SBJ/April 29-May 5, 2013/Franchises

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  • There’s blame to go around in Panthers’ deal

    Jerry Richardson remains one of the most powerful owners in the most powerful sports league in the nation, but his home-field advantage faded a bit during recent stadium negotiations.

    Richardson, 76, spent more than a year positioning his Carolina Panthers for a run at taxpayer money to spruce up the franchise’s 17-year-old privately held stadium. But a heated rivalry between the GOP-run state government and Charlotte’s Democratic-heavy city government left almost everyone involved unfulfilled.

    City politicos and the Panthers called a late audible to piece together a deal that gives the team $87.5 million in taxpayer money in exchange for a
    10-year commitment to stay in Charlotte. But four of those years come with greatly reduced financial penalties, meaning taxpayers locked up the team in a strict sense only through 2018.

    All of which is a far cry from the $200 million in public money proposed by the city in exchange for a 15-year commitment, or “hard tether.”

    Meanwhile, the team was initially set to contribute $62.5 million, but in the revised deal, the team invests $37.5 million in capital costs that will include new escalators, video and ribbon boards, and a team hall of fame.

    There is blame to go around, from the team to the city to the newly installed governor, a former mayor of Charlotte.

    Start with the Panthers. For the better part of a year, the team worked on what it billed as a 10-year master plan for the stadium. Throughout those months, Panthers executives said they weren’t asking for taxpayer funds but, instead, determining what was needed for the 74,000-seat stadium.

    Last September, Charlotte Mayor Anthony Foxx wrote to Richardson inviting him to share the team’s plans with the city. Foxx didn’t promise taxpayer money, but it was obvious to everyone that the two sides had already begun considering just that. From there, everyone went silent again — until Richardson and his deputies met with city leaders in a closed-door session in January.

    The lack of openness stirred resentment among voters and media, as Richardson declined to address the stadium talks.

    In February, after yet another closed-door meeting, the Charlotte City Council announced it had endorsed the 15-year deal requiring the Panthers to stay in exchange for $144 million in city tax money and $62.5 million from the state — all of which came with a major caveat. In North Carolina, cities have little control when it comes to taxes, so the city, which had already tapped out tourist taxes on hotel rooms and rental cars for other venues, including Time Warner Cable Arena and the NASCAR Hall of Fame, set its sights on increasing the restaurant meals tax.

    Here, all concerned stumbled together. Neither the city nor the team won an endorsement from the state restaurant lobby, so the tax was dismissed after it was proposed. This seemed especially galling for Richardson, who made his personal fortune in fast-food restaurants. The city failed to mention that the $125 million for the Panthers it hoped to raise from the increased meals tax would, in fact, be exceeded by $875 million under its proposal of a 1 percent increase for 30 years. This, too, failed to reassure the public and a GOP-led legislature.

    The specter of losing an NFL franchise in a city known for its twin bouts of relentless ambition and infinite insecurity stirred predictable civic angst. Richardson has mandated the team be sold no later than two years after he dies, and the privately owned stadium made the Panthers the freest of free agent franchises. And the next owner might not be as enamored of the Carolinas as Richardson, putting the Panthers in play.

    In fact, it was this concern over the team’s future that finally drove both sides to a deal, as more and more officials were worried that Richardson might be open to selling. According to transcripts of the closed-door sessions released by the city, one of Richardson’s attorneys hinted at a potential sale. Beyond that, the team was, according to the city, fielding potential offers as recently as February.

    After the city approved the scaled-down agreement, Richardson addressed the politicians at city hall that seemed to hint at this.

    “The best ‘tether’ you’ve got is me,” he said. “If you want a tether, say a prayer for me.”

    And a prayer for the next round of stadium negotiations, sure to arrive sooner rather than later.

    Erik Spanberg writes for the Charlotte Business Journal, an affiliated publication.


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  • Richardson: I went to bat for Charlotte by persuading commissioner to move day of league opener

    During the first meeting to discuss stadium renovations at Bank of America Stadium in January, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson reminded city leaders he had not only provided Bank of America Stadium for the finale of the 2012 Democratic National Convention, but he also assured it a larger TV audience than might have happened otherwise. (Rain ultimately forced the event to be relocated to Time Warner Cable Arena.)

    Richardson, who co-chaired the search that led to the hiring of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell, called in a major favor from the commissioner. President Obama’s acceptance speech at the stadium was scheduled for the first Thursday in September, the same night the first nationally televised NFL game of the regular season would air on NBC. The NFL moved the game a day earlier, and Richardson explained the genesis of that move to Charlotte City Council members in a brief monologue that, no doubt, had the intended effect.

    Roger Goodell and Jerry Richardson
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    “I think it is worthwhile for you and I to reflect just a little bit on an example of us trying to go to bat for the city,” Richardson told council members. “You know I went to bat for you in the DNC, I think, as strongly as possible. And I think you will agree, too.” He went on to add, “I called the commissioner and said, ‘Just listen to me until I finish. Can you visualize Mount Everest and just moving it 100 feet to your left?’” … I said, ‘I would like for you to move the opening game of the season [to Wednesday].’ I thought he was going to have a heart attack when I asked him the question. Then he said, ‘Well, you know, we’ll have to take this to the membership.’ And I said, ‘That is my second point. I would like for us not to take it to the membership. … I was chairman of the committee that selected you as commissioner and I’m expecting you to take some leadership.’”

    The two men resumed their conversation the next morning. Goodell responded that the only time the NFL had made a similar move was during World War II, and he called Richardson’s request a big one.

    Richardson’s response: “Well, we’ve got a big problem down in Charlotte.” Goodell reminded Richardson that 31 owners had to be considered, too.

    “I said, ‘No, you don’t. Don’t ask them; go ahead and make a decision,’” Richardson said. “As you know, he did and [the Wednesday night game] is what happened.”

    — Erik Spanberg

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  • Weather costs Twins ‘deep into seven figures’

    The Minnesota Twins have suffered a revenue loss “deep into seven figures” and perhaps still growing because of a tough combination of snow and rain plaguing their home schedule thus far at Target Field.

    The Twins have postponed three games so far in 2013, two fewer than the first three seasons combined at their open-air ballpark in downtown Minneapolis. They have played several other games in subfreezing wind chills that required round-the-clock snow removal efforts.

    Snow and rain has resulted in postponements at the Twins’ Target Field.
    Photo by: GETTY IMAGES
    Overall, MLB has recorded 17 postponements in the young 2013 season as of press time, just four fewer than all of last year and similar to the pace of 2011, when the league had 30 postponements by late May and a historically high 51 for the entire season.

    The weather-induced revenue losses have touched the Twins in nearly every facet of their in-stadium business, including decreased walk-up sales, increased no-shows and lower per-cap concession and merchandise sales among those who have braved the elements. The club’s attendance as of press time was down 22 percent from a year ago to an average of 26,043 a game.

    MLB as a whole is down 2.5 percent in attendance in the season’s early going to an average of 29,008, as other weather-challenged clubs such as Colorado and the Chicago Cubs and White Sox also show declines. The league was down by a similar mark early in 2011 before rebounding later that year to end a three-season attendance slide.

    “It’s certainly been a challenge this month. There has been a significant drag on our per caps, walk-ups and so forth. There’s been a real revenue loss,” Twins President Dave St. Peter said. “At the same time, nobody’s feeling sorry for us. There are plenty of other clubs in a very similar situation as us. We’ve been very fortunate over the entire history of Target Field, and I take the long view.”

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