Although shunned by many, the black cat is revered in Spartanburg County – especially when it appears as the image of a snarling panther bordered in electric blue.
For the past 23 summers, the NFL’s Carolina Panthers have brought revenue and the national spotlight to Spartanburg during their training camp at Wofford College.
This year, the camp had a best ever $13.24 million impact on the community and supported a record 266 jobs, according to a Clemson University study.
That was accomplished despite a 27 percent decrease in attendance to 99,196 visitors, compared with an all-time high of 135,371 fans in 2016, a year following the team’s second Super Bowl appearance.
The turnout in 2017 was the second highest in the camp’s history even though the Panthers finished the previous season with a 6-10 record and in the basement of the NFC South.
While the marriage between the Charlotte, N.C.-based franchise and Spartanburg has always been happy and prosperous, a lingering question has persisted for more than a decade: Would the Panthers, one of the few remaining NFL teams to hold training camp away from its home campus, continue to hold court in Spartanburg after the death of its founder and majority owner Jerry Richardson?
Richardson, a native of North Carolina who is still very much alive, graduated from Wofford in 1959 and played two seasons for the Baltimore Colts before returning to Spartanburg and establishing a restaurant empire.
In 1987, Richardson began pursuing his dream of bringing an NFL team to the Carolinas.
Richardson’s dream became a reality on Oct. 26, 1993, when he received a call from the league’s top brass confirming the Panthers as the 29th franchise in the NFL.
Before the team’s first season in 1995, Richardson fulfilled his other dream of having the Panthers train at his alma mater.
“When they first announced the Panthers were going to Charlotte, we immediately put together a team county, [Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce], and Wofford officials,” said Spartanburg County Councilman David Britt, who is also a Wofford alum. “[Richardson’s] first love is Wofford. His second love is Spartanburg. Wofford gave him an opportunity to play football. His commitment to Spartanburg has been unquestionably strong. We put together a package and went after [training camp] just like we would to attract a company here.”
“We did it because we thought we knew the impact it would have,” Britt added. “Every year, it has gotten better and better. It has been a phenomenal success. Every dime Spartanburg has committed to it has paid off.”
The team originally signed a 15-year agreement to hold the camp at Wofford. That agreement has been extended several times.
Its most recent contract extension promises to keep the camp in Spartanburg at least through 2019.
However, in late October, Panthers minority owner and Richardson’s son, Mark Richardson told reporters in Anderson that a decision had been made to sell the team within two years after his father’s death.
The elder Richardson, now 81, has a history of health issues.
Team spokesman Riley Fields could not be reached for comment.
Local officials said they have no idea what new ownership would mean for the training camp’s future in Spartanburg.
But they plan to make every effort to keep the Panthers from going somewhere else.
“I think [Panthers training camp] is synonymous with Spartanburg,” Britt said. “We do it right. If the Panthers were to be sold, I don’t think the new owners would have any other choice but to take a good, hard look at us – what we’ve accomplished together. Partnership. That’s what we have with the Panthers. Mr. Richardson was so smart and so generous in bringing them here.”
The energy and enthusiasm surrounding the camp for two weeks during the summer is something the Panthers need every season, officials said.
“From our standpoint, we have a proven track record of success,” said Chris Jennings, executive vice president of the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (SCVB). “The partnership between the team and the city, county, the SCVB, and Wofford is stronger than it has ever been.”
“The NFL is a business,” Jennings added. “We know that. The team has let us know this is their home. That doesn’t factor into new ownership and business models. I think we’re in good stead. We hope Mr. Richardson lives a long, long life. All we can control is the work that we do here.”
Jennings said his organization plans to expand its efforts to promote the 2018 training camp. He is confident the next camp will surpass previous attendance and economic impact numbers.
Various tourism partners in the community are also moving forward as one on many fronts to bring more sports tourism events to Spartanburg.
“We’re not going to rest on our laurels,” Jennings said. “In the sports tourism arena, pardon the pun, Spartanburg is positioning itself well to be the home for several kinds of sporting events. We’re always looking ahead and we have to… We’re like the little engine that could. Nothing can replace the Panthers. The eyes that are on Spartanburg and the Upstate because of training camp are irreplaceable. The NFL is premier. We’re going to keep working our great customer service, our partnerships, and facilities.”
When he named the team, Richardson chose something inclusive in order to draw support from fans in both North and South Carolina.
Spartanburg leaders said that fan support has blossomed throughout the years and firmly fixed the team in the hearts and minds of area residents.
“There are only a handful of communities that can lay claim to being the home to an NFL team,” said Will Rothschild, vice president of strategic communications for the Spartanburg Chamber. “Every summer for more than two decades, Spartanburg has been in that group of communities, and the status has proven to be a bottomless well of good fortune for us. The national name recognition, economic activity, and community identity and pride the Panthers have created for and in Spartanburg is immeasurable, as is Jerry Richardson’s loyalty to this community.”
In 2016, the Panthers became the first NFL team to hold a joint practice with a high school team – Spartanburg High School. The team replicated the event this year with Dorman High School.
Outside of football, Panthers players have made generous donations to the Spartanburg Community, including a $200,000 gift this year to the city’s Northside Initiative for the construction of a new youth athletic field at the T.K. Gregg Community Center.
Wofford’s campus has benefitted as well.
The facilities used by the Panthers for training camp are attractive, pristine, and well maintained, rivaling those at much larger institutions. Some have described the experience as being akin to a visit to Augusta National.
During his time as a Spartanburg business leader and an NFL owner, Richardson has continued to support Wofford.
An endowed scholarship fund, the Richardson Family Scholarship, is the highest honor awarded to entering freshman, according to the college.
The school recently opened its new Jerry Richardson Indoor Stadium, a 123,000-square-foot facility that features a 3,400-seat basketball arena, 350-seat volleyball venue, and many other bells and whistles.
Wofford’s new 65,000-square-foot Rosalind Sallenger Richardson Center For the Arts, named after Richardson’s wife, is home to the college’s arts, visual arts, and arts history academic programs, as well as a 300-seat performance hall.
Richard Johnson, Wofford’s athletic director, could not be reached for comment.
After the Panthers last extended their training camp commitment in 2015, Wofford’s President Nayef Samhat showered praise on the team.
“Wofford is so thankful for Jerry Richardson and the Panthers for providing this opportunity for the college,” Samhat said in a statement. “Mr. Richardson and his family continue to be generous to the college and to having a positive impact on the campus and our students… We thank the Richardsons for their continued generosity and support for Wofford.
“We look forward to working with the Spartanburg community – the city, the county and the Chamber – to continue to enhance the training camp experience for our community and visitors,” Samhat added.
In 2014, Wofford dedicated a bronze statue of the physically imposing Richardson on the patio of the Harley Room in the Richardson Physical Activities building.
“I love Jerry Richardson,” Britt said. “The [Spartanburg Headquarters] library is where it is today because of him. His fingerprints are going to be all over Wofford for the next 100 years. No one has been more generous to Wofford than Jerry Richardson. Whatever happens, we’ll keep fighting for the Panthers and training camp.”