Panthers season-ticket holders could see their investment vanish after team is sold

CHARLOTTE, NC (Katherine Peralta/Charlotte Observer) - Even before the NFL awarded a football team to the Carolinas in 1993, Jerry Richardson had a nickname for the home field his Carolina Panthers would eventually play in: "The Stadium the Fans Built."

Fast forward more than 25 years, over 150 sellouts at Bank of America Stadium, two Panthers Super Bowl appearances and one explosive report alleging workplace misconduct by Richardson: The 81-year old owner announced last month that his team will be sold at the end of this season.

And with the Panthers under new ownership, longtime fans who helped finance the stadium could see their initial investment vanish.

Of course, plenty of unknowns remain about the new owners: Who will they be? Will they keep the team in Charlotte? Will they want to build a new stadium if they stay?

Per the original agreement with the Panthers, permanent seat licenses are tied to the uptown stadium, not to the team. "Licensee has the right and obligation to purchase the related season tickets for all home games ... for the franchise for as long as the team plays in the Stadium," the original agreement reads.

That means that if the Panthers leave Charlotte, PSLs would expire, according to Max Muhleman, a Charlotte sports consultant who helped create the PSL concept that funded Bank of America Stadium. Today, PSL holders own about 62,000 seats, making up almost 90 percent of Bank of America Stadium.

Other teams went on to copy the PSL concept when building their stadiums in the late 1990s and early 2000s, including CenturyLink Field in Seattle, FedExField in Cleveland and Heinz Field in Pittsburgh, to name a few. Other new ones such as the $1.5 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta have relied on a combination of taxpayer dollars and private financing.

Richardson built the Panthers' home field, which opened in 1996 as Ericcson Stadium, with financing from PSL deposits and a bank loan (the city of Charlotte gifted the uptown property on which the stadium sits.) Experts note that using PSLs is a way to cut down on the controversial process of using taxpayer dollars to finance stadium construction.

"New ownership will want to reissue (PSLs)," in the event it decides to build a new stadium, said Nels Popp, a professor of sport administration at UNC-Chapel Hill.

"The hardcore fans are going to say, 'That's not fair. We've shelled out all of this money and now we have to buy it again? That doesn't seem right.'"

That's the case in St. Louis, a city that saw its NFL team move to Los Angeles in 2016, although under the same ownership group. In a complicated ongoing legal battle, longtime fans who helped finance the original stadium say they're owed a reimbursement for the deposits they paid for their PSLs.

Panthers fan Mike Charping of Flat Rock, near Asheville, is an original Panthers PSL owner who estimates he has attended over 200 home games, including ones during miserable seasons when the team had records of 1-15 and 2-14.

"PSL owners financed the building of the stadium. I think that is huge and deserves consideration with the new owners," Charping said.

David Carter, executive director of the University of Southern California's Marshall Sports Business Institute, said that if new owners decide to build a new stadium and issue new PSLs, they should do what they can to appease the team's original season-ticket holders.

"It would be wise for new ownership not to alienate this core – and financially important – fan base as they will prove instrumental, not only in terms of revenue generation, but from a public relations perspective," Carter said. "Alienating this base could hinder the franchise long term."

Building a new, state-of-the-art stadium someday would not only open up the possibility for Charlotte to someday host major events like Super Bowls, but it would also produce fresh, lucrative revenue streams for the new owners.

Think more fan shops, bars, restaurants and, importantly, premium seating, from which teams derive far more revenue than regular seats, Popp said.

"You'd see a major change in the type of seats offered," at a new Charlotte NFL stadium, he added.

It is possible that new owners decide to stick with Bank of America Stadium, at least for the time being.

The Panthers are wrapping up a major renovation that kicked off in 2013, when city council voted to give the Panthers $87.5 million, of which roughly $75 million has gone toward renovations. In return, the team agreed to remain in Charlotte for at least six years, with penalties if it moves in the four years after that. The Panthers, who declined to comment for this story, kicked in at least $100 million of their own, more than initially planned, for the renovations.

Muhleman believes the stadium has been sufficiently modernized with large video boards, escalators and other amenities in the last four years. He said he sees no reason for the team to leave the 22-year-old stadium.

Panthers fan Vic Lisciani was a longtime supporter of the Chicago Bears before a new job brought him to Charlotte in 1994. Bears season tickets, at the time, had a 12-year waiting list, so when Richardson presented the idea to buy PSLs to fund the stadium, Lisciani said he decided to buy. In the Panthers' early days, Lisciani would take his take his 10-year-old son to the games uptown.

Lisciani acknowledged his fellow PSL owners are worried about what happens under new owners. But Lisciani said he's confident the team will stay put.

"Part of that $2.3 billion (the Panthers' net worth, according to Forbes) is for the purchase of the stadium. I don't think they would want to walk away from the stadium."