Heath Earley and his wife, Amari, didn’t seem to mind the torrential rains that pushed Carolina Panthers fans like them to pack into uptown bars before the exhibition matchup Thursday against the Pittsburgh Steelers. They drove from Winston-Salem, as they had for the New England Patriots preseason game the week before.
It’s worth it to those kinds of fans, because although last year’s run ended in a loss in February, excitement is mounting for the new season, which starts with a Super Bowl rematch Thursday night in Denver against the Broncos. “I like what they’re standing for, the unity they have going on,” Heath Early said.
Thursday’s showdown is the first of five prime-time games, the most in franchise history. It’s also the first time a Super Bowl rematch is the NFL’s opening game.
The Panthers’ near-perfect 2015 season has generated more excitement from fans, more sales for bars and restaurants around Charlotte and more stadium and merchandise sales for the Panthers. Even fan attendance at training camp in Spartanburg doubled this year from last, reaching an all-time high.
But it also means the Panthers are a hotter commodity, and tickets are harder to come by.
It is impossible to put a dollar amount on the boost a Super Bowl appearance provides an NFL city. But experts say success on the field does tend to trickle into a team’s hometown economy the following season.
“People are happier, they’re more productive, they’re more cooperative and you get more deals done when there’s a good feeling around the town and around the city. A winning team helps promote that,” said Raymond Sauer, a sports economist at Clemson University.
“It’s a morale boost which translates into higher economic activity in the city the following year.”
Throughout Charlotte, the Panthers’ recent success has meant that the swarms of black and blue jerseys in bars throughout the city have grown even bigger on game day.
The Bottle Cap Group, for example, is extending its outdoor space in front of the Bland Street light rail stop for every home game. The move will increase capacity by 20-30 percent at Oak Room, Slate, All American Pub and Hot Taco, the row of popular South End bars/restaurants Bottle Cap owns. The extended area includes giant blow-up archway, satellite bars, outdoor seating and outdoor games.
Morgan Conroy, the group’s marketing director, said the need for more space stems from the team’s popularity growth toward the end of last season.
“We’re very fortunate that the Panthers have done so well, and that they have a great following,” Conroy said. During every game, each of the bars has to increase staffing, she added.
For Rose Chauffeured, a Charlotte transportation company, interest in the team has meant higher customer traffic. The company runs mini buses from bars like Dilworth Neighborhood Grill to Bank of America Stadium on game day. Tom Holden, Rose’s director of operations and affiliate relations, said he’s anticipating the approximately 12 percent increase in volume from the end of last season to carry over to home games this year.
The team’s success has also encouraged more fans to pledge their allegiance to Carolina throughout the country. The Roaring Riot, the Charlotte-based Panthers fan club, ended last season with just shy of 2,200 dues-paying members. Now, they have about 3,300.
The club now has a chapter in 30 U.S. cities, up from just seven last season, according to Zack Luttrell, the club’s president.
One of those is Denver, where the team’s success last season and the Super Bowl rematch have translated to a huge surge in prices for the Sept. 8 game. Members of the Mile High Cats, the local Roaring Riot chapter, are paying $350 each for one of the 120 seats the club reserved together.
“It’s never been difficult for me to get a Panthers ticket to an away game (until now),” Luttrell said.
Sell-out streak continues
An improved Panthers team has been drawing more fans on social media as well, bolstered by the team’s playoff run and Super Bowl appearance last season, said team President Danny Morrison.
Last season, in every market in the Carolinas, average TV ratings for Panthers games were up over 30 percent from the year before, Morrison said. The number of page views, visitors and unique visitors on the Panthers’ website all doubled for the season, and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, the Panthers’ ranked No. 1 in the NFL in user growth, Morrison said, citing the league.
The Panthers have sold out 139 straight games at Bank of America, and that’ll be the case this year, too – and that’s a boost for food and apparel sold within the stadium.
“When you have momentum and fan interest, then you have fewer no-shows ... and the metrics are up for both concessions and merchandise,” Morrison said, though he would not provide sales figures.
The franchise-high five prime-time games doesn’t necessarily translate directly to more revenue for the team itself, but it does provide good exposure, putting the team and city in the national spotlight.
One downside of all the excitement is that ticket prices will keep going up. Winning obviously stokes fan interest, so higher demand means it’s going to be tougher and pricier to get tickets to home games. About 90 percent of the seats at Bank of America Stadium are owned by permanent seat license (PSL) holders – but fans can still buy individual game tickets on the secondary market.
After the Super Bowl, the team said the prices of most individual tickets for this season were going up $5 to $12 from last year. And on top of that, the Panthers, responding to fan surveys from last year, this summer announced a new ticket pricing structure in which preseason tickets were cheaper, and regular season tickets are pricier.
Peter Gusmer of Charlotte is an original PSL owner who paid $2,359 for his set of two 100-level seats this season. That’s up from the $2,102 he paid last year.
“One of the things economists sometimes say is be careful, sports fans, what you wish for. It’s great going to the Super Bowl, but fans will pay for it the next season with higher ticket prices and more difficulty in being able to get tickets,” said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at the College of the Holy Cross.
The higher prices didn’t deter Panthers fan Andy Hernandez from buying his first PSL for this season. He lives in the First Ward, so coming to all the home games is a given. “The whole city is lit up now,” Hernandez said. “I feel like there will be a whole lot more people coming out for games this year.”
Did you know?
In 2004, the season following the Panthers’ first Super Bowl appearance, the regular season opener was also high profile – the team played the Green Bay Packers on “Monday Night Football.”
The Packers won 24-14.
Coming off their Super Bowl season, the Panthers’ star players have hot-selling jerseys.
From April through June, quarterback Cam Newton had the fourth best-selling jersey and linebacker Luke Kuechly ranked No. 21, according to nflshop.com.
Cam Newton had the best-selling jersey in the Carolinas and in Alabama, where he played at Auburn in college.
According to some economists, if the Panthers win the Super Bowl, Charlotte could enjoy another unexpected perk – higher wages.
A 2002 study in the Journal of Sports Economics found that in the city home to the winning Super Bowl team, per capita personal income rose by about $140, “perhaps reflecting a link between winning the Super Bowl and the productivity of workers in cities.”
“A happier workforce is a more productive workforce,” said Matheson, the economist. “I don’t know how much stock to put in that. You could make the same argument for a team that does really well, like the Panthers. Having a happy population might be good for you.”
Katherine Peralta and Rick Rothacker