For David Tepper, 2022 was a year of ups, downs and intrigue
It’s been almost five years since David Tepper took over the Carolina Panthers, and 2022 might be a year he’d like to forget. This year an $825 million project went up in smoke, two head coaches were fired and the quarterback carousel spun dizzyingly fast.
But Tepper's year wasn't nearly as rough as some local sports owners have seen, including the former owners of the Panthers and the Charlotte Hornets. And the turmoil could actually set the stage for more growth in the future — especially with Tepper's soccer franchise.
When Tepper bought the Panthers for $2.2 billion, he made it clear he didn’t just want one form of football in North Carolina.
He bought Charlotte FC, the 30th Major League Soccer franchise for a record expansion fee of $325 million. That team completed its first season in MLS competition this season, and fell just short of the playoffs.
As we head into the final days of 2022, Tepper has had a cocktail drink of a year. Shaken by coaching turmoil, a losing season, a failed practice facility. And stirred with more concerts for Bank of America Stadium and the potential for a major new development.
The drumbeat of bad press and on-the-field losses this year has surely left a sour taste in some fans' mouths. But Erik Spanberg of the "Charlotte Business Journal" said a sour taste doesn't compare to what other owners have done.
“He has not done anything near the level of moving a team, as George Shinn did, or having a team taken from him as Jerry Richardson, the original Panthers owner, was essentially forced to sell the team. So David Tepper hasn't done anything of that scale,” said Spanberg, who's covered the Panthers for 28 years. He was referring to the allegations of workplace misconduct, including inappropriate remarks towards women and racially tinged remarks, leveled against Richardson in 2017 shortly before he put the team up for sale. Richardson was fined $2.75 million by the NFL, though a league spokesman said at the time that the NFL was not pressuring Richardson to sell the team.
"He (Tepper) has made some mistakes and a particularly serious mistake with what happened in Rock Hill," said Spanberg. The Carolina Panthers’ attempt to build an $825 million headquarters and practice facility flamed out spectacularly this year, descending into bankruptcy and lawsuits.
To assess Tepper's year, WFAE spoke with three sports business experts. A Panthers spokesperson didn't respond to a request for comments.
Two coaches fired
Tepper’s year started turning rough in May, when Charlotte FC fired their first coach, Miguel Angel Ramirez. He was the first coach of the newly established soccer club, but lost that job after just 14 games, with a record of 5-8-1 in league matches.
At the time of his firing, many fans questioned why the club fired a coach so soon, after even hovering in a playoff spot. According to multiple media reports, conflict within the front office caused his firing, not his performance.
When the Ron Rivera era ended in 2019, Tepper looked to shake up the coaching staff by hiring Matt Rhule. At the time, he was coaching college football at Baylor. In January 2020, he signed a seven-year, $62 million deal.
But on-field performance didn’t improve during his tenure, and he was fired in October after a 1-4 start to the 2022 season.
The Panthers faithful haven’t had the best luck at the quarterback position since longtime starter Cam Newton. In 2021, the Panthers went through a round-robin at quarterback between Sam Darnold, Cam Newton and P.J. Walker. After that, in a late summer trade, Tepper made a big move for former Heisman winner Baker Mayfield.
That brought excitement during training camp, but that was short-lived after an abysmal start to the season. After only winning one game as the starter, he was released on December 6 and is now with the Los Angeles Rams.
Rock Hill failure
And Tepper’s $825 million dream came crashing down at the Panthers planned practice facility and headquarters in Rock Hill. Tepper’s company broke ground in 2020, but the project came to a halt in March. Tepper stopped construction. It put contractors, Rock Hill and York County in a rough spot. After months of legal wrangling, Tepper’s company reached a settlement this month to repay more than $100 million in total to those entities. The practice facility and headquarters sits empty and incomplete, a steel skeleton and not much more.
Not an entirely grim picture
Despite the shortcomings this year, even the bad could turn into good in the future.
Tepper has talked about creating an entertainment district in uptown Charlotte like other sports teams and has made no secret that he wants a new stadium. Could ditching Rock Hill lead to Tepper building more in Charlotte?
Robert Boland, an assistant professor of law at Seton Hall who studies sports business, thinks that could be the case.
"He pivoted away from the practice facility to an entertainment district around the stadium as his priority. And that may explain some of that, that part of it. Again, not the ideal time to do it with COVID, but maybe a better link up and maybe a link up to a new stadium, which he probably needs to think about having," said Boland.
When you have a year of bad press, it can be difficult for fans to buy in. But Melinda Morris Zanoni, managing member of Apollo Sports & Entertainment Law Group, thinks a few simple changes could help Tepper reconnect with the fan base next year.
"Communicate, hire a great law firm, hire a great communications department, put in place, put a PR plan in place. Show some stability. Hire the best people and keep them," she said. "Keep them; get fans in seats."
When Tepper was introduced in the summer of 2018, he had a vision to make big changes for the entertainment at Bank of America Stadium. Despite missing out on Taylor Swift's tour, there has been an uptick in the number of concerts at Bank of America Stadium since his takeover.
“So in the past year, roughly from September or October of '21 to fall of '22, I believe they had seven concerts,” said Spanberg. "Some of that was caused by pandemic delays. But whatever the reason, they had Elton John, Billy Joel, Garth Brooks two nights. I think he did deliver on that.”
In 2023, the Panthers will compete in their 29th season and Charlotte FC its second.
Charlotte FC finished the season just a few points shy of a playoff berth, and it seems like the city has begun to fall in love with its new soccer club. A bright young group of players and a coach players are attached to could make for their first playoff run next year.
And the Panthers are, somehow, technically still in the playoff hunt. Regardless of what goes on off the field, there’s one truism that applies: Winning solves most problems.