‘Stadium extortion’ arguments for Panthers ‘folly,’ industry experts say – except one

‘Stadium extortion’ arguments for Panthers ‘folly,’ industry experts say – except one

CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - Sunday's Super Bowl in Minneapolis will serve as a visible reminder of what Charlotte and the next Carolina Panthers owner won't have – a gleaming domed stadium capable of hosting Super Bowls and Final Fours.

Drawing major sporting events to Charlotte would be one way for Jerry Richardson's successor to pitch a new stadium – a ploy one industry expert refers to as "stadium extortion."

But there are other ways the Panthers' new owner could try to leverage taxpayers and public officials – including threatening to move to a new city, threatening to move to a new site in Charlotte, or requesting major upgrades to the current facility by calling it inadequate.

Two industry leaders believe none of those will work – but they do see moves the next Panthers' owner should consider to improve the 22-year-old Bank of America Stadium.

A look at the potential arguments new owners could make, and their viability:

1. "We need a new stadium built outside Uptown Charlotte."

Talk of this scenario surfaced recently after Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates, who is part of a local group that is preparing a bid for the team, suggested the Panthers need a new domed stadium with parking for 20,000 to make the possible sale feasible.

The Panthers are pretty well landlocked at their current site, so a push for a new stadium and acres of parking lots might mean a move to wide open spaces – such as the Carowinds area, for example.

TO MOVE (NEAR) SOUTH CAROLINA, THAT'S JUST FOLLY.

If a Panthers owner wants a new stadium outside of the city, they could look to the surrounding counties, or even where the minor league Charlotte Knights played until their 2013 move from York County.

At least one industry expert who has studied the Charlotte market doesn't believe the Panthers need a new stadium – in downtown, near Carowinds or otherwise.

Tom Regan, graduate director of the University of South Carolina's sport and entertainment management department, says a move out of Uptown would buck the trend of teams and municipalities building in-town stadiums to spur economic development and increase the tax base.

"To move (near) South Carolina, that's just folly," Regan said. "You're going to move it to Carowinds, really? What infrastructure do you have there? What roads do you have there? … Ask Santa Clara how well that works."

Regan was referring to the attendance issues that have plagued the 49ers since they moved 45 miles south of San Francisco in 2014.

2. "A new domed stadium will draw frequent major events."

Sabates told the Observer this month the Panthers need a new domed stadium to host major events such as Super Bowls and Final Fours.

But there has been little discussion among sports and business leaders in recent years about bringing those types of events to Charlotte, which hosts college football kickoff games, the ACC football championship and the Belk Bowl at Bank of America Stadium.

YOU'RE ONLY GOING TO HOST A SUPER BOWL ONCE EVERY DECADE, IF YOU'RE LUCKY. YOU'RE ONLY GOING TO HOST A FINAL FOUR ONCE EVERY DECADE, IF YOU'RE LUCKY.

"There's no doubt if you have a dome in those situations, that lends itself in to host Final Fours. But there's a lot of other areas to generate revenues," said Regan, who questioned the cost-benefit of trying to land major sporting events.

"Because you're only going to host a Super Bowl once every decade, if you're lucky," Regan said. "You're only going to host a Final Four once every decade, if you're lucky."

3. "A major retrofit on Bank of America Stadium is necessary."

NFL officials have clearly demonstrated that when it comes to Super Bowls, if you build it they will come.

Super Bowl LII between New England and Philadelphia will be played at U.S. Bank Stadium, a new, $1 billion-plus downtown stadium featuring sparkling luxury suites, locally inspired concessions and a design that allows natural light into the dome.

Next year's Super Bowl will be in the Atlanta Falcons' Mercedes-Benz Stadium, which cost even more ($1.5 billion) than the Vikings' home, has more luxury suites and boasts a retractable roof (when it works).

Miami didn't build a new stadium, but the NFL still rewarded south Florida with a Super Bowl after the Dolphins spent $100 million (as part of a $500 million total renovation) to put a partial roof on sun-baked Hard Rock Stadium.

Regan said it would be possible to retrofit Bank of America Stadium with a dome or retractable roof, although it wouldn't be cheap.

It cost $150 million to add a retractable roof to Arthur Ashe Stadium at the National Tennis Center in New York in 2016, and Regan estimated it would take about $400 million to enclose Bank of America Stadium.

Regan ran a market impact study for the Panthers before the Charlotte City Council voted in 2013 to give the Panthers $87.5 million, with $75 million going toward stadium renovations.

In return for that money, the Panthers agreed to a six-year tether that would keep them in Charlotte through at least next season, with penalties if the team moves in the four years after that.

Regan believes the improvements – which have included new escalators, renovated suites and enhanced premium-seating and club areas – make the stadium in its current form a strong asset to perspective buyers, especially considering the facility is paid for.

4. "If you don't give us what we want, we'll find a city that will."

When former team president Danny Morrison sought public money for stadium renovations, city officials expressed concern over the team's future in Charlotte because of Richardson's age and rumblings that investors might try to move the Panthers to Los Angeles.

Five years later, L.A. has two NFL teams that in 2020 will move into the mother of all new stadiums – a $2.6 billion complex that will cover nearly 300 acres and host the opening and closing ceremonies for the 2028 Olympics.

But even with L.A. off the table, there are several cities that could serve as bargaining chips if an owner is so inclined.

Start with the three cities abandoned by the NFL (St. Louis, San Diego and Oakland), throw in London, Orlando and San Antonio, and you have what Vanderbilt sports economist John Vrooman calls the "all-too-familiar NFL franchise relocation venue extortion game."

Vrooman says NFL teams now are all trying to improve cellular service and Internet connectivity to make for a better "new media" experience in the so-called "smart stadiums."

He said the Panthers addressed those issues with the renovations paid for with the five-year, public-private financing agreement.

Given those tech upgrades and other improvements, Vrooman can't see the Panthers' next owner taking the team anywhere any time soon.

"Keep pounding, Carolina," Vrooman said in an email.

"Given the current ownership structure of the Panthers and ongoing renovations (and lease agreements) at BOA, the new majority ownership partner will probably be from or have strong financial ties to sweet home Carolina, and the Panthers are not likely to engage a credible franchise-relocation stadium-extortion game for at least another decade."

5. "We've upgraded, but there are still things city could help us do."

According to Regan, the sports management expert from the University of South Carolina, this is the most realistic and sensible option for the Panthers' next owner.

In addition to the city's contributions, the Panthers have spent $97.5 million of their own money during the five-year renovation, according to Scott Paul, the team's executive director for stadium operations.

The Panthers spent $34 million – more than a third of the total – overhauling their 151 club-level suites in 2015.

Regan said luxury areas are an excellent new revenue stream, with field-level suites currently in vogue. The so-called bunker suites – the Vikings call theirs turf suites – offer fans a close-up view of the action in exchange for a premium fee.

While there wouldn't seem to be room for field-level suites at Bank of America Stadium in its current configuration, Regan said the Panthers could look to add suites elsewhere. The current press box – with midfield views from the 400 level – would seem a likely starting point.

The Panthers' 151 suites are more than the 131 the Vikings have at U.S. Bank Stadium, but fewer than the 185 suites inside the Falcons' Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

Regan has been to every NFL stadium and every Major League Baseball stadium but one. He compared Bank of America Stadium to Dodger Stadium, saying both have a classic look and have been well maintained.

And while it's worth noting Regan has worked with the Panthers, he doesn't see much that Bank of America Stadium is lacking.

"When I look at stadiums on the East Coast – outside of the domes," Regan said, "Charlotte has one of the nicer stadiums."