove some seats and compensate those ticket holders who bought Personal Seat Licenses.

"Field-level suites seem to be the new amenity," he said. "But in order to put something in, you have to take something away. It would be a challenge, but it's doable."

Likelihood of happening: High. There are no major hurdles, except for possibly losing a few rows of lower-level seats. Sales of existing suites show the team could likely sell them.

Wagner said another option is to build a club near the locker rooms, allowing fans to see the players up close.

The team could decide against building the actual field level suites. He said there is an easy way for the Panthers to find more space: shrink the press box.

"Press boxes everywhere are getting significantly smaller," Wagner said.

Open areas

What the Vikings have: In designing it for a more casual fan, the Vikings' stadium has an open deck for fans to congregate and an outdoor patio for premium ticket holders. It also has an interactive museum called "Vikings Voyage."

U.S. Bank Stadium has only 66,665 seats, compared with 75,412 at Bank of America Stadium.

But the Vikings say smaller is better.

"It's not about having as many seats as possible," Bagley said. "It's about maximizing revenue from other aspects, like suits and sponsorships."

U.S. Bank Stadium has a large open platform behind an end zone that's open to anyone with a ticket. Fans in nose-bleed seats can stand and mingle. The team said fans are more likely to drink and order food while standing in the open areas.

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U.S. Bank Stadium has an open platform for ticket holders to congregate and mingle. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

The Vikings' stadium also has an outdoor patio that overlooks Minneapolis skyscrapers. It's attached to the "Mystic Lake Club Purple," which is restricted to premium ticket holders.

The in-stadium seating for that club is also unusual. Instead of a traditional seat, that club lets people sit on purple leather couches, in a space that resembles a nightclub.

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Instead of traditional seats, some club members at U.S. Bank Stadium sit on couches that resemble a night club. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

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U.S. Bank Stadium has an outdoor patio for members of its club. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

"They are adding socialization opportunities," said Marc Ganis, of Sportscorp, a Chicago consultant, about teams like the Vikings. "What we have learned in the industry is that millennials, and people younger, prefer going to events where they can socialize and enjoy the entertainment."

What the Panthers could do: Bank of America Stadium was built with the assumption that a ticket holder was coming to watch a football game and not socialize. It's designed to give fans the best possible view — not places to mingle.

The Panthers have worked to change this. During the recent renovations, open-air platforms were built on top of the new escalators. The platforms don't let people watch the game, but they give fans a panoramic view of the uptown skyline.

Wagner said the Panthers explored removing seats from the corners of the upper decks to create standing-room viewing platforms. But he said it was too expensive, and the team dropped the idea.

"You are going to give up a quantity of (seats) to have a standing-room only section," he said. "Something has to be sacrificed. If you are going to take something away, what replaces it needs to generate a reasonable amount of revenue."

The Panthers have taken steps to create a more social experience, including upgrading the Wi-Fi network for the 2016 season and adding new video boards, which are similar to the ones at U.S. Bank Stadium.

Liklehood of happening: Low. As long as the Panthers are selling tickets — Carolina was eighth in the league in attendance last year, according to ESPN — there won't be a focus on trading seats for open spaces.

But the team could have another option for creating a new gathering spot for fans.

If the team builds a new headquarters in the suburbs, the team's old offices could become a new club or gathering place for fans.

Outdoor space

What the Vikings have: U.S. Bank Stadium has a large plaza outside. The plaza serves as a place for fans to gather, and the team has a building to sell beer and food. Game day kiosks also sell food.

The plaza, which the team controls, gives the Vikings more opportunities to make money before the game on concessions.

"What they are trying to do is get fans to linger longer and get there early — and spend a little more money," Wagner said.

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U.S. Bank Stadium has a large outdoor plaza, along with a replica Vikings ship and big-screen television. Steve Harrison sharrison@charlotteobserver.com

Inside the stadium, the Vikings have the interactive museum, "Vikings Voyage." It has a virtual reality fan experience plus traditional memorabilia for fans to admire. The museum is free for ticket holders.

"To be successful, you have to be more than a game day experience," Wagner said. "Whether it's retail or some other activity, people can stay more connected to the stadium."

What the Panthers could do: As a moneymaker, the Panthers already set up VIP tents on land they own outside the stadium.

But the team doesn't have enough land to let thousands of fans tailgate on their property.

The team does own 7 acres next to the stadium that has three practice fields. If Tepper moves practice fields along with the headquarters, that would free up the land, which could be used for VIP parking, a fan plaza or for other development. That development could include a larger team store or a museum.

Liklehood of happening: High. League insiders and local business leaders believe the team will seek a new headquarters and practice facility, which would free up the 7 acres.

"I think everything is on the table in terms of what you do with it," Wagner said.

More events

What the Vikings have: A roof, for starters. The team also plays on artificial turf, which can handle numerous events without getting worn out like grass.

In the next two months, U.S. Bank Stadium will host the X Games, Beyonce and Taylor Swift concerts, soccer and Vikings preseason football.

What the Panthers could do: Under Richardson's leadership, the Panthers were not aggressive in hosting non-Panthers events.

"Jerry (Richardson) did bring in a concert one time, and it took them about two months to get the field repaired," Muhleman said. "He said it wasn't worth it."

Tepper could seek more events in the stadium, like concerts and soccer games. Replacing the stadium's grass field with artificial turf would be easy and inexpensive — Mecklenburg County and the city are planning to spend $3 million to install artificial turf at Memorial Stadium. That would allow the stadium to host more events, since the plastic grass could withstand the pounding of several events a month.

The Carolina Panthers new owner, David Tepper, takes questions during his first press conference as owner, at Bank of America Stadium.

But the ability to bring in new events to Bank of America Stadium may be limited. Since 2013, the city has had an agreement with the Panthers for five rent-free days a year for other events.

The city has had some success with international soccer matches, but it hasn't used all of its rent-free days.

Liklehood of happening: Medium. The team will likely look to get as much money from the stadium as possible. If that means replacing the grass field with artificial turf, that may happen.

But Tepper may decide there is a limited market for events that need a 75,000-seat outdoor stadium.

"There aren't a lot of acts that fill a stadium," Muhleman said.

Steve Harrison: 704-358-5160, @Sharrison_Obs





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