When Vince Lombardi said, “Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing,” he gave words to a universal truth for the fans – and nobody knows that better than Jerry Richardson, owner and founder of the Carolina Panthers. Now, more than ever before, Richardson realizes the need to build a competitive team and bolster fan loyalty to maintain a healthy sports enterprise. And he’s willing to do whatever it takes – from maintaining a wholesome and comfortable environment for watching a football game, to modifying his methods according to lessons learned, to talking to fans one-on-one for goodwill and honest feedback.
“What I have learned most about being an NFL franchise owner is just how passionate and emotionally connected the fans are to their team,” Richardson reflects. “I never fully realized the emotional investment they make in their teams. If things go wrong, or we have a poor season, they get very upset. Fans want to come to games that are exciting and see their team win. It’s that simple.”
Making good with the fans is a serious issue to Richardson, who personally receives letters and e-mail, as well as conducts annual surveys. “Fans tell me right off that they appreciate having the NFL here. But they don’t hold back when speaking their mind about team players and tactics,” he says.
Richardson recently received a heated e-mail from one avid game-going fan in Columbia, S.C. “She wrote saying how unhappy she was with the team and with me. She said she was just disgusted and was not going to renew her tickets. Being curious as to why, I invited her to visit. She came less than a week later, and after talking for some time with our coaches, decided she liked what she had heard and renewed her tickets. She was impressed with our staff as they listened to her concerns and shared their plans with her,” Richardson affirmed. And while Richardson can’t handle every fan communication this way, it’s a good example of how focused Jerry Richardson is right now on his customers.
“In our business,” Richardson says, “we realize that people need to feel connected to their team. They need constant support, contact, knowledge and communication. It is difficult to communicate personally with thousands of people, but it’s important to do what we can, whenever we can,” asserts Richardson.
Mark Richardson, president of the Panther organization, credits his father’s honest, straightforward personality as the reason he is able to relate to fans so well. “My father is the most genuine people-person I have ever met,” he says. “Now that I work with him in a business setting, it gives me a better understanding of why he’s always been so successful. He has a passion for everyone and everything he works with. He’s created an organization and an environment that reflects his personal values and beliefs, a place where every fan or employee feels at home with the Panthers. We all strive to meet the standards he sets – which are high – but he is a great leader and a precise communicator and people are drawn to him and want to follow him. He’s earned everyone’s respect because he treats people equally at every level. He doesn’t see a difference between people who work here, so we all work very hard to attain the vision he has for our organization.”
Richardson moves easily among staffers from executives to the staff preparing food or cutting the grass. He greets each one by name with a wave, smile or a handshake. He laughs at the notion that it is unique and impressive that he seems to know nearly everyone by name. “It is my business to know their names. They are hard working people, and I want to know them all,” he says.
Football Is in His Blood
Football has always been a passion for Richardson, a North Carolina native who played the game in both high school and college. He attended Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C., and after a stellar college career for the Terriers, the Baltimore Colts drafted him in the 13th round in 1958. He overcame tremendous odds to earn a roster spot as a third receiver for the Colts and is known for catching a touchdown pass from Johnny Unitas in the 1959 Championship Game for a 31-16 victory over the New York Giants. Today, Richardson, along with the late George Halas, is one of only two NFL owners to ever have played in the League.
After his two-year stint in the pros, Richardson used his $3,500 playoff check to begin a successful 30-year career in business as CEO of Flagstar Companies, a restaurant empire he co-founded in 1961 and took public on the New York Stock Exchange. Although Richardson stepped down and sold out of the business in 1985, he still owns 50 percent of a business in Raleigh that operates 30 Bojangles restaurants in the area.
With his children grown and his career “complete,” Jerry Richardson relented to his passion for football and began making his ultimate dream of landing an NFL expansion team in the Carolinas into a reality. “During my career I’d built a $3 billion business and taken it public; it was time to get back to what I enjoy most – football – and to make a substantial contribution to it if possible. We had seen how difficult the competition was to get the NBA to come to Charlotte, but we also saw how it enriched the community and how committed the fans were. We really felt we could get an NFL team for the Carolinas.”
His quest was driven in part by a desire to give back to the community, suggests Mark Richardson. “Besides his passion for the game, I think my father saw this as an opportunity to give something back to the people of the Carolinas who had shown him support throughout the years,” he says. “He also saw it as an opportunity to provide a major asset to the Carolinas, something that perhaps no one else would have been able to accomplish.”
