Scott Fowler

Don’t miss Carolina Panthers’ free Fan Fest on Friday night

Spectators at the Carolina Panthers’ Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium next Friday can get closer to the players than usual, for free.
Spectators at the Carolina Panthers’ Fan Fest at Bank of America Stadium next Friday can get closer to the players than usual, for free. jsiner@charlotteobserver.com

One of the best things the Carolina Panthers do each season is Fan Fest. And if you have never gone before, you should try it out this Friday night.

First of all, the price is right: It’s free. You can hardly ever get into Bank of America Stadium for free.

Second, the team has gradually tweaked the Fan Fest formula over the years, now settling on one that is far better for the people it is supposed to cater to – the fans.

The event used to be held in the stifling heat of a summer afternoon. Now it starts at 6:30 p.m. (with practice starting at 7:30 p.m.) A fireworks and laser show follows at 9:30 p.m.

The event used to be officially limited to PSL holders. Now anyone can come.

All of the players are told to stick around and sign autographs after the practice. This allows every fan to at least get someone’s signature, although your likelihood of getting Cam Newton’s isn’t great given the high demand.

But you are guaranteed to get a 2015 team roster photo card with a 2015 schedule and a look at the Panthers for free without having to drive to Spartanburg.

It’s the only NFL bargain you’re going to get in August. I’ve been on record many times criticizing the league for forcing its teams charge full price for exhibition games – real money for fake football. That has gone on far too long.

But for Fan Fest, the price is right. The mood is relaxed. And even though the players don’t ever have a 22-person, full-out scrimmage – that was cut out of Fan Fest many years ago because of the injury risk – you can see enough to keep even a casual fan occupied before the fireworks.

One tip: if you want the full experience, come early. Stadium gates open at 6:30 p.m. with on-field performances by the TopCats, Sir Purr and PurrCussion. The Fan Fest Sponsor Village, located at the North Gate, includes tents with interactive games, inflatables and giveaways and is also worth checking out – especially if you have younger children. Strollers and video cameras are permitted inside the stadium for Fan Fest only.

WAITER, A LITTLE MORE WHINE: I have never heard even a malfunctioning race car whine as loudly as Tom Brady, Bob Kraft and the New England Patriots organization. “Deflategate” tarnishes everyone it touches. Your protestations are only making it worse. Accept the four-game suspension. Get on with your lives.

Of course, that’s never going to occur. The NFL and Brady are headed to federal court now as Brady tries to get his suspension overturned before New England opens the season Sept. 10. Whatever happens, though, there’s no doubt that while Brady is a certain hall of famer, fans of the other 31 NFL teams will never look at him in the same way.

MARSH, JONES HONORED: Congrats to swim coach David Marsh and gold-medalist swimmer Cullen Jones. They were the two representatives from Charlotte’s SwimMAC Carolina selected to USA Swimming and Speedo’s joint list of the 30 most influential people in swimming over the past 30 years.

Jones is a four-time Olympic medalist, while Marsh once coached Auburn to multiple national titles and has directed SwimMAC during its ascendance to what I think is the top swim club in the country.

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