by John Grooms
The great and powerful Wizard of Oz has come out from behind his curtain and graced the members of the lowly public with two recent appearances. Oh, Im sorry, did I say the Wizard of Oz? I meant Jerry Richardson, the largely absentee owner of the Carolina Panthers. Richardson gave his first press conference in nine years recently, and was criticized for seeming arrogant, out of it, and very much out of touch with fans concerns. When Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson chided the Wiz ... er, Richardson about it, the NFL team owner must have realized hed screwed the pooch, and called up Tomlinson to talk about it. Apparently, Richardson was friendly and amenable to discussion, but he still came across as someone who sorely needs a better grip on the teams fans version of reality.
Big Jerry just couldnt believe, for instance, how fans griped when he raised ticket prices last year between $1 and $9 a seat per game. After all, the increase was so modest, the Wiz told Tomlinson. Later, he as much as said that Panthers fans are ignoramuses who dont know NFL history: Weve only been in (the NFL) a short while ... we havent been in the league 75 years like the Pittsburgh Steelers. Our fan base is young. They dont know the up-and-down cycles.
OK, Jerry of Oz, first about the ticket price increases. They wouldnt have drawn such anger if three other things hadnt also happened: 1. If you hadnt raised prices eight times in 11 years; 2. If tickets werent overpriced to begin with; and 3. If your team hadnt become the definition of cheap mediocrity in professional sports.
As for Panthers fans being young and not knowing the up-and-down cycles, is that really how you see the fans? Grumpy whippersnappers who just dont understand the NFL? Well, as dear ol Dad used to say, lemme tell you somethin: You were right, Jerry, when you said the NFL has changed dramatically; but its not just increased offensive power thats different. What has also changed is how big a slice of folks' discretionary spending NFL tickets take, compared to just, say, 15 years ago. In fact, some pundits say that your funding method of selling seat licenses is one of the things that has pushed NFL ticket prices upward, Jerry, so its surprising that you dont understand the fans ire over costs. And that up-and-down cycles thing? Unfortunately, that describes the Panthers from one year to the next not the longer view of 75 years. Again, it comes down to costs. It was easier to see the long-term picture in the old days, when you didnt have to put off surgery in order to afford season tickets. As you say, Jerry, its a business; and when the price is high, fans expect results sooner rather than later. As it stands now, fans are paying Mercedes prices for a Ford Focus product.
Plus and this is something thats not noted enough many Panthers fans are primarily fans of other teams ... those from the fans former cities, or teams that fans have carried around in their hearts since childhood, before the Panthers came along. Those people are, like it or not, Panthers fans second. The teams late entry into the NFL may not be your fault, Jerry, but its certainly something you need to realize and deal with realistically. But mostly, Jerry? You need to get out from behind that curtain more often.