In the summer of 1987, Richardson and his son, Mark, along with NationsBank Chairman High McColl, Jr., attorney Richard Thigpen, Jr., and John Lewis of Arthur Andersen, met in Charlotte to discuss the possibility of entering a bid for an NFL franchise. With the marketing genius of Max Muhleman providing nationwide attention, the ownership group overcame repeated hurdles to obtain the franchise six and a half years later.
One of the first orders of business was to choose a stadium site for the privately-financed $200 million facility that would seat 70,000 fans. Richardson felt strongly that it should be a “Carolinas” team. “We wanted the people of both North and South Carolina to feel an ownership of the team and we narrowed it to two locations in North Carolina and two locations in South Carolina. Ultimately we chose Charlotte as having the greatest potential, being in close proximity to South Carolina fans.” To further provide South Carolinians a sense of ownership, the team holds training camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg during the preseason.
Richardson’s partners, Richardson Sports Limited Partners (d/b/a Carolina Panthers), consisted originally or 12 members and has now grown to 18. John Belk, chairman and CEO of Belk, Inc., is one of 18 partners in the organization. He believes Richardson has provided the community with a great asset and provides outstanding community support. “We think he’s a very honorable man and we were one of his first supporters even before he ever brought the team here,” says Belk. “We think a lot of his ability – he’s smart in business and has played the game himself. We congratulate him on bringing the team here.”
Learning from History
Richardson describes the first six seasons as a “learning process” in which he learned many things from what he considers to be major mistakes. “In the beginning we wanted to win and win quickly,” he admits. “We didn’t really understand the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) and the salary cap, and gave up too much currency by being too aggressive with signing free agents. But we wanted to present the best NFL football team as we could. And we did.”
Indeed, the team made NFL history with an impressive 7-9 record its inaugural season and advanced to the NFC Championship Game during its second season. The team’s success, however, has slowed over the ensuing years.
“When you make big mistakes, you pay for it,” declares Richardson. “Last year’s season was just a nightmare,” he says ruefully, recalling the team’s losing streak, including four games lost during the final play of the game.
After going through two head coaches, the Panthers’ organization had begun to lose its energy and fans had become increasingly disappointed. Although nearly 90 percent of stadium seats were sold in advance, the Panthers were increasingly playing to half-full stadiums – a real sore spot for Richardson.
“It’s very disappointing to me when the fans don’t want to come see the games. We try to provide a top-notch environment and we want them to have a team they are proud of and enjoy watching. But, as they’ve told us, it’s not fun when the team’s not winning, especially if they’ve traveled a long distanceto get here.”
New Season, New Beginning
As the nation’s #1 spectator sport kicks off a new season this month, Richardson is more intent than ever on rebuilding the franchise organization to move beyond last season’s dismal record and redeem itself as one of the leading NFL franchises. With a new coaching staff, the addition of several enthusiastic young players, a general manager appointment and a re-energized organization, Richardson believes the fans are in for a long-awaited treat.
“I will be just shocked if the fans cannot feel the new level of energy in this team the moment they walk into the stadium,” says Richardson.
Richardson has taken more care this time around in the search for new personnel, seeking advice from others in the industry and conducting a more extensive interview process. “When we hired George Seifert, a veteran coach with a notable winning record, we thought it was the best way to quickly generate a winning season. But it’s one thing to generate success and another to sustain success. This time we wanted to get things right from the start, because if you are learning from your mistakes, you should do things better the next time around.”
“We wanted someone who was very competent and had a high energy level,” says Richardson, who believes he has found the perfect coach for the Panthers in John Fox. Fox, the former defensive coordinator for the New York Giants, came with glowing recommendations from Wellington Mara, owner of the Giants, and is known for his ability to energize and motivate his players.
“I believe John is the best coach for us,” says Richardson. “He has an exceptional coaching staff, he’s experienced with coaching different levels of players, and he has an engaging personality. I believe having John on board will be the greatest impetus to building a winning team, boosting the organization’s spirit and re-energizing our fans.”
Likewise, Fox was drawn to the Panthers organization by Richardson’s reputation as a top-notch owner, a man NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue describes with words such as “tradition”, “legacy” and “integrity.”
