Scott Fowler

The ‘P’ in PSL stands for ‘permanent,’ but Panthers fans wonder if that will be true

The man who brought the world the “permanent seat license” in the early 1990s never thought at the time about how impermanent those PSLs could actually be.

Max Muhleman – inventor of the PSL, a longtime Charlottean and one of the biggest reasons the Panthers were ever breathed into existence – was simply concerned with helping build a great stadium in Charlotte that was supposed to outlive everyone to whom the team sold its first tickets in 1993.

“It didn’t even cross my mind that anybody we were talking to – or even their children – would ever have to worry about the Panthers moving out of that stadium,” Muhleman said Tuesday.

Now, though, that is a legitimate worry. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team in the wake of a “workplace misconduct” investigation, and no one knows what the new owner will want to do next.

A few modest improvements to 22-year-old Bank of America stadium? A brand new stadium built elsewhere in the Charlotte area to rival the domed palaces now hosting the Atlanta Falcons and Dallas Cowboys? A move to an entirely new city?

These are the sorts of questions that keep PSL holders up at night. There are about 62,000 PSL tickets, controlled by 23,000 account holders, and those people are among the most loyal fans the team has. They have invested many thousands of dollars into their seats, buying season tickets every year as the PSL obligates them to do (it’s either that, or lose the rights to seats that can be handed down to your children).

About 52 percent of current active PSLs are “originals” – meaning that the tickets have never changed hands since the stadium opened in 1996.

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The Panthers have played in what is now known as Bank of America Stadium since 1996. The team has officially sold out the stadium for 157 straight games. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

Do the Panthers – who have sold out 157 games in a row in Charlotte – actually need a new stadium? Of course not.

“It’s a ridiculous idea,” Muhleman said. “Let’s be clear: We don’t need another stadium. This is probably the best outdoor football stadium in America.”

“It’s a great stadium in a great setting,” said original PSL holder Robert Surratt, whose favorite moment in the stadium came on a fourth-down hit by linebacker Sam Mills in 1996. “Why change anything?”

Want 2 PSLs for $10,000?

But “needing a stadium” and “wanting a stadium” are two far different things. They didn’t “need” one in Atlanta, either, but knocked down the Georgia Dome anyway in 2017 after only 25 years of service. The old Charlotte Coliseum didn’t even reach its 19th birthday before it was demolished in 2007.

Felix Sabates, a longtime fixture on the Charlotte sports scene, is involved in one of the ownership groups that will try to buy the Panthers. Sabates has told the Observer several times in interviews that he believes the team does need a new domed stadium.

And other ownership groups that have yet to surface will undoubtedly have their own ideas and a whole lot of leverage if they are the highest bidder, given that the Panthers’ “hard tether” to play in the current stadium runs out after the 2018 season. So it could be “one and done” for the Panthers in Bank of America Stadium, or it could be decades before the team ever plays its home games anywhere else.

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While about 10 percent of Bank of America Stadium is set aside for single-game tickets, the other 90 percent of the stadium is controlled by permanent-seat license holders who buy season tickets and sit in the same seats every year. David T. Foster III dtfoster@charlotteobserver.com

The Panthers declined comment for this story. But by their actions you can tell the current management believes the team isn’t going anywhere, and stories like this are causing undeserved angst.

The Panthers are still selling PSLs today, which I know in part because I got a call the other day from a Panthers sales representative trying to interest me in buying two well-located, upper-deck PSLs for $5,000 apiece.

No thanks, I said. I feel like buying PSLs right now would be like buying a gallon of milk that has no expiration date stamped on it.

Muhleman doesn’t know which way this will go. Muhleman has worked with close to a dozen NFL owners in his time, mostly spreading the PSL gospel as it helped build and refurbish stadiums across the country in places such as Pittsburgh, Tennessee, Houston and Oakland. So he is much more well-versed on the type of person who owns an NFL team than most of us.

“Owners often tend to be greedy,” Muhleman said. “They are usually taking on a lot of debt, but of course it’s their choice – and the rewards can be great. But a certain risk is always going to be there. Fan attitude can make a big difference and should be understood and respected.”

In other words, the Panthers’ new owner will be well-advised not to alienate his or her core customers.

“The fans and the team are in a relationship – almost like a marriage,” Muhleman said. “And like in any relationship, you can hurt each other’s feelings only so much. If you hurt them too badly, you may be getting a divorce.”

‘I still love the games’

Mike Charping made a career working for the Henderson County public school system in the IT department. He cashed in some savings bonds in the early 1990s to spend a total of $6,000 for three PSLs in the upper deck of what is now called Bank of America Stadium.

Since then, he has driven two hours each way from Flat Rock to Charlotte for every game.

But like all other PSL holders, Charping’s investment only covers the current stadium. It says so right on the first page of the contract he signed, which proclaims that all PSL holders have the “right and obligation” to buy tickets to every Panthers game “for as long as the team plays in the Stadium.”

If a new stadium was built, or if the Panthers ever moved, Charping knows he would be out of luck.

“I never even thought about another stadium being built, to tell you the truth, when I was buying these,” said Charping, who has attended well over 100 Panthers games at the stadium. “I still love the games. I thought at some point I might get tired of going and sell the PSLs, but I never did get tired of it. But I suppose the team might leave the stadium before I ever get to that point.”

