David Tepper bailing on Eastland leaves Charlotte confused

David Tepper’s relationship with Charlotte and its sports fans took another nasty turn this week, and this time the Carolina Panthers losing a game or losing a headquarters had nothing to do with it.

This time it was the fact that Tepper Sports & Entertainment has pulled out of its original plan to build a youth academy and soccer fields at the former Eastland Mall site. The day before, it had been the news that another high-ranking TSE official had left the company in another mysterious shakeup. Before that, it had been the Rock Hill/Panthers headquarters fiasco, and various other TSE executives leaving for various other mysterious reasons, and the Charlotte FC head coach getting fired less than halfway through the team’s inaugural Major League Soccer season and … well, you get the point.

The “T” in TSE stands for Tepper, but it should stand for Tumultuous.

A high-ranking city official told The Charlotte Observer on Wednesday that “no one at the city knows why” Tepper Sports & Entertainment has abandoned the Eastland idea, which is concerning. But what is clear is that the honeymoon has long ago ended for Tepper and Charlotte, and things are going to get even more tumultuous whenever TSE asks for a public-private partnership that would funnel millions of public dollars toward a renovation at Bank of America Stadium.

TSE is the ownership group of the Panthers and Charlotte FC, the Major League Soccer expansion team. It is controlled by Tepper, a blunt billionaire and hedge fund mastermind, who bought the Panthers four years ago. He then brought an MLS expansion team to Charlotte in late 2019, and it started play earlier this year in what was an undeniable coup for the city. So to say “Tepper is awful” is overly simplistic.

Tepper also has never been embroiled in a workplace misconduct scandal like the one that enveloped former Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and irrevocably tarnished his legacy. And while that’s a low bar, here’s something else: While Richardson used Bank of America Stadium mostly as a private plaything for his beloved NFL team, Tepper has opened the gates to the masses many times over. I sat at the Garth Brooks concert Friday night marveling at how beautiful a night it was, just as it was for the Rolling Stones and Billy Joel concerts at B of A over the past nine months.

CLT_CharlotteFCvsChelsea_1436.JPG
Charlotte FC’s Daniel Rios, far right, watches as the ball flies past Chelsea FC’s goal keeper Eduard Mendy during a penalty kick at Bank of America Stadium on Wednesday, July 20, 2022 in Charlotte, NC. The goal by Rios tied the match, 1-1, which resulted in a penalty shootout that Charlotte FC won, 5-3. Melissa Melvin-Rodriguez [email protected]

In 2018, Bank of America hosted 15 events in the stadium.

In 2022, it will host 39, including the friendly exhibition between Chelsea FC and Charlotte FC on Wednesday night that drew 52,673 fans, was won by the home team on a dramatic series of game-ending penalty kicks and was played on a “one-night-only” grass field laid especially for the occasion that looked gorgeous (once the rain and lightning that delayed the game for an hour finally stopped).

As for public money: TSE will tell you it has privately funded more than $70 million in facility improvements at the stadium, and that it hasn’t received any public funding from the city of Charlotte to do so.

But …

Something is clearly wrong when an organization goes through high-ranking executives like paper towels.

Something is clearly wrong when what was supposed to be a state-of-the-art NFL practice facility dies on the vine, as it did in Rock Hill, and devolves into a series of lawsuits.

And something is clearly wrong when news like Charlotte FC’s pullout from the Eastland Mall redevelopment plan elicits almost a “Well, what did you expect?” shrug instead of a sense of shock.

I’ve heard high-ranking people around TSE defend Tepper by saying that if he ever got fed up and sold the Panthers that the city of Charlotte would then really be in trouble. And maybe that’s true, but this still doesn’t feel right.

And let’s be honest: It doesn’t help that the Panthers have gone 22-43 in Tepper’s four seasons as the team’s owner. If they had gone 43-22 and made the playoffs four straight years instead of missing them every year under Tepper, the public mood around the owner would be more forgiving.

Maybe new quarterback Baker Mayfield can help change those losing ways. Mayfield showed up for the soccer game Wednesday night, taking selfies with fans and meeting the governor. He looks the part, for sure. But in the meantime, the Panthers’ fan base finds itself trying to comfort itself with the idea of cool black helmets that will be worn only once during the 2022 season because not much else has gone right over the past four years.

Charlotte FC has actually been a bright spot in the TSE tenure, drawing large crowds and winning enough games to have a better chance at the MLS playoffs in Year 1 than the Panthers have had for almost the entire Tepper era.

But the Eastland Mall pullout makes you wonder — again — what’s going on at TSE.

This story was originally published July 21, 2022 6:00 AM.

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Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe award for outstanding newspaper writing and has earned 18 national APSE awards. He hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth,” which Sports Illustrated named 2018’s “Podcast of the Year.”
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