David Tepper's Charlotte Conquest (and SC, too)
The Carolina Panthers owner is a tough finance bro who knows how to use leverage to get what he wants—and he wants a lot from Charlotte, including a new stadium. It’s a complicated challenge for a city that’s never seen anyone quite like him.
Back before David Tepper started his hedge fund, before he was a billionaire, and before he owned the Carolina Panthers, he worked at Goldman Sachs in New York. He was the head trader of the bank’s junk-bond desk in that industry’s heyday, made a lot of money for the bank, then left after getting passed over for partner three times.
Ed Driggs started at Goldman after Tepper left, but remembers hearing stories about his oversized personality, “even by the standards of a Wall Street trading floor.” Driggs, now a member of the Charlotte City Council, was amused when he heard Tepper’s name again in 2018, when Tepper emerged as the winning bidder for the Panthers.
Time to see the man in action, he thought.
Now Tepper and Charlotte are locked in the early stages of a battle over a new stadium for his football team. Tepper wants the city to pay for a third of it. City representatives don’t know exactly what they want yet—but they don’t want to get taken.
“Do not expect David Tepper to do anything for Charlotte simply out of the kindness of his own heart,” Driggs told The Assembly. “I don’t mean to suggest he’s not a trusted guy, but don’t expect any kindness or favors from him. He’s a hard-nosed businessman.”
"We have very few leverage points, and we're outmanned and outgunned on all fronts,” said Tariq Bokhari, a city councilman who is tracking the city’s talks with Tepper. Faced with Tepper’s nearly unlimited resources, he said, “We don't want to give away what leverage we have."
Talks are ongoing between Tepper’s staff and city aides, led by Economic Development Director Tracy Dodson. (Dodson declined to be interviewed for this article, as did Tepper.)
If a new stadium costs upwards of $1.5 billion, as they have lately, Tepper would be asking the city to shell out $500 million for the new digs. The city has already shown a willingness to give Tepper money: they’re giving him $35 million to help bring a new Major League Soccer franchise to Charlotte. (The city initially gave him more, but much of that money was pulled back after COVID led to changes in Tepper’s development plans.)
A review by The Assembly of tax appeals, land records, and government documents shows that Tepper has already secured more than $400 million in assistance and tax relief from governmental bodies in North and South Carolina.
“The city's committed to making sure that top-level professional sports are viable,” said Councilman Larken Egleston, who represents much of Charlotte’s business core. “But I think we are committed to making sure there's a strong return on that investment.”
A strong return appears to be what Tepper wants as well. And his record shows that he’ll do as much as he can to secure it.
The scope of the city’s negotiations with Tepper are immense, going well beyond a new stadium. They’re discussing a multi-use entertainment district near uptown, as well as the future of Eastland, the immense vacant lot formerly occupied by a mall in a scruffy part of Charlotte that the city has sought to redevelop. Any investment by the city will likely be the largest it has ever given to a private developer.
Tepper says he’s committed to working in both states to accelerate growth in the region.
“The development of our world-class practice facility and destination site in Rock Hill and the Charlotte FC Academy at the Eastland Mall are a testament to this approach,” wrote Ryan Anderson, a public-relations staffer for Tepper’s sports enterprise, in a statement. “We expect our investment to pay dividends for years to come in economic impact, job growth, and visitors to the Carolinas.”
If given the opportunity, Tepper has the money to leave a mark on Charlotte. Local politicians are quick to point out how glad they are to have a problem like Tepper; it’s a gift most cities don’t have. But it makes for a complicated challenge for a city that doesn’t often go tête-à-tête against a billionaire.
Hundreds of millions of tax dollars in the infrastructure-needy Charlotte metropolis may instead be spent on Tepper’s projects. The city would, in turn, keep its NFL team, add a Major League Soccer franchise, and develop some real estate. Will a deal be worth it?
Tepper, 64, grew up in a working-class Jewish family in Pittsburgh and now has homes in Miami Beach, New Jersey, and Charlotte’s tony Quail Hollow neighborhood. He’s a Wall Street success story and brazenly proud of it.
At the press conference announcing the Panthers’ new head coach in 2020, Tepper, grinning ear-to-ear, appears to squeeze the backside of his second wife, Nicole, in front of the cameras. Nicole grabbed her husband’s hand and quickly pulled it back to her waist.
Tepper once displayed a pair of brass testicles in his office, described as “cartoonishly huge and grotesquely veiny.” He once bought and demolished the former mansion of a boss who passed him up for a promotion, and built one twice the size in its place. He’s that guy in a sports bar who, after a few beers, loves to talk about what he would do if he made it big.
