How Panthers could com­pete with new sta­di­ums

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - Front Page - BY STEVE HAR­RI­SON shar­ri­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

When Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium opened in 1996, the Carolina Panthers didn’t imag­ine that fans would pay hun­dreds of dol­lars for a seat be­hind the player’s bench, with a blocked view of the field.

But to­day, teams are build­ing sta­di­ums with field-level suites, where fans’ feet touch the grass or ar­ti­fi­cial turf, close to the sounds, smells and (some­times) sights of the NFL.

Teams in At­lanta, Min­ne­sota, Dal­las and New York have built $1 bil­lion sta­di­ums that in­clude field-level suites, one way for them to squeeze more money from fans.

League in­sid­ers, and lo­cal busi­ness lead­ers, be­lieve that new Panthers owner David Tep­per will com­pare Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium with the NFL’s new­est sta­di­ums, and de­cide whether more ren­o­va­tions — or a new sta­dium — are needed.

Tep­per has not yet dis­cussed busi­ness with city of­fi­cials, said Char­lotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who had a wel­come phone call with the new owner.

Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium is one of the NFL’s old­est but still con­sid­ered a good venue. The team re­cently fin­ished a $178 mil­lion ren­o­va­tion that be­gan in 2013. It’s the 17th most lu­cra­tive sta­dium, ac­cord­ing to Forbes.

The Ob­server trav­eled to Minneapolis to tour the Min­ne­sota Vik­ings new home, U.S. Bank Sta­dium, and a new prac­tice fa­cil­ity and head­quar­ters that cost $125 mil­lion.

The $1.1 bil­lion sta­dium has meant more money for the team. While they were play­ing in their old home, the Metrodome, the Vik­ings ranked sec­ond to the bot­tom of the 32team NFL in sta­di­um­gen­er­ated rev­enue, ac­cord­ing to Forbes. U.S. Bank Sta­dium now ranks as the No. 16 most lu­cra­tive, ac­cord­ing to the mag­a­zine.

The big­gest dif­fer­ence be­tween Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium and U.S. Bank Sta­dium is ob­vi­ous: The Vik­ings’ sta­dium has a roof.

If Char­lotte wanted an in­door sta­dium, it would be cheaper to build a new one, ex­perts say. But the team could add many fea­tures to Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium with­out start­ing from scratch.

Un­like the Panthers’ sta­dium, U.S. Bank Sta­dium was built more for the ca­sual fan.

Open ar­eas of­fer fans a view of the field. One club has couches and modern, sil­ver ta­bles for drinks and food. TVs show­ing the game line the sta­dium’s con­courses.

“These sta­di­ums are more like a cruise ship,” said Max Muh­le­man, who helped cre­ate the per­sonal seat li­cense con­cept in the early 1990s that helped pay for Panthers’ sta­dium. “It’s like a cruise ship where you walk around and say, ‘Do you want Chi­nese food or do you want to play ping pong?’ You can also watch the game.”

MORE SUITES

What the Vik­ings have: Field-level “Turf Suites” are be­hind the Vik­ings bench and one end zone.

The Dal­las Cow­boys were the first team to sell field-level suites when they opened AT&T Sta­dium in 2009. The team found that fans liked be­ing close to the game — even if they couldn’t see all the ac­tion.

The Vik­ings’ field-level suites are not as lux­u­ri­ous as some of their other suites, but their main ap­peal is each suite has its own area on the field that re­sem­bles a small pa­tio. Fans can be 25 feet from the side­line.

Vik­ings ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent Lester Ba­gley said the team is upfront with peo­ple about what they can and can’t see. When the ac­tion is on the side of the field, the view is great, he said.

When it’s on the other side?

“You can watch up there,” he said, point­ing to sta­dium’s 8,100-square­foot video board.

Con­nected to the “Turf Suites,” the Vik­ings cre­ated a pri­vate club, the Delta Sky360 Club. When the Vik­ings leave their locker room to­ward the field, they walk through the mid­dle of the club. Fans line both sides of the path­way, hop­ing to get a glimpse of the play­ers.

What the Panthers could add: When the Panthers’ sta­dium was built, team founder Jerry Richard­son made sure the new sta­dium had plenty of suites, which had started to be­come pop­u­lar. The sta­dium now has 151 suites on two lev­els with room for 4,350 peo­ple.

Over the years, the Panthers have squeezed in more suites and clubs.

The team’s abil­ity to jam in high-dol­lar seats is one rea­son the Panthers rank in the mid­dle of the league in terms of sta­dium rev­enue, de­spite be­ing in a smaller mar­ket.

