The first African American Women-Elected as Mayor of the Queen City Vi Lyles, offered shout-outs to Carolina Panthers linebackers Thomas Davis and Luke Kuechly — replete with her version of fans’ “Luuuuke!” cheer — during a Rotary Club speech on Tuesday while vowing to keep the NFL franchise here after it is sold.
The Panthers are up for sale as of this week, a timetable established by founder Jerry Richardson when he disclosed on Dec. 17 the team would be sold at the end of the current season.
Carolina’s season ended Sunday in New Orleans when the Saints defeated the Panthers in a wild-card playoff game. Richardson issued a statement last month that he would sell the team, hours after Sports Illustrated published a detailed account of financial settlements made by the owner to four former employees who accused Richardson of sexual harassment and, in one case, using a racial slur.
Toward the end of a 20-minute speech, Lyles noted the challenges of being mayor of Charlotte, from making neighborhoods safer to increasing the number of stable jobs and the inventory of affordable housing.
“So we’re going to do things about those three areas … after we keep the Panthers in town,” she said. “So let me just talk a little bit about football. We’re really proud of our team. It’s been 25 years. We’ve had a great relationship. And there are a lot of people that are interested in our team.”
Lyles, who took office a month ago, outlined the NFL guidelines for buying a team, including a provision that the lead investor must own 30% of the franchise. Assuming a value in the range of $2.3 billion to $2.5 billion, and a debt limit of $250 million, the next Panthers principal owner will have to come up with $600 million.
Charlotte native Stephen Curry, a two-time NBA MVP with the Golden State Warriors, said publicly again this week that he would like to be part of the next Panthers ownership group, almost certainly as a minority partner. Hip-hop entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs has expressed interest and so has a group of Charlotte investors that includes car dealer Felix Sabates.
“It’s time for Black ownership!! The time is now. Let’s make it happen!!,” Combs tweeted on Sunday night. “I will have the best half-time show, the best selection of music, and we will win Super Bowl after Super Bowl,” Combs said on Instagram.
Some business leaders and politicians, along with national analysts, believe the next owner might consider relocating the franchise unless local taxpayers agree to help pay for a new stadium.
The 81-year-old Richardson has not addressed the allegations publicly. He rarely grants media interviews and he hasn’t done so throughout the scrutiny over his treatment of team employees. An outside investigation was ordered by the NFL on Dec. 17.
Marc Ganis, a consultant with extensive ties to NFL teams and owners, told CBJ he thinks it’s a mistake for Richardson to sell the Panthers. Ganis has also pointed to Mexico City, Toronto, London and northern California as possible landing spots if the next Panthers owner decides to go elsewhere.
Bank of America Stadium opened in 1996. A portion of existing tourism tax money accounts for $75 million the city approved in 2013 to help pay for renovations at the 74,000-seat, team-owned stadium. Combined with $102 million from the Panthers, BofA Stadium will have undergone a $177 million face-lift over the last five years by the end of 2018.
Lyles echoed remarks made by Gov. Roy Cooper, a fellow Democrat who told CBJ on Friday the state is open to considering options to ensure the Panthers stay in Charlotte. Cooper, though, may not have much say in the matter. Republicans control the legislature and, five years ago, rebuffed a request by Richardson to help pay for a larger package of stadium projects. Spokespersons for leaders of the state House and Senate did not respond to requests made by CBJ last week for comment on the Panthers.
The current renovations paid for by the team and city government committed the Panthers to stay in Charlotte through 2019. An NFL spokesman said last month the sale of the team is based on the franchise staying here. That doesn’t guarantee the team will be in Charlotte long term, a circumstance already troubling fans and civic leaders.
Noting the $600 million likely price for the next managing partner, Lyles asked the crowd, “Is there anybody in the room that’s ready to go?”
Turning serious, Lyles called the Panthers sale “the biggest retention opportunity that we have faced in the two Carolinas. We are going to be committed to keeping the Panthers in Charlotte because of the value that they add.”
She mentioned findings from a Panthers-commissioned University of South Carolina study of the NFL team’s impact in 2013. That analysis pegged the franchise’s economic contributions to be more than $600 million annually. Independent economists, including John Vrooman of Vanderbilt University, dismiss such studies as exaggerated and compare the true financial benefits of having a major league sports team to those of an average shopping mall.
The author of the South Carolina study, Tom Regan, is USC’s graduate director of sports and entertainment management. This week, he told me that worries about the Panthers’ stadium and a possible relocation by another owner are unfounded.
“That stadium was one of the best and they just put (close to) $200 million into it,” Regan said. He pointed to the Charlotte region’s rapid population growth and the Panthers’ near-continuous home sellout streak — all but two games since 1996 — as crucial assets. “There’s no other place in the country that has the financial and economic base” of Charlotte that doesn’t already have an NFL team, Regan said.
Another possibility — moving across the state line to reap generous incentives from South Carolina — met with a shrug from Regan and economic development officials.
Regan believes the existing stadium’s proximity to booming development uptown would be hard to sacrifice. David Swenson, head of York County Economic Development, this week told me there is nothing to comment on “as we are not aware of any interest by the Carolina Panthers in development of a new NFL stadium in South Carolina. With not having any expressed interest or location I can’t give you any indication of what incentives would or could be available for something we don’t know we would be incentivizing.”
Privately, industry consultants have told me South Carolina could be attractive since Interstate 77 would offer an easy drive for Charlotte fans to a York County stadium as well as ample land to build an entertainment district around the stadium similar to projects backed by the New England Patriots in the NFL and the Atlanta Braves in baseball, among others.
Lyles said Tuesday it is difficult to predict what the city and others might do until the NFL selects a new owner. Three-fourths, or 24, of the 32 NFL team owners must approve any franchise sale.
“The very first step is to wait and see what the NFL does,” she said. “Until they make a decision, we don’t have a step to take. … We’re going to have look at what our choices are. I don’t know that we control this agenda. … I’m just hoping that the NFL makes a great choice, keeps our team at home and that we keep pounding.”