Only Tepper actually did it.
He amassed a $15 billion fortune managing his New Jersey hedge fund. He specialized in making bets on entities in distress. When a company seemed close to bankruptcy—or a country seemed close to default—Tepper often believed that things weren’t as bad as they seemed. And that confidence paid handsomely when the company or country recovered, as they usually did.
“We don't freeze,” he once said to a reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review. “We keep investing with a disciplined, logical approach.”
In 2019, though, he closed off his fund, Appaloosa Management, to outside investors and dedicated himself to the Panthers.
He’s not simply some former hedge-fund manager who retired to a leisurely life in that most American sinecure of football-team ownership. Tepper has redirected his world-beating business acumen to turn his ownership of the Panthers into a sprawling set of development projects and a soccer team too, all eased and financed by hundreds of millions of dollars from governments across the Carolinas.
An aerial view of Panthers' current Bank of America stadium in Charlotte.
Carolina Panthers owner David Tepper, left, talk to an official during a Fan Fest practice at the NFL football team’s training camp in Charlotte. AP Photo/Chuck Burton.
Since buying the Panthers, Tepper has pressed for direct payments and tax relief in ways that his predecessor never tried. He’s used every ounce of leverage at his disposal, from tax appeals to land deals, to secure hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits.
“A guy doesn’t get $11.6 billion without taking advantage of his opposition,” said Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state legislator and opponent of a Tepper subsidy in the state. (At the time of the 2019 South Carolina deal, $11.6 billion was Tepper’s net worth. It’s $14.9 billion as of September, according to Bloomberg.)
The moves have almost certainly made Tepper wealthier. To move the team’s headquarters to South Carolina, he exacted tax breaks worth up to $340 million from the state and local governments, upwards of $40 million in free infrastructure, and a land deal that guarantees him the lowest tax rate for more than 1,000 acres. The headquarters and a new practice facility will open in 2023.
After a countywide property reassessment jacked up the value of the Panthers’ stadium, he pushed for three appeals of that value, lowering the value of his property by more than $350 million, with one appeal still pending. That move saved about $3.5 million in property taxes every year, and could grow.
To bring a Major League Soccer team to Charlotte, the city gave him $35 million, most of which will go to retrofit Bank of America Stadium for the new team. That’s the stadium he wants to soon replace—with the help of more city money.
“The general public often doesn't realize that people own these teams because they can profit off of these teams,” said Steve Salaga, a sports management professor at the University of Georgia. “Team owners usually have made billions in other industries. They're not all of a sudden going to stop making money.”
Bank of America Stadium, the Panthers’ home stadium since 1996, is now one of the older stadiums in the NFL. Only seven teams have an older facility. Despite tens of millions of dollars in renovations poured into the stadium over its lifetime, Tepper said he wants a new stadium. “At some point that building will fall down,” he has said.
But the richest team owner in the league has made it clear: He’s not going to foot the whole bill.
“I’m not building a stadium alone. The community is going to have to want it,” Tepper said at a charity event in June. “If I’m paying a third, the community is paying a third, and eventually in the future—and it could be a long way out—the permanent seat license owners [season-ticket owners who have to put down a deposit] are a third. That’s a partnership.”
The city of Charlotte hasn’t talked publicly about what kind of financing it wants for a new stadium. Tepper doesn’t have a site for a stadium. Charlotte hasn’t even agreed to let him build one or committed to sharing the cost. But he is doing what he excels at: building and using leverage.
Half a century ago, cities shelled out tens of millions of dollars to build sports stadiums. In the decades since, academics and cities learned that subsidizing a sports team was seldom the financial boon its boosters said it was. The money that would be spent by consumers on football—a key measure of the financial impact of sports stadiums—is almost certainly going to be spent anyway on some form of entertainment.
A Charlotte subdivision, part of the city's booming growth.
Cities are now less inclined to build stadiums for sports teams. Some eschew public support entirely, and others heavily curtail the use of public monies.
The negotiations with the Panthers are still in an early stage, and outside of the current stadium location, there is no alternative place for Tepper to build a stadium just yet. At one point, Tepper had pointed to Charlotte Pipe and Foundry Company’s 55-acre site, just west of the Panthers’ current uptown location, as a potential spot for a new stadium. The company is closing the site, but its owners say there are no specific plans for it.