David Wag­ner of Char­lotte-based Wag­ner Mur­ray Ar­chi­tects has worked with the team on sev­eral sta­dium im­prove­ments. He said he stud­ied the fea­si­bil­ity of cre­at­ing field-level suites at Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium.

The likely place would be in the cor­ner of the sta­dium, where the team leaves the field and en­ters the locker room, Wag­ner said.

The prob­lem, he said, is that the team would likely have to re­move some seats and com­pen­sate those ticket hold­ers who bought per­sonal seat li­censes.

“Field-level suites seem to be the new amenity,” he said. “But in or­der to put some­thing in, you have to take some­thing away. It would be a chal­lenge, but it’s doable.”

Like­li­hood of hap­pen­ing: High. There are no ma­jor hur­dles, ex­cept for pos­si­bly los­ing a few rows of lower-level seats. Sales of ex­ist­ing suites show the team could likely sell them.

Wag­ner said an­other op­tion is to build a club near the locker rooms, al­low­ing fans to see the play­ers up close.

The team could de­cide against build­ing the ac­tual field level suites. He said there is an easy way for the Panthers to find more space: shrink the press box.

“Press boxes ev­ery­where are get­ting sig­nif­i­cantly smaller,” Wag­ner said.

OPEN AR­EAS

What the Vik­ings have: In de­sign­ing it for a more ca­sual fan, the Vik­ings’ sta­dium has an open deck for fans to con­gre­gate and an out­door pa­tio for premium ticket hold­ers. It also has an in­ter­ac­tive mu­seum called “Vik­ings Voy­age.”

U.S. Bank Sta­dium has only 66,665 seats, com­pared with 75,412 at Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium.

But the Vik­ings say smaller is bet­ter.

“It’s not about hav­ing as many seats as pos­si­ble,” Ba­gley said. “It’s about max­i­miz­ing rev­enue from other as­pects, like suits and spon­sor­ships.”

U.S. Bank Sta­dium has a large open plat­form be­hind an end zone that’s open to any­one with a ticket. Fans in nose-bleed seats can stand and min­gle. The team said fans are more likely to drink and or­der food while stand­ing in the open ar­eas.

The Vik­ings’ sta­dium also has an out­door pa­tio that over­looks Minneapolis sky­scrapers. It’s at­tached to the “Mys­tic Lake Club Pur­ple,” which is re­stricted to premium ticket hold­ers.

The in-sta­dium seat­ing for that club is also un­usual. In­stead of a tra­di­tional seat, that club lets peo­ple sit on pur­ple leather couches, in a space that re­sem­bles a night­club.

“They are adding so­cial­iza­tion op­por­tu­ni­ties,” said Marc Ga­nis, of Sport- scorp, a Chicago con­sul­tant, about teams like the Vik­ings. “What we have learned in the in­dus­try is that mil­len­ni­als, and peo­ple younger, pre­fer go­ing to events where they can so­cial­ize and en­joy the en­ter­tain­ment.”

What the Panthers could do: Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium was built with the as­sump­tion that a ticket holder was com­ing to watch a foot­ball game and not so­cial­ize. It’s de­signed to give fans the best pos­si­ble view — not places to min­gle.

The Panthers have worked to change this. Dur­ing the re­cent ren­o­va­tions, open-air plat­forms were built on top of the new es­ca­la­tors. The plat­forms don’t let peo­ple watch the game, but they give fans a panoramic view of the up­town sky­line.

Wag­ner said the Panthers ex­plored re­mov­ing seats from the cor­ners of the up­per decks to cre­ate stand­ing-room view­ing plat­forms. But he said it was too ex­pen­sive, and the team dropped the idea.

“You are go­ing to give up a quan­tity of (seats) to have a stand­ing-room only sec­tion,” he said. “Some­thing has to be sac­ri­ficed. If you are go­ing to take some­thing away, what re­places it needs to gen­er­ate a rea­son­able amount of rev­enue.”

The Panthers have taken steps to cre­ate a more so­cial ex­pe­ri­ence, in­clud­ing up­grad­ing the Wi-Fi net­work for the 2016 sea­son and adding new video boards, which are sim­i­lar to the ones at U.S. Bank Sta­dium.

Like­li­hood of hap­pen­ing: Low. As long as the Panthers are sell­ing tick­ets — Carolina was eighth in the league in at­ten­dance last year, ac­cord­ing to ESPN — there won’t be a fo­cus on trad­ing seats for open spa­ces.

But the team could have an­other op­tion for cre­at­ing a new gath­er­ing spot for fans.

If the team builds a new head­quar­ters in the sub­urbs, the team’s old of­fices could be­come a new club or gath­er­ing place for fans.