It’s also conceivable the team could leave Charlotte entirely, lured to London or Mexico City or someplace where the NFL wants to expand its international footprint. It’s worth noting, though, that the NFL has publicly declared it would prefer that the Panthers to stay in Charlotte. A move isn’t simple, either – there is a substantial relocation fee and it would require three-fourths of other NFL owners to approve it.

Idea started with Hornets

The idea for PSLs as a way to finance stadiums actually had a humble beginning with the old Charlotte Hornets. When George Shinn beat the odds and got Charlotte an expansion NBA team in the late 1980s, he wanted to do something for the fans who had ponied up for season tickets to help his cause.

Muhleman, who was working with Shinn at the time as a sports marketing consultant, suggested giving fans what were then called “Charter Seat Rights.” Shinn indeed gave these rights to his season ticket-holders free of charge, meaning they held the rights to buy season tickets to their same seats every year – remember, the Hornets sold out every game back then – and could also sell those rights to someone else like a commodity.

Muhleman remembers looking in the Observer and seeing classified ads where people were selling those seat rights for $2,000 to $5,000 per seat. He called some of the people selling and they said they had so many calls they knew they had underpriced them.

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Max Muhleman, father of permanent seat licenses, in a 1998 file photo at Bank of America Stadium. Muhleman’s PSL concept helped Panthers owner Jerry Richardson secure the funding to build the stadium, which opened in 1996. File photo Charlotte Observer

So when the costs of an NFL expansion team kept rising, Muhleman proposed the “PSL” concept to Jerry Richardson as a way to help finance the stadium Richardson wanted to build. Fans would pay between $600 and $5,400 per ticket for the rights to buy season tickets on a “permanent” basis in the new stadium, and then they also had to buy their season tickets every year.

Gary Swallow bought one seat in a six-person original PSL group that included five other friends.

“I think we PSL investors are every bit the investors that Jerry Richardson’s minority partners are,” said Swallow, who still owns that PSL today. “And I bet we put up a greater percentage of our net worth than many of them did.”

The Panthers had sold about 50,000 PSLs – generating $52 million in deposits that Richardson could show the NFL on his bank statement – before Charlotte was ever awarded the team, in October 1993. The fans’ passion was very persuasive to other NFL owners, and the money went directly to build the stadium itself.

“’The important thing was that the money wasn’t going to the owner,” Muhleman said. “It was going to the guy running the crane or the guy pouring the cement.”

‘Let’s get three tickets’

Fans who bought PSLs back then generally never thought about the idea that a stadium that had yet to be built would one day run its course and become obsolete.

“I had lived in northern Virginia for 17 years and gotten to go to one Washington game,” said Roy Badger, another Panthers PSL holder from Charlotte. “So when I heard the Panthers were forming, I told my wife: ‘Let’s get three tickets.’ My big scheme was I would pass those three tickets on to our children, eventually. And of course, I was thinking that ‘Permanent Seat License’ actually meant ‘permanent.’”

So Badger paid $8,100 in PSL fees total for those three seats and has enjoyed them ever since. But he’s going to be angry if the Panthers ask him to buy PSLs again.

“I’d be really disappointed if the Panthers get bought and actually move out of the Charlotte area,” Badger said. “But I would be even more upset if they’re going to build a new stadium in Charlotte and they don’t consider the investment of the people who have been paying them for the past 20 years.”

John King, a PSL holder from Charlotte who has two club seats that cost him $5,000 apiece for their rights, would agree.

“I would probably not reinvest in PSLs,” King said. “I think I paid enough. I don’t think I need to pay again.”

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The tailgate scene before a Panthers home game is sometimes the best part of the whole day for Carolina fans. “Quite honestly, my favorite part of the game is the tailgating,” said John King, a Panthers PSL holder since 2003. Jeff Siner jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

It’s almost inevitable if the Panthers did build a new stadium that the new set of PSLs would cause serious sticker shock. The Dallas Cowboys’ PSL prices ranged from $2,000 to $150,000. The San Francisco 49ers’ highest-priced PSL was $80,000. The Falcons’ highest price was $45,000.

As for my opinion: I think the stadium is just fine, that the new owners should keep it, and you absolutely can’t beat its uptown location. I have covered games in nearly every NFL stadium, and the Panthers’ is the easiest one I have ever seen in terms of getting in and getting out. I hope the Panthers sign another contract with the city of Charlotte that keeps them here for decades.

One point in favor of a contract extension: If the new owner keeps the Panthers playing in Bank of America Stadium, he also gets to keep the guaranteed sellouts that go along with it.

“Who’s going to turn away 62,000 guaranteed seats?” Charping, the PSL holder from Flat Rock, asked. “You’ve got a guaranteed sellout regardless of how the Panthers play.”

And that’s true – the Panthers’ retention rate for PSL holders is close to 99 percent. Fans are fully invested, both literally and figuratively, in the team.

This team doesn’t need to go anywhere.

But that doesn’t mean it won’t. 

Scott Fowler: 704-358-5140, @scott_fowler

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