Charlotte has yet to receive a formal request from Tepper, according to city spokesman Cory Burkarth. But he said that when they do get a funding request from Tepper, they’ll evaluate it.
“The City of Charlotte has a history of fiscally responsible management. Under no circumstances will the city agree to a funding request that would exceed the capacity of the Hospitality Fund,” Burkarth said, referring to a city pool of development capital.
The amount that could be drawn from that pool in 2027, when a current city deal with the Panthers expires, was estimated at $250 million.
Much of the time, Tepper’s leverage is the gosh-wow amount of money he has. He can use money to pursue his objectives in a way that would be impossible for most people to imagine. That’s what he did with the assessment of Bank of America Stadium.
Every eight years in Mecklenburg County, property tax values are recalculated. Property was re-assessed in 2019, and the value of the Panthers’ stadium shot up from $135 million to $572 million. It would have more than doubled Tepper’s annual stadium tax bill to about $5.7 million.
The Panthers first informally appealed to Mecklenburg County Assessor Ken Joyner. Joyner’s office cut the value to $472 million.
Determined to fight, the team commissioned a private assessment of the stadium that said it was worth far less: $87.3 million.
Tepper then appealed to the Mecklenburg County Board of Equalization and Review, a little-known panel available to county taxpayers. That panel met and lowered the value of the stadium by more than half, to $215 million. It was likely the largest single reduction in value in county history.
Tepper’s argument was that the value of NFL stadiums goes down more quickly than that of other properties over time, as aging stadiums, unlike office towers, don’t tend to hold their value even if renovated.
Bruce Miller, the chair of the board, told The Assembly that Tepper had received no special favors and that the appeal was handled like any other. “Nobody, nobody had anything to say about anything to any of us,” he said. “We didn’t give a shit what Tepper wanted. We’re appointed to do the best job that we can. If someone wants to say ‘Well, Tepper got a better deal,’ well, I don’t care. Was it a good deal for Tepper? I guess it was.”
Still, Tepper didn't let up. His lawyers appealed to the state property tax commission, which reviews local assessments. His appeal called the Mecklenburg County Board's valuation "arbitrary and illegal," and insisted that the stadium was worth $87 million.
The state commission planned to hear Tepper's appeal in September, but the hearing was delayed until it can be held in person. If he’s successful, Tepper would be in line to save about $1.3 million more in yearly tax payments.
Joyner, the county assessor, acknowledged in an interview that the initial assessment was a bit high—he says their staff wasn’t fully up to speed on the valuation of unique properties like NFL stadiums. But ultimately, Tepper’s appeal victories are a reality of the system.
“If you've got a property that's worth the kind of money that the stadium is, you probably have more resources than the average citizen would have in general," Joyner said. "I don't think there's very many multiple-million-dollar properties that wouldn't be able to put together a defense."
Left: A view of a the former Pipe and Foundry plant in Charlotte, a potential site for a new Panthers' stadium; Right: Light rail infrastructure in Charlotte
While Tepper’s team may fight tax bills, when Tepper wants something, market price can be irrelevant. Take the time he bought a small five-acre tract needed to build an access road to the new Panthers facility in Rock Hill.
Months before the specific details of the Panthers project were announced, Mickey Aberman, the Charlotte lawyer who owned the land, got a call from a real-estate broker who said that an anonymous buyer wanted his land. Aberman told the broker he didn't want to sell.
A few weeks later, a different broker—one with a connection to Aberman—called him. The new broker was direct with his message: The Panthers need your land and are willing to pay above market price for it. Aberman agreed to sell.
In the end, an LLC named GT Real Estate Holdings bought the land for $250,000, far more than its assessed value of roughly $150,000.
There is little an NFL team owner can do to make more money from the actual game of football. The TV and most ticket revenue are split evenly among all 32 owners, and the money a team can spend to pay players is capped at a percentage of revenues.
That leaves only a couple of ways that a team owner can put money in their pocket without splitting it 32 ways. One of those is building a new stadium and using money from the city and from season-ticket licenses to pay for it. Another is using the team to develop real estate.
Tepper plans to do both.
“What a lot of sports teams do is that they leverage a lot of market power,” said Jason Winfree, a professor at the University of Idaho who has written about the economics of sports franchises. “What that allows them to do is to lean on these local governments.”
Fresh off of a couple of decades as arguably the best hedge-fund manager in the world, Tepper was ready to teach a master class in leverage. His first major move after buying the Panthers was in South Carolina.