OUT­DOOR SPACE

What the Vik­ings have: U.S. Bank Sta­dium has a large plaza out­side. The plaza serves as a place for fans to gather, and the team has a build­ing to sell beer and food. Game day kiosks also sell food.

The plaza, which the team con­trols, gives the Vik­ings more op­por­tu­ni­ties to make money be­fore the game on con­ces­sions.

“What they are try­ing to do is get fans to linger longer and get there early — and spend a lit­tle more money,” Wag­ner said.

In­side the sta­dium, the Vik­ings have the in­ter­ac­tive mu­seum, “Vik­ings Voy­age.” It has a vir­tual re­al­ity fan ex­pe­ri­ence plus tra­di­tional mem­o­ra­bilia for fans to ad­mire. The mu­seum is free for ticket hold­ers.

“To be suc­cess­ful, you have to be more than a game day ex­pe­ri­ence,” Wag­ner said. “Whether it’s re­tail or some other ac­tiv­ity, peo­ple can stay more con­nected to the sta­dium.”

What the Panthers could do: As a mon­ey­maker, the Panthers al­ready set up VIP tents on land they own out­side the sta­dium.

But the team doesn’t have enough land to let thou­sands of fans tail­gate on their prop­erty.

The team does own 7 acres next to the sta­dium that has three prac­tice fields. If Tep­per moves prac­tice fields along with the head­quar­ters, that would free up the land, which could be used for VIP park­ing, a fan plaza or for other de­vel­op­ment. That de­vel­op­ment could in­clude a larger team store or a mu­seum.

Like­li­hood of hap­pen­ing: High. League in­sid­ers and lo­cal busi­ness lead­ers be­lieve the team will seek a new head­quar­ters and prac­tice fa­cil­ity, which would free up the 7 acres.

“I think ev­ery­thing is on the ta­ble in terms of what you do with it,” Wag­ner said.

MORE EVENTS

What the Vik­ings have: A roof, for starters. The team also plays on ar­ti­fi­cial turf, which can han­dle nu­mer­ous events with­out get­ting worn out like grass.

In the next two months, U.S. Bank Sta­dium will host the X Games, Bey­once and Tay­lor Swift con­certs, soc­cer and Vik­ings pre­sea­son foot­ball.

What the Panthers could do: Un­der Richard­son’s lead­er­ship, the Panthers were not ag­gres­sive in host­ing non-Panthers events.

“Jerry (Richard­son) did bring in a con­cert one time, and it took them about two months to get the field re­paired,” Muh­le­man said. “He said it wasn’t worth it.”

Tep­per could seek more events in the sta­dium, like con­certs and soc­cer games. Re­plac­ing the sta­dium’s grass field with ar­ti­fi­cial turf would be easy and in­ex­pen­sive — Meck­len­burg County and the city are plan­ning to spend $3 mil­lion to in­stall ar­ti­fi­cial turf at Me­mo­rial Sta­dium. That would al­low the sta­dium to host more events, since the plas­tic grass could with­stand the pound­ing of sev­eral events a month.

But the abil­ity to bring in new events to Bank of Amer­ica Sta­dium may be lim­ited. Since 2013, the city has had an agree­ment with the Panthers for five rent-free days a year for other events.

The city has had some suc­cess with in­ter­na­tional soc­cer matches, but it hasn’t used all of its rent­free days.

Like­li­hood of hap­pen­ing: Medium. The team will likely look to get as much money from the sta­dium as pos­si­ble. If that means re­plac­ing the grass field with ar­ti­fi­cial turf, that may hap­pen.

But Tep­per may de­cide there is a lim­ited mar­ket for events that need a 75,000-seat out­door sta­dium.

“There aren’t a lot of acts that fill a sta­dium,” Muh­le­man said.

STEVE HAR­RI­SON shar­ri­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

U.S. Bank Sta­dium in Minneapolis has field-level suites that al­low fans to be on the ar­ti­fi­cial turf. It’s a fea­ture the Panthers could add.

PHO­TOS BY STEVE HAR­RI­SON shar­ri­[email protected]­lot­teob­server.com

In­stead of tra­di­tional seats, some club mem­bers at U.S. Bank Sta­dium in Minneapolis sit on couches that re­sem­ble a lounge area at a night­club.

JOHN D. SIM­MONS Char­lotte Ob­server

Waterfront homes line the beach at Nags Head, on North Carolina’s Outer Banks. A Craigslist real es­tate rental scam is on the rise on the Outer Banks.

U.S. Bank Sta­dium, home of the NFL’s Min­ne­sota Vik­ings, has an out­door pa­tio for premium ticket hold­ers.

Mem­bers of the Delta Sky360 Club can stand next to Vik­ings play­ers as they go to and from the locker room.

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