By Ted Fleming
Charlotte is not the place to be these days if you are a pro football fan. The Panthers are sliding deeper and deeper into irrelevance again as they will be hard pressed to just equal their 6-10 record of a year ago, Now, word hit the streets that their beloved franchise is being courted, very heavily as it seems, by the City of Angels in attempt to replace the long since departed Rams.
Los Angeles is a fine sports town. They have a plethora of professional franchises – two basketball, two baseball (if you count the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim as a “home” team), and hockey (with the current lockout the Kings are there in name only these days) – but lack representation from the sports giant known as the National Football League. But if officials have their way that could be rectified in short order if they can somehow persuade Panthers’ owner Jerry Richardson to go hum the Beverly Hillbillies’ theme song with the line, “Californee is the place you ought to be!”
You see, Richardson not only owns the team, he has the stadium as part of his real estate empire too. He doesn’t have to consult the league, the city or even his players if he wants to look toward the land of movie stars and earthquakes. On Sunday he issued the following statement:
“It has always been my desire that the Carolinas would be home of our Panthers. Nothing has changed. As someone who was born in North Carolina and lived much of my life in South Carolina, I hope that there would be no doubts about my personal devotion to the Carolinas.”
The 76-year-old founder of the Panthers is not your ordinary owner; he actually played the game as a 13th round pick by the then Baltimore Colts out of Wofford College in Spartanburg, SC. He made a lot of money not in football, but in the fast food business before turning back to the sport he loved. Richardson became the first former player to become an NFL owner since the great George Halas, when he was awarded him the league’s 29th franchise (the 30th was the Jacksonville Jaguars). It was Richardson’s dream to bring the NFL to the Carolinas, and he succeeded on October 26, 1993.
You have to believe Richardson when he says he is devoted to the Carolinas. More than 40,000 PSLs (Personal Seat Licenses) were sold to get Bank of America Stadium build as to not burden the taxpayers of Charlotte and North Carolina but now that his building is in need of upgrades he has petitioned local officials to kick in some money needed for those improvements.
Politicians have so far gone on record as saying they are willing to pay for them but it is unclear how that is going to happen. The Charlotte Knights, the Triple-A baseball affiliate of the White Sox, battled for years to get some help to build a new stadium and bring the team back to across the border from South Carolina before they actually got $8 million of the $54 million construction costs from the county. There were other issues that delayed the project but money was a factor.
The estimate for the renovation of Richardson’s House of Football is $250 million with Charlotte’s share coming in at $80 million. That is unprecedented sticker shock and to put it into context, Mayor Anthony Foxx vetoed a capital improvement plan earlier this year in part because funding for a $119 million streetcar extension project was cut by a majority of city council. Additionally, Foxx was also “ambivalent” to the use of the $8 million to subsidize that baseball stadium. It took years to get the Knights their new home so it is not unreasonable to think that something that will cost ten times more could hit a snag inside political circles.
Richardson also has a friend, Patrick Soon-Shiong, a billionaire who just happens to live in Los Angeles and has shown an interest in the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) as well as buying an NFL franchise for his home town. Should the duo team up the City of Los Angeles would be hard pressed reject any plans to build a stadium befitting a new football franchise.
Richardson’s loyalty to the Carolinas is duly noted; however, allegiances can be bought especially if someone is offering something along the lines of the Jerry Jones Monument to Himself. Los Angeles is the capital of glitz and glamour and a shiny new football stadium would fit in quite nicely, especially if there is a team that is ready to move in when the last brick is laid.
The National Football League has no plans to expand just to fill the void in LA. If they wanted a team there they would have already done it. There are franchises that have stadium issues like age or attendance woes like San Diego and Jacksonville just to name two. Charlotte isn’t one of them, BofA Stadium is just 16 and attendance isn’t a concern unless the losing becomes the new normal.
California won’t help the Panthers in the standings but the tons of money that awaits Richardson in La-La Land is very inviting even if he takes on a partner like Soon-Shiong. Be forewarned Panthers’ fans, this is one story that won’t go away until an $80 million check from Charlotte has been deposited.
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Ted Fleming is a freelance writer covering all things Carolina Panthers. His work can be found on Examiner.com.