The Panthers have held their summer practices in Spartanburg for years, but hold regular-season practices in Charlotte, where the team offices are. Tepper saw an opportunity to build a showpiece headquarters, practice field, and real-estate development, and floated the idea of moving the team’s headquarters to South Carolina.
He’d need money—tax breaks and more—to do it, he said. He met with South Carolina Governor Henry McMaster and made his case in Columbia. Tepper was clear: No money, no headquarters.
Development-eager South Carolina lawmakers quickly passed $115 million in tax breaks for Tepper, and committed money to a $40 million highway interchange near the project.
Then Tepper’s focus shifted to the site in York County where the facility would be. He negotiated another deal, this time with local officials, that could net him hundreds of millions of dollars in benefits.
The break that Tepper got from the local officials, including the Rock Hill City Council and York County Council, was structured similar to the deal that Boeing got when it built a new factory outside of Charleston. Instead of paying a 6% property tax, Tepper will pay 4%.
Tepper’s taxes won’t go directly to county coffers, though. Over two-thirds of his tax payments will instead go to pay off a $225 million bond issued by the city of Rock Hill. That bond will pay for large portions of the infrastructure, such as landscaping and utilities, for the Panthers practice facility—which Tepper owns outright.
In a way, then, Tepper is paying taxes to himself.
And there’s another kicker in Tepper’s deal with the local officials. The property-tax deal he got applies to the area along I-77 in Rock Hill where construction of the Panthers facility is already underway.
If Tepper, and only Tepper, buys land there, he pays a lower tax rate. But a swath of hundreds of other acres, a couple miles east of the practice facility, was also included in the deal. If Tepper bought that land, he would also pay the lower rate there—and he could use those millions in bond revenue to pay for improvements to that property, too.
He’s already bought one of those parcels a ways from the facility: the Waterford Golf Club, a not-too-fancy golf course alongside the Catawba River. Tepper’s spokesman did not respond to questions about Waterford, and the Rock Hill city manager said he isn’t aware of any zoning requests about the property. Whatever Tepper does, it’ll be taxed less than what anyone else would pay.
If he develops even half the land he’s allowed to under the deal, it would make one of the biggest property developments ever for an NFL owner.
The plum tax rate is the linchpin of it all: County Councilman Robert Winkler, who voted against the deal, said at the time that “we've picked Tepper as the winner in York County for the next 30 years.”
It was the first April of the pandemic when Tepper’s proposal came before the York County Council. The council members were just getting used to meeting virtually. One wore a red polo shirt. One joined from his car.
The meeting began with a prayer. “We pray that our state reopens as quickly as it can,” then-Chair Michael Johnson said. A gray-haired lawyer with a youthful face, Johnson would win election to the South Carolina Senate as a Republican later that year.
No one knew what to do during the Pledge of Allegiance in a Zoom meeting, with some standing in their offices and others speeding up and slowing down the pledge.
Then the main event began. Sure, COVID was a problem, but the top item on the agenda was all anyone in the room could think about: The Carolina Panthers were going to move to South Carolina.
To seal the deal, Tepper wanted York County to approve its own deal, which would give another roughly $225 million in benefits to the Panthers and Tepper. If the county didn’t OK the deal, the whole scheme, including the state tax breaks, might fall apart.
The impression that this was a massive relocation of men, jobs, and infrastructure would be mistaken. The Panthers would continue to play in Charlotte. Tepper was merely moving the practice fields and administrative offices of the team to Rock Hill—and receiving a hefty sum for it.
The debate in York County, and its outcome, could be a preview of what’s to come in Charlotte. Tepper fights hard and doesn’t often lose.
Some on the county council thought it was a novel economic development idea. Others were opposed to it because of the speed of the measure—they had only recently received details about which land would be included in the deal when the proposal hit their desks. Some just didn’t think it was good business sense.
The day of the vote, the seven-member council had three in favor and three against.
Councilwoman Allison Love was on the fence. A conservative, she was initially opposed to the deal. She wanted to make sure that if there was a deal with Tepper, it would actually benefit the county.
She had some reservations on that score, and anyway, as she said, “you don’t get anything by starting out as a ‘yes.’” Nearly every county in the South has a story of a flashy investment deal not panning out the way its boosters thought it would.
But Tepper was promising to invest a billion dollars in the county, maybe even more. That amount of money could transform a place. In the end, Love voted to approve the tax breaks, saying it was a win for the county. The deal passed by one vote.
Austin Weinstein is a 2021-2022 American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow. He is a former banking reporter for The Charlotte Observer. Follow him on twitter @austwein.