Was billionaire David Tepper deserving of Carolina Panthers' stadium funds?

David Tepper has become something of a cold talking point around Charlotte. The Carolina Panthers owner has repeatedly tried to quickly turn the team into a competitor and has been met with disastrous results.
David Tepper
David Tepper / Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

The Carolina Panthers are staying in Charlotte. 

The Charlotte City Council voted 7-3 to approve team owner David Tepper’s proposal for renovations to Bank of America Stadium. This keeps the team in its uptown home for the foreseeable future but asks the city's taxpayers to foot $650 million of the $800 million bill. 

This is earning a lukewarm reaction from Panthers fans. Though few will argue the stadium could use some modifications, many feel Tepper has not done enough to ask them to pay a sum he could easily afford alone. 

In fairness to Tepper, it is not unusual for a city to help or even entirely fund a new stadium. This is down to the interest of team longevity and the income generated by bringing fans in for games or other events.  

Around the same time as Charlotte's decision, the city of Jacksonville agreed to pay half of a $1.4 billion update to the Jaguars' EverBank Stadium, although taxes will not be used to fund the city's contribution. Over in baseball, the city of Las Vegas announced a $1.5 billion new stadium to house the relocation of the currently-located-in-Oakland Athletics. Around $380 million of it will be raised through taxes.

Stadiums become outdated. This is an accepted factor for any city or fanbase housing a professional team. The reason some people scoffed at Tepper's request is not necessarily economics. The proposal would likely have been a non-issue if it came on the heels of several successful seasons from the team and sold-out games. 

Therein lies the problem.  

David Tepper cares about the Carolina Panthers, and that's worth something

Most people by now probably noticed the Panthers have not put a capable product on the field in a good while, and not once under Tepper’s ownership. Since he took over before the 2018 season, Carolina has gone 31-68.

Their .313 winning percentage is tied with the New York Jets for worst in the league. Remove the 7-9 season in 2018, or even the 6-2 start from the first half of it, and that record comfortably plummets into sole possession of last place. 

How much of this falls on Tepper’s shoulders is a subject for debate. As tempting as it is to say, all of it, that's not an entirely fair position to take. The billionaire has routinely shown a willingness to improve the team. He opened the checkbook to bring in high-profile coaches, accepted the cost of paying multiple contracts when they didn’t work out, often attended games in person, and took great interest in the on-field results.

As much as he is an owner, Tepper also appears to be a genuine fan. 

It is always better to have an invested owner than a disinterested one. Owners who are there to collect their revenue and then go home can cripple a team’s culture. Fringe elements like training staff, assistant coaches, and scouting departments often become neglected. High-profile free agents are rarely pursued. 

Fans can also tell when the product on the field has no intention of competing with the league's best. Their attendance numbers and investment in team merchandise will reflect this.

It's easy to find examples of teams across all professional sports that struggle to overcome the ripple effects of cheap owners. The Washington Commanders under Dan Snyder were perhaps the most infamous case, mired in scandal and ineptitude for decades and never coming close to a Super Bowl appearance.

The MLB’s Oakland Athletics and Miami Marlins continue to languish in mediocrity amid league-bottom payrolls and are last in the league in attendance as a result. Locally, the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets failed to win a playoff series under 13 years of ownership from Michael Jordan. They only made three postseason appearances during that span.

Carolina Panthers were crippled by poor decisions under David Tepper

Tepper’s problem is not that he refuses to invest in the team, it's how he goes about doing so. The Panthers have tried to take shortcuts to rebuild a talent-depleted roster since he took charge, failed miserably, and then fired a scapegoat - often after weeks of clamoring from the fans. 

In 2019, the Panthers suffered several injuries and went 5-11. Incumbent head coach Ron Rivera was axed after his ability to adjust to modern game-planning fell under heavy scrutiny. 

In 2020, the Panthers started the first year of the Matt Rhule era encouragingly before collapsing down the stretch. The blame fell on the weak roster constructed by general manager Marty Hurney. He was replaced by Scott Fitterer after the campaign ended. 

