Panthers’ deal gave Charlotte free stadium dates. But the city isn’t taking advantage

Courtesy of the Charlotte Observer:

In exchange for using taxpayer money to renovate Bank of America Stadium, the Carolina Panthers are required to provide five rent-free days a year, during which the City of Charlotte can book non-NFL events during the offseason. Think concerts, college football games, even beer festivals.

It’s a perk that can save city taxpayers $250,000 per event. But three years into the deal, Charlotte has only used up seven days total, and this year the city might only use two – for the college football kickoff game in September and the Belk Bowl in December.

Charlotte has also landed international soccer games during the summer in the past, though the city doesn’t have one scheduled this year. Overall, Charlotte has tallied eight unused dates so far. And they’ll expire in 2023 if they go unused.

Officials say there are a number of reasons the city hasn’t used those rent-free dates: Stadium renovation work limits the window of available summer booking time, and it’s tough to find profitable events even when rent is free. As for concerts, many performers aren’t taking their acts to big stadiums any more.

While taxpayers haven’t been able to cash in on all the available rent-free dates owed them, city officials say it’s not for a lack of trying. They’re still looking for a soccer event this year, for instance. And the Panthers say they haven’t turned down any proposed ideas from the city yet.

“Stadiums are unique in that they are difficult to fill, and they’re expensive. The rent-free piece is a nice incentive, but it does not cover all of the costs of operating the stadium,” said Tom Murray, President of the Charlotte Regional Visitors Authority, the city’s tourism arm.
Apart from the $250,000 savings on rent, other costs arise from security, marketing efforts, staffing concession areas and more.

The five rent-free days are a perk the city arranged as part of an agreement it made with the Panthers in 2013. In exchange for $87.5 million to help renovate the stadium, the team agreed to be “tethered” to Charlotte for at least six years, with further penalties for leaving in years seven through 10. The Panthers themselves committed to put $37.5 million toward renovations, but have since exceeded that amount.

The rent-free days can be booked between Jan. 30 and Labor Day, though construction has typically lasted from January into June. The city has accumulated eight rent-free days that have carried over since 2014, in addition to the three still available for this year. Any unused rent free event days expire at the end of the current agreement, which is June 30, 2023, according to Ron Kimble, Charlotte’s retired deputy city manager who now works for the city part-time.

Murray said the CRVA continues to pursue events to book this year, though time is running out. Last month, the city was notified it had not been selected to host an International Cup soccer game, but it’s still trying to land some type of soccer event.

Other stadium uses the city has considered include concerts, marching band competitions and beer festivals, Murray said.

Soldier Field in Chicago, for example, earlier this month hosted the Chicago Beer Classic for the fifth year in a row.

“At this point, there’s nothing that they have brought to us that we have turned down. The caveat there is we’ve been under construction every offseason (since 2014), and we’re going to be under construction next offseason as well,” said Scott Paul, the Panthers’ executive director of stadium operations.

The latest round of renovations at the stadiums should wrap up around the third week of July, said Paul, whose employer owns the stadium and has final say over what kind of event gets booked there.

“It’s important to know that there really aren’t a lot of stadium events out there,” Paul said.

It’s unlikely that the city would book all of its accumulated rent-free days in one year: “There wouldn’t be 15 events in an offseason,” Paul said.

Soccer has been big draw

Under the city’s agreement with the Panthers, the final $23.5 million payment to the team was originally due Dec. 1, 2017, but the city instead made the last installment a year early, in December 2016. The earlier payment, the city said, allows the team to finish stadium improvements sooner (in 2018) and will save millions on interest.

Having another nine weeks without renovations, the city said, will also make it easier to attract international soccer and college football games to the stadium.

In years past, international soccer games have been successful in the uptown stadium, drawing thousands of fans who also end up patronizing local bars, restaurants and hotels. The biggest game was in 2014, when Liverpool played AC Milan. It had a total economic impact of $16.5 million, which included $8.3 million in direct spending, according to the CRVA. More than 69,000 people attended.

Beyond soccer, another option is booking concerts, but few artists do stadium tours anymore. For one, it’s pricier to set up the infrastructure at a stadium that’s already in place at an arena like PNC Music Pavilion, said Paul, the Panthers executive. The risk is greater for the promoter since ticket sales could disappoint.

Since opening as Ericsson Stadium in September of 1996, the venue has hosted a total of two concerts: The Rolling Stones in 1997, and Kenny Chesney and Tim McGraw in 2012.

“If the city agrees it’s a good event, and we agree it’s a good event, the promoter still has to be willing to take the risk. The city’s not taking the risk, the Panthers aren’t taking the risk. There are very few acts out there that can support the costs of a stadium show,” Paul said.

Over the last year, the city has lost dozens of major events – including the NBA All-Star Game, the ACC title football game and several musical acts and business events, for example – over House Bill 2, North Carolina’s controversial law limiting legal protections for the LGBT community.

Kimble said the law, which was repealed earlier this year, did not play a role in the city’s inability to land an international soccer match this year.

Kwame Bryan, a vice president at RelEvent Sports, said his firm typically books 12-18 international soccer games in the U.S. each summer. For a host of logistical reasons, Charlotte did not land a game this year.

“We had conversations with Charlotte, and we’ll continue to have conversations with Charlotte,” Bryan said.