Carolina Panthers

Will Carolina Panthers keep training camp in Spartanburg? ‘If it isn’t broke ... ’

Carolina Panthers training camp has drawn crowds to Wofford College in Spartanburg every year since 1995, none bigger than those in the summer of 2016 after the team’s trip to Super Bowl 50.
Carolina Panthers training camp has drawn crowds to Wofford College in Spartanburg every year since 1995, none bigger than those in the summer of 2016 after the team’s trip to Super Bowl 50. dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

Anna Judy was working at Groucho’s two years ago when Carolina Panthers linebacker Luke Kuechly dropped in to the deli — famous for its Formula 45 sauce — in downtown Spartanburg.

Kuechly brought customers doughnuts from the nearby Krispy Kreme, took pictures, signed autographs and grabbed a to-go sandwich, Judy recalled.

The appearance was part of a takeover of Spartanburg businesses by several Panthers players — a move aimed at exciting the locals about the team’s annual arrival for training camp.

Judy didn’t need any marketing gimmicks to be reminded of the Panthers’ impact on Spartanburg businesses. During four years as a Groucho’s waitress, Judy has observed an increase in business during the three weeks the team’s in town.

Plus, Judy says it’s just cool to have an NFL team down the street at Wofford College, which is where the Panthers have been every summer since 1995, when former owner Jerry Richardson began holding training camp at his alma mater.

But with the Panthers set to report to Wofford this week, Judy admits being “kind of worried” about the team’s future in Spartanburg since new owner David Tepper took over for Richardson. A lot of local leaders are worried, too.

“It’s a big Spartanburg thing. Everyone gets really excited about it,” Judy said. “They’ve been here for so long. We look forward to it.”

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Tepper, whose $2.275 billion purchase closed July 9, has not specifically addressed the Panthers’ future in Spartanburg.

But given his comments about the need for a new practice facility and accompanying mixed-use development, it’s not a stretch to think Tepper would hold training camp at the new complex.

The Panthers’ agreement with Wofford runs through 2019. Even if the team had an interest in breaking the agreement early, construction of the new facility would almost certainly take longer than that.

Both school and team officials said they would not comment on a contractual matter.

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A trend toward home

Fewer NFL teams are choosing to go away for training camp. This year 21 of the 32 teams will stay home for camp, compared with just nine clubs in 2001.

Spartanburg and Wofford leaders don’t want the Panthers to become part of the trend. City and school officials want to meet with Tepper in coming weeks to discuss keeping the team’s camp in Spartanburg.

“We’re completely cognizant of the fact that with the new owner, there’s new ideas,” said Allen Smith, president of the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce. “But the fact of the matter of is over the past two years 234,000 people have come to Panthers’ training camp at Spartanburg.”

Billionaire hedge-fund manager David Tepper, the new owner of the Carolina Panthers, discusses the franchise's need to upgrade practice facilities and stadium during his introductory press conference.

Panthers’ training camp has generated a $13 million economic impact in Spartanburg each of the past two years, according to a study by Clemson’s parks, recreation and tourism department. The Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau commissioned the Clemson report.

“If leadership is gauging camp success based off fan attendance,” Smith said, “this will be one of those situations where if it isn’t broke, let’s not fix it.”

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An estimated 100,000 fans attended Panthers camp last summer, the second-highest total in the team’s 23 years in Spartanburg. More than 135,000 fans came out in 2016 following the Panthers’ run to Super Bowl 50.

None of those fans paid to attend the practices.

Last year the Panthers instituted a $5 admission fee for their FanFest at Bank of America Stadium, with proceeds going to their charitable foundation.

Smith noted that even a small charge at the Spartanburg practices could bring in “substantial revenue” if the team draws like it has in recent summers.

No more ‘natural fit’

Having camp at Wofford was a natural fit for Richardson, an All-American receiver for the Terriers in 1959 who is in the school’s Hall of Fame. The Panthers’ arrival in 1995 brought improved practice facilities to Wofford and a certain cachet to a community that had lost the minor-league Spartanburg Phillies the previous year.

The Panthers’ ties to Wofford were further strengthened in 2009 with the hiring of president Danny Morrison, the former Wofford athletics director and Southern Conference commissioner.

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But with the departures of Morrison and Richardson, the Panthers no longer have a direct connection to Wofford among their leadership.

“We understand the affinity for Wofford that Jerry Richardson had,” Smith said. “We understand that Mr. Tepper went somewhere else … Carnegie Mellon.”

But local leaders hope to sell Tepper on the benefits of keeping training camp in Spartanburg. They’ll emphasize the proximity to Charlotte, the strong attendance and the importance of keeping a Panthers’ presence in South Carolina.

Wofford president Nayef H. Samhat has reached out to Tepper to let him know the school wants to continue as the training camp host of the Panthers.

“It is an important event for not just Wofford. It’s about our entire community and the upstate and even the state of South Carolina,” school spokeswoman Laura Corbin said. “We’re bringing in tourists here and showcasing our community and our college.”

‘Definitely ... different’

Veteran linebacker Thomas Davis has been going to Spartanburg every summer since the Panthers drafted him in the first round in 2005.

“It would definitely be weird to imagine training camp being in a different place, knowing that we’ve been down there so many years and all the stuff that we’ve been able to do as an organization right there in Spartanburg,” Davis said. “It’s definitely going to be different if that changes.”

The Panthers report to Wofford on Wednesday, with their first practice set for Thursday at Gibbs Stadium. The practice follows the annual kickoff party that includes the mayor delivering a football to get camp underway.

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Officials hope it’s not for the final time.

“Panthers training camp has become part of our local culture, our local fabric,” the Spartanburg chamber’s Smith said. “Of course we’re working hard and very diligently to make sure they renew that contract at the end of 2019.”

Meanwhile, about a half-mile away at Groucho’s, Judy hopes sometime in the next three weeks to get the Kuechly autograph she missed out on two years ago while working. Judy, a spring Converse College graduate, plans to make it to at least one practice, as she does every year.

“It’s really cool. It’s fun to go and stop by and watch them play,” Judy said.

“I think it does Spartanburg a lot of good.”

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