CHARLOTTE, N.C. (Hannah Smoot and Alaina Getzenberg | The Charlotte Observer) - The Panthers’ home attendance reached its lowest point of the decade last year, and fans say Carolina’s record is to blame.
“We’re the type to stay until the end of the game,” season ticket holder Mark Slaven said. “This year was probably the first year that we consistently left early — and often at halftime.”
For the season that just ended in a 5-11 record, on average 72,220 people attended Panthers home games, according to the league’s official attendance data. That’s down from the decade peak of 74,056 in 2015, when the Panthers went 15-1 and made their second Super Bowl appearance in franchise history.
While the Panthers’ attendance ranked 9th around the league in 2019, the team also had the 10th largest drop in attendance numbers from the prior year.
And attendance woes are not just a Panthers issue — NFL teams on average have seen a decline in attendance.
In the Panthers’ case, actual attendance for their latest season was likely significantly less than official attendance, which includes people who paid for tickets but didn’t attend the games.
Swatches of empty blue seatbacks from kickoff through the end of games were common at Bank of America in 2019. The Panthers did not respond to a request for comment about their attendance issues.
Sports business experts say there could be several reasons for the drop, but Panthers fans say there’s really only one cause.
”It’s just because the product on the field was horrible and frustrating,” Slaven said. “Attendance got progressively worse throughout the season.”
And the Panthers raised ticket prices last year, which also could account for some of the lower attendance.
The Observer reported in February 2019 that prices of tickets would increase on about 61% of the seats that year, with increases ranging from $3 to $5 per ticket in the upper bowl and $4 to $20 per ticket in selected sections in the lower bowl.
The Panthers’ 2019 season was an all-around disappointing one for a variety of reasons, as optimism and dreams of the playoffs ended early for the team.
Quarterback Cam Newton, the team’s biggest star, missed all but the first two games (both losses) due to injury. Not having the starting quarterback for almost the entire season had a significant impact on the team and expectations, putting a ceiling on potential and excitement.
And as Newton remained sidelined, coach Ron Rivera was fired with four games to go in the year.
TV VS. STADIUM SEATS
Other sports leagues — such as Minor League Baseball — have put an emphasis on the game-day experience regardless of on-field performance, UNC-Chapel Hill sports administration professor Nels Popp told the Observer.
That’s because sports teams have to compete with the TV experience, Popp said.
“If you’re sitting in the upper level of Bank of America (Stadium), you’re not going to have a better view than in your living room,” he said.
Teams can combat that by offering perks for fans at the stadium — including festivals or social spaces like sit-down bars.
The Panthers recently announced the creation of another social space at Bank of America Stadium. The team is building 14 field-level suites behind the west end zone, along with a private outdoor area for suite owners.
Those fans will have a “neighborhood area behind the seats,” vice president of ticket sales Joe LaBue told reporters recently. The construction displaced around 380 season ticket accounts, and just under 900 seats.
It’s not just the Panthers — NFL teams on average have seen a decline in attendance. Average NFL home game attendance is at a decade-low at 66,151, according to ESPN numbers.
In fact, most sports leagues have seen dropping attendance in recent years, said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. That’s why teams need to concentrate on putting together a game day experience full of “Instagram moments,” Rishe said.
“The in-game experience really has to be unique and special,” he said.
But for many Panthers fans, they just want to see their team win.
Frank Katz is an original season-ticket holder, but said he hasn’t been to home games regularly in the last several years.
When Newton got hurt early in the season, the games weren’t the same, he said. “People want to see winners.”
Slaven, also an original season ticket holder, said his family tailgates before the home games. But later in the season, his usually full parking lot was regularly half-empty.
He said he wouldn’t be surprised if there were 25,000 empty seats at the 75,525-seat stadium during games later in the season.
Going into next season, fans looking for wins may be disappointed — expectations on the field most likely won’t be high.
With new head coach Matt Rhule leading the way — a coach who has experience rebuilding the last two teams he was in charge of (Temple and Baylor) — it would not be a surprise if the new season for Carolina is a transition year into the team’s next phase.
Winning doesn’t usually come in times of rebuilding or change.
There is uncertainty at the quarterback position with Newton’s recent health issues. Fan favorite tight end Greg Olsen announced Thursday his time with the Panthers is over. And the team will feature a very different looking defense with popular linebacker Luke Kuechly retiring and seven defensive starters hitting free agency this offseason.
The Panthers will make an effort to retain some of the players. But in a strong NFC South, Carolina will have a tough road ahead.
Slaven isn’t optimistic that the Panthers will see a winning record this coming season. And that could bring another drop in attendance numbers. But he’s hopeful the team could turn around in another year or two.