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Thursday, May 23, 1996 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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NFL Likes The New Carolinas Stadium -- Whitsitt Returns With Some Ideas For Seattle

Seattle Times Staff Reporter

CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Carolina Panthers' owner Jerry Richardson stood in his grand edifice known as Carolinas Stadium, gazing at his city's futuristic skyline.

Looking at the ultramodern glass assemblage rising above this booming city like a Sequoia forest, he reflected. "Look," he said, pointing toward a freshly finished structure just across the street from his football stadium.

It was a parking garage. But a parking garage surrounded by 17,000 annual flowers and hundreds of indigenous trees planted to give the 33-acre stadium site a park-like feel.

"I wanted it to be part of the environment, so when fans come here they will start to feel the experience as soon as they park," Richardson said. "It cost a lot, but you have to spend money to do it right."

Richardson's $180 million stadium has become the envy of the National Football League, as much a shrine to ingenuity as to professional sports.

"That's why we've got to get everyone together and start thinking about what we can do to have a facility to last years," said Bob Whitsitt, who attended the annual NFL spring meetings in Charlotte and toured Carolinas Stadium with NFL team owners and executives, including Seahawk President David Behring.

As Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen tries to overcome Seattle's football-stadium issue in order to buy the Seahawks, Whitsitt, his adviser, returned to the Pacific Northwest last night with a greater appreciation of what it will take.

"It reminds me of what the NBA was doing eight years ago," said Whitsitt, president of Allen's Portland Trail Blazers. "And look at all the new arenas we got."

Allen built Portland's new basketball arena, the Rose Garden, which is every bit an equal to Carolinas Stadium. That is why few expect Allen to be satisfied with a renovated Kingdome.

Whitsitt, who will address the Kingdome Renovation Task Force tomorrow, said he believes resistance to a football-only stadium will subside once fans get used to the Mariners' new ballpark, scheduled to open in March 1999.

Standards being raised

He said the fans' standard of what is acceptable will be elevated.

"They will expect football to have as nice a place as the baseball team," Whitsitt said.

But instead of waiting three years for consumer demands to change, Whitsitt is working on parallel tracks to consider the Kingdome and possible sites for a new facility. Whether that spells the end of the Kingdome as a sports stadium isn't known.

But Whitsitt and other NFL executives left little doubt about what they would like to do, after touring the Charlotte facility.

"By comparison, we're living in a bombed-out zone," said Carmen Policy, San Francisco 49er president.

"This is the hallmark for years to come," Amy Trask of the Oakland Raiders said while examining one of the 137 luxury suites.

The spacious, 72,685-seat stadium fits into the uptown Charlotte cityscape like a nicely designed neighbor. The three massive arch entrances have lighted domes and two large bronze Panther sculptures, which will be unveiled in a ceremony this summer.

The facade is grayish black, representing the team's colors of silver, black and blue. The carpets and walls also use the color scheme, with Panther insignias emblazoned everywhere - even on the bathroom tiles.

The stadium already has made the second-year franchise one of the NFL's richest teams, giving it a money stream exempt from league revenue-sharing rules.

The method of paying for Carolinas Stadium was as innovative as the facility itself.

Richardson, along with Charlotte marketing specialist Max Muhleman, devised a plan to charge season-ticket holders one-time fees ranging from $600 to $5,400 per seat in addition to the annual cost of season tickets.

Fans can `own' their seats

That fee entitled fans to "ownership" of their particular seats. They can sell the rights if they want or pass them on to family members or friends. The expansion team sold $100 million worth of those personal seat licenses (PSLs) for the $180 million stadium.

The strategy has been hugely successful in markets such as Charlotte, where fans hunger for the NFL experience. Under Muhleman's guidance, $77 million worth of PSLs were sold in St. Louis, $68 million were purchased in Nashville.

Critics call this a surcharge, because fans are paying for the right to buy tickets.

But Muhleman, a folksy pitchman, said PSLs enable fans to enter a partnership with the franchise, defray stadium costs from the general public, and get something of value that will likely appreciate by the time they want to sell the rights.

"It is the difference between renting and owning a house," Muhleman said. "Fans can see that. But it can't be effective on that basis alone.

"You don't buy a house because you're excited about selling it again. You buy it because you want to live there and have ownership."

The idea came from an enterprising fan. When Charlotte got its NBA franchise in the late '80s, Muhleman talked the owner into giving seat rights away in appreciation to inaugural season-ticket holders.

Later, Muhleman saw a newspaper classified ad in which a fan sold the rights to two seats for $5,000.

"I didn't realize the value of the rights until then," he said.

When Richardson offered PSL fees as a way to help pay for building a stadium, fans responded quickly and overwhelmingly.

The Panthers sold 41,000 the first day they were available and sold all their luxury suites to the bank-oriented business community.

Muhleman insists the strategy can work in Seattle and other markets that already have teams, especially if it isn't seen as the only funding source.

Daniel Champeau, an analyst for Fitch, a New York-based bond-rating company which analyzes sports franchises, said PSLs are best suited for the NFL, where there is a scarcity of games, but that it could be a tough sell in an existing football market.

"We think you run the risk of alienating your fan base, because suddenly you're charging them for something they've gotten for free," Champeau said.

Muhleman said the plan hasn't been used in an existing market yet, but the Chicago Bears are eyeing it.

NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue touts PSLs, and sent Richardson and league officials to Seattle in March to discuss the strategy.

The Carolina franchise owns the stadium and gets 100 percent of the ticket revenue, luxury suites, concessions and advertising fees.

The Seahawks' situation does not compare favorably. Seahawk officials have complained to the county for two years that if something isn't done, the team will start losing millions and eventually be devastated.

That is something Richardson will not worry about for many years.

A link to Carolinas Stadium information on the World Wide Web is on the Seattle Times Top Stories Web site at: http://www.seattletimes.com

Seattle Times staff reporter Richard Seven contributed to this report.

Copyright (c) 1996 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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