- How sports betting, cash and politics factored into that Jerry Richardson statue staying up, and why the Panthers aren’t moving, but changes are coming to their stadium, including a potential new tenant from Major League Soccer. David Tepper’s busy first month as an NFL owner
SPARTANBURG, S.C. — Halfway through practice, the music began again. “Walk It Talk It” by Migos featuring Drake blared at Wofford College’s Gibbs Stadium and David Tepper was feeling it.
Tepper was dressed like he had just taken a trip to the Carolina Panthers’ equipment room. A team-issued black dry-fit shirt. Gray shorts. Light gray Nike shoes. A black Panthers hat with an electric blue bill. And for about seven seconds he danced a little jig along the sideline near the 35-yard line. Less than a month into his tenure as owner of the Carolina Panthers, it’s already out with the old and in with the new.
A plane flew overhead for most of the Panthers’ first practice here. Wade’s Restaurant, a Spartanburg staple for more than 50 years, purchased a banner that read KEEP CAMP IN SPARTANBURG. Panthers camp is a boon for the city of Spartanburg and Wofford College, much more than it is for the Panthers in an age when the majority of NFL teams now remain on site for training camp. The teams is only here, at this liberal arts college of 1,700, because its (arguably) most famous alumnus, Jerry Richardson, founded the team. But Tepper isn’t beholden to Wofford. This is likely one of the last years the Panthers will be at Wofford.
Their contract runs through 2019, and though Wofford and Spartanburg desperately want the Panthers to stay, they lack the leverage they were once afforded by Richardson. Additionally, Tepper has strongly hinted at building a facility just south of Charlotte, near the state border, that would be the future home of all Panthers practices for years to come.
“I view this as the Carolina Panthers in both states,” Tepper said in July when asked about overhauling the practice facilities, “so we have to think about where we’re putting things.”
Several people within the organization are excited about the opportunities fresh eyes (with a net worth of $11 billion) will afford a team that has done things on the cheap side for a quarter-century. Bank of America Stadium will likely remain, but home likely won’t look the same, and a soccer team could soon be sharing it. There’s also more clarity on why that 13-foot statue of Richardson is now a fixture at the north gate. It’s not quite a month into Tepper’s tenure as an NFL owner, and things are about to change.
Tepper sent shockwaves when, at the end of a press conference two weeks ago, he said he was “contractually obligated to keep that statue as it is.” What was said, and how it was said, created more questions than answers.
According to a league source I spoke with, the statue will likely never go anywhere. Any workarounds, like building a bigger statue beside it, or draping something over it, or even leaving it behind if the team moves to a new stadium in the Carolinas … all of these options were considered.
“As long as that team is in the Carolinas, which will likely be forever because Mr. Tepper has no intention of moving them,” the source says, “as long as they are the Carolina Panthers, that statue needs to be there.”
Just like you’d have no need for wedding portraits of your home’s previous owners hanging in the foyer, Tepper has no use for a massive statue of Richardson sandwiched between two panthers. On top of anyone’s personal feelings about the statue, it’s in the middle of the access to one of the stadium’s three main entrances. But the reason why Tepper is stuck with a statue of the disgraced former owner is three-fold.
• From the jump, it was made clear to all interested buyers this was non-negotiable. The statue—that two years ago those around Richardson claimed he didn’t even want—had become part of the deal. Although I was told during the process that the sale would be an auction to the highest bidder, Tepper reportedly had the lowest offer among the three finalists (though the billionaire was ready to cut a check any day and the other bidders were searching for financing). If you’re coming in with a lower bid and this statue is near and dear to the heart of the seller, is it worth rocking the boat?
• This timeline: On Friday, May 11, Tepper emerged as the likely winning bidder for the Panthers. On Monday, May 14, the Supreme Court cleared the way for states to individually legalize sports gambling. On Tuesday, May 15, Richardson agreed to sell the team to Tepper for $2.275 billion.
“I think everyone who owns a top-four professional sports team just basically saw the value of their team double," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban said on CNBC on May 14, after the Supreme Court ruling came down. It seems Tepper was expecting the Supreme Court to vote the way it did, and his hedge fund, Appaloosa Management, had been getting in position. If Tepper wanted to haggle about the statue at this point, it wouldn’t have been in his best interest.
According to a Gurufocus.com article in early July, Appaloosa’s casino holdings have operating margins better than 70% of its peers. It bought 5.8 million more shares in Caesars Entertainment last quarter. It expanded its stake in MGM by 74% last quarter. And it also recently purchased 1.35 million shares in Boyd Gaming.
NFL rules bar team owners from running casinos, but they can hold investments in casinos. A league spokesman told the New York Post in May that Tepper’s holdings were vetted “to the satisfaction of ownership” when he became a minority owner of the Steelers in 2009.
“Eventually it’s going to hit North and South Carolina,” Tepper said of sports betting to the Bible Belt. “It has to, from a revenue standpoint. You have issues with paying teachers and other things down here, and tax revenue, so it’s inevitable.”
It appears that Tepper, while increasing his positions in various gaming entities, won an NFL team with a low bid while signing the paperwork before anyone could calculate just what a franchise in the era of open sports betting is worth.
