The Panthers' Project: Prosperity, Or A Pig In A Poke?

Apr 29, 2019

We’ve got some younger folks in our office, and some people who aren’t natives of the South. So I found myself, the other day, having to explain the phrase “a pig in a poke.”

It’s a phrase that actually originated in Europe and dates all the way back to the Middle Ages, when farmers would bring an animal for sale in a poke, which is another name for a sack. Sometimes a customer would buy a suckling pig for supper, only to find out when they got home and opened the sack that there was a dead cat or something in there. Apparently the average IQ wasn’t too high back in the Middle Ages. So “don’t buy a pig in a poke” became shorthand for “Don’t be stupid. Know what you’re getting before you pay for it.”

All this came up because South Carolina state senator Dick Harpootlian used the phrase to describe the deal for the Carolina Panthers’ proposed development in York County.

The Panthers are talking about a project that could include the team headquarters, practice fields, a sports-medicine facility, a hotel, and whatever else they could fit on 200 acres. In exchange, the team wants $115 million in incentives from the state of South Carolina. The team’s proposed site might also include a new interchange off I-77.

The question is whether South Carolina would make money in the long run from the Panthers’ complex being there.

According to Harpootlian, the state Department of Commerce estimates that the project will create almost 6,000 jobs. But Harpootlian hired his own economist, who estimated more like 200 jobs. Those numbers are so far apart that it’s likely they’re both wrong.

But there have been a lot of studies over the years about the economic benefits of sports facilities, or even sports teams coming to a new town. And the majority of those studies show that aren't many economic benefits at all. This is one of the few areas where groups on the left and right tend to agree – liberals don’t like throwing incentives at big business, and conservatives don’t like the government favoring one type of business over another.

The Charlotte area has a tangled history with this sort of thing. After the first version of the Charlotte Hornets left town, voters said no on a referendum for a new arena, but the city found a way to build the Spectrum Center anyway. That got us our NBA team back, plus an All-Star Game and concerts and two political conventions. But some longtime Charlotteans are still bitter over how the deal went down.

Clearly, it would be nice for York County to have the Panthers’ complex down there. But would it be $115 million nice? That’s a lot harder to say.

Here’s the one thing I know for sure about the deal: David Tepper, the Panthers’ owner, is the smartest guy in the room, at least financially. He can trade on the goodwill of the team and the psychic kick York County would get from being a part of it. It might end up one of those deals that benefits both sides. But if there happens to be a pig in a poke, I promise you, it ain’t going home in David Tepper’s car.

Tommy Tomlinson’s On My Mind column runs every Monday on WFAE and WFAE.org. It represents his opinion, not the opinion of WFAE. You can respond to this column in the comments section below. You can also email Tommy at ttomlinson@wfae.org.