Panther Tracks

For Charlotte’s first NFC Championship Game, expect big, rowdy crowds

Fans cheer Panthers to practice

Fans lined the entire fence as the Carolina Panthers went to practice today, 01.21.16.
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Fans lined the entire fence as the Carolina Panthers went to practice today, 01.21.16.

As a forecast winter storm waits in the wings, Charlotte is bracing for more tailgating, more security and possibly the largest Carolina Panthers crowd ever as the team prepares to take on the Arizona Cardinals in its first-ever home NFC Championship game.

Adding even more appeal to Sunday’s festivities: At 16-1, the Panthers are the winningest team in the NFL this season.

A winter storm slated to hit the Charlotte region early Friday is raising questions about some of the game’s surrounding events, such as the Friday pep rally in Romare Bearden Park that was canceled Thursday after a state of emergency was issued for the region. It’s not clear yet how much weather might impact fan travel or pregame parties.

But game day is supposed to be sunny with the high in the mid-40s, and zero chance of precipitation.

“I don’t think people fully grasp the magnitude of what it means to finally be hosting the NFC Championship game,” said Zack Luttrell, founder of Panthers fan group Roaring Riot. “It took us 20 years to get one, and it’s pretty awesome to have Charlotte on the main stage.”

City manager Ron Carlee has declared Sunday’s game an “extraordinary event,” which is defined as a large-scale event of national or international significance that merits increased security.

During last week’s home playoff game against the Seattle Seahawks, also an extraordinary event, 15 people were ejected and three people arrested at Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers said. Details were not available, but ejections or arrests are usually for disorderly behavior or related offenses.

The number of ejections is typical, but “three arrests is high for us,” and probably close to the highest number this season, said Scott Paul, executive director of stadium operations.

This weekend’s game will attract even more visitors, said the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority. Thanks to last weekend’s game, uptown hotels had their biggest Saturday night performance for a Panthers home game in five years, the CRVA said.

Occupancy was nearly 96 percent, and the average daily rate was $194, the group said. That compares with an occupancy of 55 to 60 percent and an average rate of $120 for a Sunday prime-time regular-season game. A spot check online shows many uptown hotels were doubling their prices for Sunday night.

“We think the city will be full again. We’ll probably have a lot more visitors this time because we think there will be a strong Arizona desire to be there as well,” said Tom Murray, chief executive officer of the CRVA.

The game starting nearly six hours later than early afternoon games means fans have more time to tailgate, and more people will show up. The Roaring Riot is expecting around 600 visitors to its massive tailgate on Cedar Street Sunday, about 100 more than last week, Luttrell said.

On a normal 1 p.m. game-day Sunday, church services or other commitments often make it difficult for fans to get uptown to tailgate early, Luttrell said. The group’s tailgate this Sunday starts at noon, and partyers proceed into the stadium at 5:45 p.m.

To prepare for the extra hours and fans, Roaring Riot plans to increase its food options catered by Dilworth Neighborhood Grille by 30 to 40 percent, Luttrell said. It’s adding two extra security guards, an extra Porta-Jon and three to four more NoDa kegs.

More tailgating naturally means more drinking, but Luttrell said the longer tailgate is also a place fans go to get even more hyped up for the game.

“In that environment, doing Panthers chants and getting pumped up for the game … it should be pretty exciting,” he added.

But those hosting tailgate parties should exercise caution: Because of “escalated occupancy” from the game, companies like Preferred Parking say they will be cracking down on parking rules uptown.

The company said that means:

▪  An attendant will be stationed at certain Preferred locations.

▪ No speakers or DJs are allowed.

▪ No RVs or generators are allowed.

▪ All locations will close one hour after the game.

Also because of the later start time, bars and restaurants in and around uptown are expecting to be slammed. Usually pregame business is limited for 1 p.m. games since alcohol sales aren’t permitted before noon on Sundays in North Carolina.

At All American Pub, Slate and Hot Taco – the side-by-side strip in South End owned by the Bottle Cap Group – Sunday will be an “all-hands-on-deck” affair, said Morgan Conroy, the group’s marketing director.

The group is tripling the bars’ security staff and recruiting bartenders from its eight other Charlotte venues such as Brazwells to work Sunday. It’s also taking out the pool tables at Slate to accommodate more guests (something usually only done on New Year’s Eve) and is adding a heated tent next to Slate that can hold 700 people and will have jumbo projectors and a DJ.

“We’re very excited and so thankful that the Panthers are doing this well. We couldn’t ask for anything more from this team this year,” Conroy said.

The Panthers-Cardinals game at Bank of America Stadium starts at 6:40 p.m.

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta

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