CHARLOTTE – When the Carolina Panthers welcomed the Atlanta Falcons for their first regular season home game in Charlotte on Sept. 1, 1996, fans streamed into a gleaming stadium that combined a classic football feel with state-of-the-art technology.
While Bank of America Stadium has held up beautifully over the years, Owner/Founder Jerry Richardson and the Panthers are now working to capture the feel of that historic day with a major renovation that could begin in less than a year.
"One of the things we heard loud and clear from focus groups and surveys during our re-branding process (in 2011) was the importance of Bank of America Stadium and the fan experience," team president Danny Morrison said. "What we want to do is maintain our classic design and stadium-in-the-park feel while incorporating the very best of technology."
To that end, the City of Charlotte announced an agreement Friday with the Panthers on a proposal for a $250 million renovation project. Pending final approval, the Panthers committed to a 15-year non-relocation agreement to run through July 1, 2028.
The proposed plan calls for the city to contribute $125 million for renovations in conjunction with a $62.5 million commitment from the Panthers. The sides also would contribute another $52.5 million to their partnership, bringing the city's pledge to $143.75 million and the Panthers' pledge to $96.25 million.
The $52.5 million pledge would include an annual $1 million contribution by both sides to a maintenance fund for 15 years. In addition, the city would agree to invest $3.75 million over the length of the agreement toward game-day traffic control costs, while the Panthers would make the stadium available to the city rent-free for five events per year, a contribution valued at $18.75 million.
The city and the Panthers will now seek permission from the North Carolina General Assembly for the city to vote on levying an additional one-percent prepared food and beverage tax to fund the partnership. In addition, the city and the Panthers will request $62.5 million in funding from the state.
Those processes began in earnest Wednesday, when representatives from the city and the Panthers met with the Mecklenburg County state delegation in Raleigh.
Morrison said renovations could begin following the 2013 season with the installation of escalators leading to the upper level as well as cutting-edge video technology.
"Mr. Richardson's directive was that the main focus of the renovation has to affect all 74,000 fans," Morrison said. "There will be some upgrades to the premium areas, but the majority of the master plan has to impact 74,000 people on game day."
The master plan for renovations authored by Populous, the architectural firm that designed the stadium, has a low range of $261 million and a high range of $297 million.
"The master plan is a guide. It has to be fluid," Morrison said. "You'll do the majority of the things in the plan but there might be some things you won't do, and then there might be something that surfaces two or three years from now from that needs to be implemented."
Following is a detailed breakdown of the master plan and a glimpse at what may be in store for Bank of America Stadium.
|Video Boards/Ribbon Boards/Sound
|Facility infrastructure, seats, concrete, etc.
|Entry Gates/Ticket Office/Team Store
|Team Areas/Indoor Practice Facility
The Panthers plan to add escalators near each of the stadium's three entrances that can transport fans all the way to the 500 level - the top level of the stadium. The escalators would be offered in addition to the existing ramps. Some elevators may be added as well but not on a large scale.
"The major thrust of this is escalators - making it easier for people to get to the upper deck - and technology," Morrison said. "People that were 55 when they bought PSLs when the stadium opened are now over 70, so improving our vertical circulation was important."
VIDEO BOARDS/RIBBON BOARDS/SOUND
When the stadium opened, the action on the field provided everything football fans wanted. But times, along with technology, have changed.
"Another critical element is to improve the in-bowl experience," Morrison said. "If you look at all the newest stadiums, the one thing prevalent is how well technology is being used to improve the fan experience.
"We're looking at new video boards in each end zone and a double ring of LED ribbon boards around the bowl. Fans want more information – they're playing fantasy football, for example – so we'll have a ring on the upper deck and a ring mid-level."
Morrison said the Panthers would replace the video boards that were last updated in 2006 with much larger video boards while also improving the picture quality.
The stadium currently features ribbon boards that run from end zone to end zone on each side of the field as well as small boards in two corners. The new ribbon boards would cover more than three times as much space.
The plan also includes a replacement set of video boards.
"Over 15 years, there's likely going to be a need to replace the technology, and we have planned for that as well," Morrison said.
When the Panthers debuted at what was then called Ericsson Stadium in 1996, cell phone technology was in its infancy.
"We want to enable the people in the stands to be able to do whatever their mobile device will allow," Morrison said. "You have to have the technology backbone to make that possible."
In addition to improving the wireless experience for fans on game day with increased bandwidth, the upgrades would improve in-house television offerings.
Significant funds would be allocated for back-of-the-house maintenance crucial to the life expectancy of the stadium – things like heating, air and other major building systems, concrete coatings and the football field itself.
ENTRY GATES/TICKET OFFICE/TEAM STORE
"When we opened the stadium in '96, you didn't really have heightened security concerns," Morrison said. "Now with wanding and all the screening, we have to really improve our entry gate system to allow people a more efficient way to get into the stadium."
That could include LED screens outside the gates to keep fans informed.
100 AND 500 LEVELS/CONCOURSE
Morrison called the categories above as "the most pressing priorities," but the renovation ideas don't stop with escalators that connect the 100 level to the 500 level.
"Some of the things we're talking about in the upper deck are roof terraces – patios where you would look back into the uptown environment, taking advantage of this beautiful skyline we have," Morrison said. "That would make the upper deck an even more fan-friendly environment.
"On the ground level, we'd want to add a team history area."
While most of the work will benefit every stadium visitor, a portion of the project will focus on upgrading the suite- and club-level experience. Proposed enhancements include motorized replacement windows for suites.
TEAM AREAS/INDOOR PRACTICE FACILITIES
In addition to improving the parts of the stadium that the players call home – locker rooms, meeting rooms, weight room and training room – plans include the construction of an indoor practice facility.
When inclement weather currently forces practice inside, the Panthers practice in a ballroom at the Charlotte Convention Center.
"Indoor facilities have become more and more the norm throughout the NFL," Morrison said. "If it all comes to fruition, we would use an indoor practice facility about 10 percent of the time. That would leave an opportunity for other entities in the community to use it."
Includes ideas such as a street fan experience, a bunker suite and a field club.