• Ultimately, Richardson made a difficult decision easy for Tepper. Born in Pittsburgh, then a New Jerseyan for most of his life before taking up residence in the no-income-tax state of Florida, Tepper isn’t overly familiar with Charlotte, its people or its vibe. From the outside looking in, it seemed to him that the area was split on the Richardson statue. On one side, people saw him as a vile man who harassed multiple employees, and someone with that legacy shouldn’t be honored with a statue. On the other, Tepper saw fans who remembered what Charlotte was like before the NFL came to town and would forever hold Richardson in high esteem for what he did for the region.
If Tepper made the decision to keep the statue, he would risk ticking off a large portion of the fan base. If Tepper made the decision to take it down, he’d risk upsetting the other group of fans, and be viewed as disrespectful to his predecessor, who welcomed Tepper into his home at least once during the sale process.
Tepper decided he could deal with it and move forward. He promises a new era for the Carolina Panthers, one free of non-disclosure agreements and open to all employees. Interestingly, though, in two press conferences since winning the bid and a commencement speech before it, Tepper has yet to utter “Jerry” or “Richardson.”
For $1 per year, the Panthers lease nearly 34 acres of prime uptown real estate from the city of Charlotte. The stadium’s footprint makes up 15 acres of that while the practice field area is seven total acres.
The walk from the stadium locker room to the practice field can be made in five minutes, a convenience likely unrivaled in the NFL. That’s about the only positive thing to say about the Panthers’ practice facilities. Carolina practices in the open air with several taller buildings surrounding it, offering little privacy from spectators or anything more sinister. In inclement weather, the team takes buses to the convention center where players practice in a ballroom with 29-foot ceilings and (but?) direct access to the NASCAR Hall of Fame.
Bank of America Stadium is likely to stay for years to come (more on that later), but it seems to be a fait accompli that the Panthers won’t have such a short walk to practice much longer. A practice facility at the state line will pit North and South Carolina governments against one another to see who can give the Panthers more money for state-of-the-art facilities.
Tepper could look to build his own Star. In Frisco, Texas, the Dallas Cowboys built a 91-acre sports and entertainment center that serves as the Cowboys’ practice facilities, team headquarters, a host to a Major League Lacrosse team and several restaurants and shops. In that scenario, Tepper would build the football facilities there with entertainment options while also bringing an enhanced tailgating experience to those seven now-open acres in uptown Charlotte.
“If we do move the practice field next to some place other than right next to the stadium, which makes so much sense, you do open up a lot of area for development and other development here,” Tepper said.
Essentially, the space needs to be utilized (read: make money) 365 days a year. Some options: There’s next to no shopping options in uptown to Charlotte, so there’s a need fulfilled. Restaurant(s), an enhanced and more visible team store to increase sales (and possibly re-do the jerseys so as to drive merchandise sales), private event space for conventioneers or fans soon to be wed. Perhaps a medical facility from a sponsor like Green Bay has done. And, of course, public parking—of which the Panthers own zero and thus lose out on millions in revenue on gamedays—that can be utilized every day by paying customers at these shops, or workers commuting into the city.
Opening up that space to be used daily goes hand-in-hand with another one of Tepper’s plans to better utilize a stadium already in place.
The team atop the Major League Soccer Eastern Conference standings is also the league-leader in attendance. Arthur Blank’s Atlanta United is 13-4-5 after just breaking its own single-game attendance record when 72,243 people showed up to watch United take on the Seattle Sounders on July 15.
Blank isn’t the only NFL owner who has an MLS team. Stan Kroenke (Rams), Clark Hunt (Chiefs) and Robert Kraft all own an MLS team. Paul Allen (Seahawks) is a minority owner of the Sounders, and the Wilfs (Vikings) are part owners of the Nashville MLS team set to begin play in 2020.
Tepper has mentioned a potential Charlotte MLS team in each of his press conferences, and it’s clear why he’d be interested in that. The interest is strong in the southeast (Atlanta has the best attendance and Nashville will soon have a team), and Charlotte has had great turnouts for its international soccer matches dating back to 2010.
At May’s owners meetings in Atlanta, where he was approved as the Panthers owner, Tepper spent time with Falcons brass discussing how Blank built a winner so quickly with Atlanta United. There are many reasons why Tepper would want an MLS team but here are the three obvious ones.
• Another team would bring in more concessions, more parking (once they’ve secured that) and more sponsorships.
• They would attract a different type of fan that they might currently be missing out on. According to a league source, only 4% of Atlanta Falcons season-ticket holders are also Atlanta United season-ticket holders.
• Most importantly, more uses for the stadium. The Panthers can only guarantee 10 home games a year. An MLS team would add 17 home games to that. On top of all the revenue from 17 other events coming to the stadium, they’d now have a bit of leverage with the city.
Bank of America Stadium’s current location is the only logical one, so renovations and refurbishments are the only options for the new owner, who seems satisfied to stay put in uptown Charlotte. In 2013, the city of Charlotte agreed to give the Panthers $87.5 million for renovations. If Tepper goes to the table with 27-plus home events instead of 10, handing over money for stadium improvements will be an easier pill to swallow for city leaders and taxpayers.
“If we do development here, that does new development that keeps people here, not just on stadium day,” Tepper said. “And we open up for other things and I make an investment in MLS and I bring that in here and I bring that many more dollars into the community, that’s businesses in the community and there’s more tax dollars generated, then that makes more sense to split some of those tax dollars.
“That’s not taxing people who aren’t using those facilities, but they’re using things that I’m helping bring here. That’s the partnership.”
In this partnership, between the city and the first new owner since the NFL came to town, everything is connected.
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