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CHARLOTTE, NC (Charlotte Business Journal, Erik Spanberg) -
The city of Charlotte has ample motivation for making a deal with the Carolina Panthers — and it starts with succession plans for majority owner Jerry Richardson.
A source close to the team told Charlotte Business Journal's Erik Spanberg that Richardson, 76 years old and four years removed from heart-replacement surgery, has mandated the NFL franchise be sold two years after his death.
The revelation marks the first time details have been disclosed about the Panthers' fate beyond the life of Richardson, the founding owner.
Mark and Jon Richardson, his sons, worked as Panthers executives before Jerry Richardson forced them out in 2009. Until then, everyone assumed Mark and Jon Richardson would own and operate the team after their father's death. Since then, Richardson and the Panthers have declined to disclose succession plans.
And what does all of this talk about ownership have to do with taxpayer money helping pay for renovations at Bank of America Stadium? Simple, really. The Panthers need to be tied to the city before anyone not named Richardson becomes the owner of the franchise.
An easy way to do that is to commit to the stadium overhaul the Panthers have been working on for much of the past year. The price tag: $125 million from the city, most likely through an additional 1 percent tax on restaurant meals and bar tabs. City Council heard a presentation from Richardson Monday night during a closed session, and, based on the few remarks offered by a handful of witnesses, he seems to have made a convincing argument.
"He's a very imposing man," said Claire Fallon, a Democrat. "He gets his point across. And he's very direct, which I appreciate."
Fallon doesn't care about Sundays at the stadium personally -- "If I never saw a football game, it would be too soon," she says -- but believes the Panthers are crucial to Charlotte's identity. She also credits the team with creating business for hotels and restaurants on game weekends.
Richardson appeared at a press conference Tuesday to introduce the team's new general manager but did not comment on the stadium talks. A Panthers spokesman deferred all comment to the city. Mayor Anthony Foxx and several council members declined to comment on the closed session, but said they will discuss the negotiations in the future as the formal process begins.
Others concerned about the future of the Panthers say an investment would be worth it if, in exchange, the team commits to stay in Charlotte for the long haul. That way, the thinking goes, the sale of the franchise after Richardson's death would force the next owner to shelve any notions of relocating the team.
Charlotte has, after all, been very good to Richardson and the team. Only two games have failed to sell out at the 74,000-seat stadium since it opened, and this for a team that has had just four winning seasons in its history. And, thanks to the NFL's soaring popularity, Richardson's initial $200 million investment is now valued by Forbes at $1 billion.
There is a legitimate sentiment when critics wonder why a man who has made tens of millions of dollars, if not more, from his private football business can't pay for his own upgrades. The short answer is: Because he doesn't have to.
From the $375 million renovation at Kansas City's NFL stadium to the $975 million home of the Minnesota Vikings breaking ground next fall, taxpayers have repeatedly shown a willingness to use their money to keep their sports franchises happy.
It may be irrational, immoral or ill-conceived, but the prominence and power of sports teams, especially those in the NFL, remains substantial. And no politician wants to be the one who let the home team get away on his or her watch.
The Panthers, too, would argue that staff and player salaries have added $200 million in state and local taxes, more than offsetting the $60 million in state and local tax money used for the stadium site and related improvements to the area. Some economists dismiss the impact of a franchise to nothing more than moving discretionary income from one place to another.
Even if that answer is correct, as one executive told me recently, the nightmare scenario of driving up Interstate 77 and glimpsing an abandoned NFL stadium uptown makes business types shudder.
Exhibit A: Last year, Charlotte Chamber executive Bob Morgan described the possibility of a Panthers relocation as one that "scares the hell out of me." Plenty of people scoffed at the hint of a sale as little more than posturing, a nudge from Richardson that the city had better get on board with help for the team and its vintage 1996 stadium.
Soon enough, Richardson released a statement through the team saying he had no plans to sell or move the team. How serious he is or isn't matters less than the fact that the Panthers, as owners of the uptown stadium, have all the leverage without making any threats.
The franchise would not have to disentangle itself from a public lease or any lease; it's their stadium, after all. And Richardson, one of the most popular of the league's 32 owners among his colleagues, remains an influential NFL powerbroker who could and would win approval for a sale or relocation with minimal resistance.
Add in overtures from the mayor of Los Angeles during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte last year — Antonio Villaraigosa wanted to play matchmaker in a sale that could have reaped a sale price of more than $1 billion for Richardson and his fellow investors — and it becomes much easier to see why Mayor Foxx extended an overture to the team even before it made any requests.
Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based consultant to pro sports teams, has told me several times in recent months that anything under $200 million would be a steal for taxpayers here to keep the NFL franchise.
In smaller pro-sports cities, Ganis says, higher tax subsidies come with the territory.
Charlotte (but not the fans who paid seat-license fees) largely escaped that the first time around, but now the choice is simple: Cut a deal for $125 million with Richardson and keep the team or risk the whims of another owner who may or may not want to spend his Sundays uptown.