“Jerry Richardson comes from a great tradition in football. He played for an owner, Carroll Rosenbloom of the Baltimore Colts, who understood that a team’s goals on and off the field had to be a legacy in the community. And above all, he brings the highest level of integrity to whatever he does,” says Tagliabue. “When we have ownership meetings our senior staff knows that what Jerry is going to contribute is not in the self-interest of the Panthers or for his own agenda, but is what is right for the NFL, and more importantly, for the NFL fans.
"That is what we need to strive for throughout the entire League," Tagliabue adds. "We need the franchises to recognize that tradition is part of what ties generations together and what ties people together. And legacy is a very important part of the sports world.”
“I think Jerry Richardson is a very wise man,” agrees Fox, “I think he likes a positive environment and has a lot of character as an owner. He’s very solid in his beliefs. He bought the team for different reasons than many of the other owners who buy a team merely for a hobby. He has a great loyalty to the region, and he’s played football and understands the game. This man bought a team and put it where he wanted it. That’s impressive.”
Fox also shares Richardson’s desire to get back on the winning track. “One thing I told them is that we have a great owner, a great city to recruit players to, and a great stadium,” says Fox. “There’s really no reason why we can’t win. If we make good sound decisions and stay on course, it’s just a matter of time to bring this thing to where we want it to be – at the top.”
Making Good with the Fans
Although the Panther organization has been successful in renewing 96 percent of season tickets for the upcoming season, it took more convincing this year than in the past. “We had more staff working on it and we reached out to more businesses and more people in outlying areas of the city” admits Richardson. “After last season it definitely took more convincing, but I guess their positive response is an indication that they have confidence in us.”
So far, fans do seem to be responding enthusiastically, attending training camp sessions and special events. About 1,200 people showed up for the opening day of training camp, more than 15,000 people attended the Panthers’ Fanfest Day in August, and the stadium was sold out for the Panthers’ home pre-season games. “These figures exceeded all our expectations,” says Charlie Dayton, the Panthers director of communications. “It is encouraging for us and I think it shows a confidence in what we’re doing with the team.”
The Panthers’ marketing group has been promoting Coach Fox heavily, touting his past success and positioning him as the team’s energizing source. They’ve also thrust him into the community, where fans can get up close and personal. During training camp, Fox took time to schmooze with fans, give upbeat speeches, and sign autographs – personally thanking people for their support.
“The fans have been very supportive and that’s what is so great about our game. Every year is a new season and there’s always a new reason for optimism,” says Fox. “Obviously, last year was a very disappointing season, but the fans are back and there seems to be a newness in their energy.”
This personal approach is a conscious decision aimed at improving fan relations. “We have gotten feedback that we were not accessible to the community,” explains Richardson. “So in addition to all the current community activities we do with the players and cheerleaders, we’ve made it a point to have John, as well as Marty Hurney, our general manager, and the other coaches and executives, out in the public where people can meet them, talk with them one-on-one.”
“Jerry is the front runner between the fans and the players and his relationship with them is outstanding,” says John Belk. “He really has a connection with fans and has bent over backwards to keep up his relationship with the community. He’s done an excellent job on that.”
Even the stadium facility is continually being improved to better serve the fans. “When we built the stadium we spent more money on little details that we believe make a difference to people and create a positive frame of mind and a great environment for football,” says Richardson, beaming as he walks out onto the playing field. “No matter how many times I come out here, I still get a jolt from it,” he says.
While giving a tour of the facility, he proudly points out the “details” that not everyone may notice right away, such as the three grand entrances that were built to make sure everyone has an equal feeling of importance when entering the facility, the way each seat is perfectly angled to directly face the playing field, and how many plants and trees indigenous to the Carolinas make up the perfectly manicured landscape around the stadium.
“When the landscape architect told us pine trees were not suitable for our landscaping, we told him they are a North Carolina tree and we want them,” Richardson asserts.
The Panther’s stadium is so admired by the NFL and NFL owners across the country that Richardson serves as Chairman of the NFL Stadium Committee, which explores future construction of stadium sites in other cities. He also serves as a member of the NFL Business Ventures and Legislative Committees.
For Richardson, making the experience positive and memorable for fans can mean anything from adding more benches to the indoor ramps for people who need to rest on their way to the upper decks, to building an extra-wide concourse so parents with small children can navigate safely through thick crowds. “As owner of the team I take the responsibility very personally and try to respond to the needs of the fans as much as possible. This game and this stadium are here for everyone to enjoy.”