‘Competitive disadvantage’: Panthers owner frustrated over not having fans at home opener

Tepper ’disappointed’ no fans will be inside Bank of America Stadium for season opener

CHARLOTTE — Panthers owner David Tepper expressed frustration with government officials over not allowing fans in the stadium for the team’s Sept. 13 home opener against the Las Vegas Raiders.

Tepper said he’ll continue to have conversations with government officials, including North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, about allowing the team to bring in a limited number of fans into Bank of America Stadium for future home games this season.

As of now, North Carolina is operating at Phase 2.5 of its COVID-19 recovery plan, which still prohibits mass gatherings or more than 50 people.

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“We started developing a plan in March based on science and we spent a lot of time on it,” Tepper said during a conference call Wednesday of the team’s preparation to host fans at games. “We have infectious disease experts in the plan, computer simulations, the whole bit, trying to be as safe as we can be. We do think we can do this. We don’t think we can do this as a whole stadium obviously, but we think we can do limited fans in the stadium very safely based on pure science.”

Tepper said more than half of the team’s permanent seat license holders have expressed a willingness to attend games this season despite the ongoing pandemic.

Tepper is concerned that Carolina’s division rivals in Atlanta, Tampa and New Orleans will have fans in their stadiums at some point this season, while the Panthers might not, thus creating a “competitive disadvantage.”

As of now, the Buccaneers and Falcons will not have fans at their first two home games. The Saints will have no fans at their first home game. But Tepper is worried Georgia and Louisiana state officials will allow NFL fans to attend games before North Carolina officials do.

“It’s just a question of how the different regions are and how they view it, and what the different governors view and such — and maybe how much they like football or not,” Tepper said with a laugh.

How the Panthers wanted fans in the stands

The Panthers created a detailed safety plan hoping fans could safely be in the stands for the season opener, but state and county leaders ultimately rejected those plans.

In documents obtained by Channel 9, the team believed they could safely hold 12,500 fans in the Bank of America Stadium. The plans detail safety and social distancing measures, from the stands to concessions to entry and exit paths.

But, the team announced on Tuesday its first game would not have fans at the stadium. It is unclear if the Panthers have updated these plans from mid-August when they were first presented.

The Panthers said they were not allowed to move forward with the plans and they’ll continue communicating with government officials.

A PowerPoint shows how fans would move while waiting to enter, how they would traverse the concourse and rules for how far apart they would have to be on escalators.

Crowd simulation software assisted in developing the team’s plan.

In the stands, there are seating pods that can hold one to five people and the plan emphasized the fans would not be near each other. Every other row would be empty. Fans would not sit across aisles from each other.

Elevators are restricted to guests with disabilities, according to the plan.

Food and beverage operations included no cash, mobile ordering and it highlighted social distancing measures.

Isolation areas were also proposed in the plan for people who show COVID-19 symptoms and using disinfecting robots to clean rooms and reusable equipment.

The physical distancing measures in the Panthers’ plan are not limited just to fans. It also shows out what staff members throughout the stadium would have to adhere to.

“You are looking at a big sports fan here,” Gov. Roy Cooper said Tuesday. “I love sports. I want people to be eventually to get back into stadiums.”

Cooper declined to specifically say what will be needed to allow fans back into the stadium.

“We are going to have to look at our trends and indicators as we go along to determine when that might be possible,” Cooper said.

Only three NFL teams plan to start the season with fans in the stands. The Panthers’ second home game isn’t scheduled until Oct. 4.

Proposal: Queue for ticket holders at BofA Stadium
Proposal: Queue for ticket holders at BofA Stadium

Other topics Tepper addressed in Wednesday’s wide-ranging 25-minute interview:

— The Panthers owner said any decisions regarding a new downtown Charlotte stadium have been pushed back because of the pandemic. He had previously talked about building a stadium with some type of roof in the next “five to 10 years” that could host other major sporting events, including a Final Four, but said in light of the pandemic “open-air stadiums with beautiful weather seem a lot better to me today than they did last year, to tell you the truth.”

— He said construction of the team’s massive new headquarters across the border in Rock Hill, S.C., has been delayed by COVID-19. He said it will likely not open until the 2023 training camp. It was originally scheduled to be ready in time for training camp in 2022.

— The statue of former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson will not be returning, Tepper said. He had the statue removed from outside the stadium earlier this year for “safety reasons” because other statues around the country were being torn down amid protests over racial injustice. Richardson sold the team to Tepper after allegations of sexual and racial misconduct in the workplace.

— Tepper also discussed the fans’ reaction to the decision to release longtime quarterback Cam Newton earlier this year by saying, “I didn’t know so many people in Charlotte knew a word that began with F.” Tepper said the uncertainty surrounding Newton’s lingering injuries and the team’s inability to monitor those because of the coronavirus pandemic put the team in a “very difficult position at his ($19.3 million) salary, quite frankly.”

— Tepper said he hasn’t spoken to general manager Marty Hurney about his future, adding that the focus has been on getting the Panthers ready for the season. Hurney’s contract runs through June 2021.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.