Will the Panthers still move to SC? What Charlotte should take from the dispute

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·4 min read
Jeff Sochko/Special to The Herald
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There’s a not-so-new lesson to be learned this week by everyone in the Carolinas: if David Tepper has leverage, you might as well assume he’s going to use it.

That’s what happened Tuesday, when the Carolina Panthers said they had terminated their contract with the city of Rock Hill for the team’s new $800 million headquarters and practice facility.

Construction was already underway on the massive 240-acre project but was paused last month amid funding issues. Tepper Sports & Entertainment, the parent company of the Panthers, said then that Rock Hill had been “unable to contribute to the agreed-upon investment to fund the construction of the public infrastructure.” The city, for its part, claimed it had met all obligations required under the agreements, though reports indicate there were some hiccups in issuing the $225 million in bonds it promised.

It’s unclear what, exactly, will happen to the project moving forward. Tepper Sports & Entertainment has already invested $170 million into the development, which is currently sitting dormant and half-finished off of I-77.

Some form of reconciliation may not be totally out of the question. In a statement provided to local media, a spokesperson for GT Real Estate Holdings, which represents Tepper Sports & Entertainment in the deal, said that representatives “are prepared to sit down with the City and other interested parties to discuss the significant challenges ahead.”

Tepper didn’t amass his large fortune by leaving money on the table, and he certainly isn’t going to start doing so now. When he decided to move operations across the border to South Carolina, it came with a pretty package of incentives and public investment, including $225 million in local government bonds and $115 million in tax breaks from the state.

There’s no indication that the Panthers would want to bring the project back to Charlotte, close to Bank of America Stadium where the team plays its games. It wouldn’t hurt for Charlotte to check in on that possibility, anyway, but for now, Charlotte should take the saga over the border as a cautionary tale.

Somewhere down the line, Tepper will be making a formal request for more of Charlotte’s money, and more than likely, he’ll be asking for a brand-new, state-of-the-art stadium in the heart of uptown. Bank of America Stadium is one of the oldest stadiums in the NFL, and Tepper has expressed interest in building a new one. He says, however, that he’s not going to build it alone.

Which means, of course, that Charlotte would be expected to cough up big dollars to make it happen — likely at least a third of the cost.

But splitting the bill for a stadium that could cost upwards of a billion dollars may not be wise, let alone feasible, for Charlotte. The idea that stadiums more or less pay for themselves in jobs and economic development often doesn’t hold true, and some Charlotteans object to the idea of investing significantly more in professional sports when problems like transit and housing have yet to be addressed. Besides, it’s not clear if Charlotte even has the debt capacity to contribute that large a sum. And yet, if the city isn’t able or willing to fork the money over, Tepper could walk and take the Panthers elsewhere.

There’s no indication — and no apparent worry yet among city leaders who spoke to the Editorial Board — that this is the first step toward the team leaving the Charlotte region altogether. But when the time comes for a new stadium, Charlotte should be prudent in untying the purse strings for a billionaire who happens to also be the richest owner in the NFL.

As we’ve said before, city leaders should find a way to negotiate a deal that benefits both Tepper and Charlotte, perhaps by creating a sizable entertainment district near the stadium that could yield additional food and beverage tax revenue. The stadium, and the two Tepper-owned professional sports teams that play in it, no doubt yield tremendous value for the city — not just economically, but culturally, too — and no public official wants to be viewed by sports fans as the reason the Panthers left Charlotte.

Regardless of what happens to the team’s headquarters in South Carolina, it’s another reminder that Tepper is a negotiator who is unafraid to play hardball and walk away. Charlotte leaders, who have had to play ball with Tepper since he bought the Panthers in 2018, surely know this. If they don’t, they just got a clearer signal.