Will city's 'hard tether' keep Panthers in Charlotte? Not necessarily

CHARLOTTE, NC (Steve Harrison/The Charlotte Observer) - If a new owner wants to move the Panthers from Charlotte, how much protection does the city have to keep the NFL team?

The answer is only a little, and not for very long.

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson released a statement through the team on Sunday night that said he will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of the 2017 NFL season.

The announcement came just hours after a Sports Illustrated report outlined allegations of sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson toward former Panthers employees.

In April 2013, the Panthers and the Charlotte City Council signed an agreement that called for the public to spend $87.5 million on stadium improvements and game-day expenses. Most of that money – $75 million – was for stadium improvements such as new escalators.

In return, the city said it had a six-year "hard tether" that would keep the Panthers in Charlotte.

This current season is the fifth in the six-year tether. The 2018-19 season will be the last in the tether, which officially expires in June 2019. The tether stays in place even if the team is sold.

The contract says that if the team seeks to leave during that window, the city can take them to Mecklenburg Superior Court to prevent them from leaving.

But after June 2019, there is no requirement the team stay in Charlotte.

If the team leaves after June 2019, the contract says the city would have either the option of buying the stadium for fair market value or the Panthers would pay the city the remaining debt payment on the city's $75 million investment.

The city didn't have exact numbers of how much debt is remaining. The Panthers still plan on spending $7 million of the $75 million in the off season on improvements.

Ron Kimble, a former deputy city manager who negotiated the original "hard tether," said the city has been paying off the debt at about $7.5 million a year. That means there would be about $35 million to $40 million left on the debt.

If an owner did seek to move the team, that remaining debt would likely be an insignificant amount of money. The NFL requires teams that move to pay a relocation fee that can exceed $500 million.

The 2013 deal had a provision that could have extended the hard tether if the city contributed an additional $50 million in public money by 2015. But the Panthers and the city never seriously discussed spending more money on the stadium.

The city paid for the $75 million in stadium improvements with hotel/motel taxes that are mostly paid by tourists. Kimble said there isn't enough money in the existing tourism taxes to help pay for a new stadium, which would likely cost $1 billion or more.

Former Panthers president Danny Morrison, who resigned in February, often said the team didn't want a new stadium. He said the team likes the "classic bowl" of Bank of America Stadium, which he said has "good bones."

But a new owner might want a stadium that could host large events like Super Bowls and the NCAA Final Four. That would mean a domed stadium or a stadium with a retractable roof. The Atlanta Falcons moved into a new stadium this year that cost $1.6 billion.

Charlotte has never been considered a city at risk of losing its NFL team. The city is affluent, fast-growing and has enthusiastically supported the team since its inception in 1995.

When the city was negotiating the hard tether in 2013, city officials worried the team might be sold and moved to Los Angeles, which, at the time, had no NFL teams. Los Angeles now has two NFL teams, the Rams and the Chargers.

Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton says that he cannot provide answers to some of the questions that he is being asked about allegations against team owner Jerry Richardson. Newton says that it is too early without knowing all the facts.