In 2021, the Panthers tried rolling out Sam Darnold for a full season and bit the bullet. Once again, the team started strongly before faltering. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady was canned halfway through the bye week after a year and a half of seemingly vanilla scheming, but Rhule’s name quickly became mud in Charlotte. 

After a poor start in 2022, Rhule finally got shown the door and interim coach Steve Wilks nearly rescued the season. The respected interim missed the playoffs by one game. However, Tepper elected to go for Frank Reich due to his several years of head coaching experience and promise to recruit a talented team of assistants. 

It became quickly apparent that Reich didn’t have the answers, Fitterer assembled a terrible roster and depleted the team’s draft cupboard. Pretty much everything that could have gone wrong did. Both men were removed from the equation.

The pattern of fall guys is pretty apparent here, and 2024 offers easy pickings if things go below expectations with a first-time head coach and first-time general manager. At some point, one gets fed up with the repeated failures and attention on the guy who is hiring the people making them.  

David Tepper's reputation of impatience

Tepper could have accepted that the team’s glory days of the mid-2010s were behind them and a rebuild was needed. But he repeatedly tried to put a band-aid over the issue and then became surprised when it got worse. 

The hedge fund manager also had a confirmed problem with directly influencing team personnel decisions. Though which moves were exactly on his orders and which weren’t are unknown.

Here’s a major example: contrary to popular rumor, the decision to draft quarterback Bryce Young did not override Reich’s opinion. It is known Tepper often made suggestions to his coaches and managers, punishing those who disagreed with them. 

The Athletic published an expose of the team culture in 2023. The details were a damning indictment of Tepper's leadership abilities and tendency to meddle.

"Team sources described a “Hunger Games” culture at Bank of America Stadium. Coaches said they believed other staff members were text messaging Tepper behind Reich’s back about issues they saw with the team. General manager Scott Fitterer and, separately, an offensive coach went to Tepper with a coaching suggestion for the quarterback. Fitterer had previously spoken to Reich about this issue."

Joe Person, The Athletic

As analyst and fan scrutiny increased and Tepper fell under the limelight more, his second great flaw reared up. The man does not respond well when someone is critiquing him. There are numerous examples, all reported on. These include the ill-placed “Rome” comment after Rhule was hired, the drink-throwing incident in Jacksonville, and the confrontation with a local restaurant owner because they made fun of him with a sign.  

That last one gave off the energy of getting into an argument with an anonymous Twitter account. Why even stoop to that level? 

When a prominent individual does not maturely interact with the public, their other traits get an adjusted narrative. Suddenly, Tepper isn’t invested in the team. Instead, he’s impatient and clueless. He isn’t passionately defending negative chatter about the players and staff, but rather bullying people who could never dream of possessing the wealth he has.

Another arrogant rich guy who thinks he’s the smartest in the room. 

There is an old saying in sports that winning cures all ails. This can still be true for the Panthers and Tepper. If he wants to earn the trust of the city and fans back, put a winning product on the field. The narrative will change again, at least on a local level.  

Former star quarterback Cam Newton had his fair share of boneheaded comments and controversial decision-making. But he also got results, so those traits became excusable (at least to a degree) as part of his unique persona rather than an indictment of his overall character.

If Tepper tossed a drink on a fan who had just insulted him during a playoff season, maybe the narrative would instead shape itself towards a prideful owner defending his players from a jealous heckler. It wouldn’t excuse the action, but people would have moved on. 

Unfortunately, Tepper has yet to get that winning product everyone wants to see. He deserves credit for taking swings, but it’s hard to applaud him for that too much when each one gives off the impression that he has no business even standing at the plate.  

Tepper got his stadium money. But because of his past failures, all it did was make an already sour fanbase more discontented with him as the Panthers’ owner.

If he wants the criticism to go away, the fix is simple: remove the causes of the complaints. That means winning football games.

So far, accomplishing that is a puzzle Tepper hasn’t quite cracked.