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Why the Canes Are Hot (and the Panthers Are Not)

Two wealthy out-of-state businessmen each bought major league sports franchises in North Carolina in 2018. Since then, the two organizations have moved in different directions.

The Carolina Hurricanes play against the New York Rangers. Credit: Cornell Watson for The Assembly

Five years ago, David Alan Tepper of Pittsburgh and Thomas Dundon of Dallas came to North Carolina to realize their dreams of owning a big-league sports franchise. Dundon bought a majority interest in the Carolina Hurricanes of the National Hockey League in January 2018. A few months later, Tepper acquired the National Football League’s Carolina Panthers. 

Both were billionaire businessmen adept at building fortune from mediocrity. Their by-the-bootstraps stories brought what Tepper called a “new day” to teams that sorely needed it. 

The Panthers, although they were a winning franchise at the time, were dealing with a front-office scandal. The Canes were in a nine-year playoff drought, with low attendance, stagnant leadership, and an uncertain future in Raleigh.

Tepper and Dundon, in their words and actions, are what you might expect in successful people: confident competitors who hate to lose, analytical strategists who make decisions without emotion, leaders who demand the best. 

But their approaches differ.

Tepper, who made his billions betting on financial assets nobody else wanted, is the guy who takes big risks for big rewardsthe quarterback throwing deep on first down. Dundon, who started building his fortune making subprime auto loans, is the guy who tends to the details, methodically working for the high-percentage shot.

Owing to habit, but also to happenstance, their tenures in Carolina have gone in different directionsin organizational stability, in fans’ esteem, and especially in team performance. 

In four full seasons under Dundon, the Canes have gone 174-86-28 (the last number is losses in overtime or shootouts). In the four preceding seasons, they were 137-138-53. They are Stanley Cup contenders again this year. This Saturday, Feb. 18, they will host the NHL’s coveted Stadium Series outdoor game against the Washington Capitals, with nearly 55,000 spectators at Carter-Finley Stadium.

In five full seasons under Tepper, the Panthers are 29-53. In the five seasons that preceded his purchase: 51-28 with one tie. The Panthers haven’t played a postseason game since Tepper arrived, despite making it in four of the five previous seasons. 

Some of the difference in the teams’ trajectories is luck. On the ice, the Canes were gathering young talent in 2018. “Not often, but sometimes, you buy a team that’s right on the verge,” sports consultant Marc Ganis told The Assembly.

Hurricanes captain Jordan Staal exits the tunnel before a game against the New York Rangers. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

The Panthers, on the other hand, had a core of older leadersquarterback Cam Newton, linebackers Luke Kuechly and Thomas Davis, tight end Greg Olsen, center Ryan Kalil, edge rusher Julius Pepperswhose best moments were already in the vault at NFL Films.  

For Tepper, who has made billions investing in undervalued assets, there’s an especially damning stat.

Forbes assigns sports teams a score that’s a ratio of victories per salary dollar, with the league average set at 100. The Hurricanes’ score last season was 121meaning they got 21 percent more wins for every dollar they paid their players than the league average.

The Panthers’ score was 59. David Tepper, hedge fund genius, owns an overvalued asset.

Keeping Score

Representatives of Dundon and Tepper declined to make them available to comment for this article. To compare the working styles and motivations of the two men, I listened to hours of their news conferences, podcast interviews, speeches, and broadcast interviews. I talked with more than a dozen people who know them or have worked with them (some who asked not to be named so that they could speak candidly), as well as people who study the business of sports. I also pored over quantitative measures of franchise performance. 

If you think you want to buy a sports team, first you should understand why, said Tim Koba, an assistant professor of sport management at High Point University who studies financial management and organizational effectiveness.

“Is it because you have a genuine interest in the sport? Is it because you have a genuine interest in being a member of a super small club? What’s that driver?”

Asked that question on day one, Dundon told reporters, “I like things where they keep score.” Hockey was one of the few sports he didn’t play as a middle-class kid in Dallas, where he was a tennis standout at Plano Senior High School. At age 51, he’s strong on the pickleball courthe also invests in that gameand he’s a single-digit handicap on the golf course.

The NHL presented a chance to own a team because of its relatively low cost. And the Canes had a need. They had stagnatedfinancially, competitively, and in the community’s ardorunder owner Peter Karmanos Jr., who moved the team from Hartford, Connecticut, in 1997 and saw his team win the Stanley Cup in 2006. Karmanos had presided, mostly in absentia, over a lean decade since.

Fans cheer as during the Carolina Hurricanes do a pre-game warm up at PNC Arena in Raleigh. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
Young Canes fans watch as they play the New York Rangers. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

Dundon had ideas, and the market was ready for change.

For Tepper, competition was likewise the driver. The first, second, and third things he cared about, he said when he arrived, were “winning.” And he loves football, which he played growing up in the modest Pittsburgh neighborhood of Stanton Heights. He’d already had a taste of NFL ownership, holding a 5 percent share of his hometown Steelers.

Building the Culture

The second order of business, Koba told The Assembly, is to ask yourself: “What are your skills?” For Tepper and Dundon, making money is high on the list.

“Then it becomes, if I’ve got this skill set, who do I need to surround myself with?” Koba said. “Do I know about scouting players? Do I know about creating cohesive team culture? Do I know about leadership in the front office, leadership with fans, leadership with teams and players?”

Dundon often talks about “culture.” For him, that means putting the right people in every job, expecting much of them, holding them accountable, and constantly scrutinizing the operation. “We’re always going to keep improving everything, every day,” he said on arrival. 

His broad priorities were clear before he changed from one quarter-zip Canes jacket into another: Improve the fan experience and take care of the players.

The players got locker room and workout upgrades, and the team leased a new practice facility it helped design in Morrisville in 2020. Team President and General Manager Don Waddell told The Assembly thatthis season, the Canes hired a full-time chef.

And Dundon, who as an investor helped turn Topgolf driving ranges into a global chain of destinations for family fun, said when he arrived that he hoped fans would “want to come back.”

The Canes briefly lowered some ticket prices. They created a tunnel where fans cheer as the players head to the ice at PNC Arena, which also got a high-resolution video board nearly three times as large as the old one.

Concessions were enhanced. The team worked for months with R&D Brewing of Raleigh to create Storm Brew, a lager that initially sold for $5 in a 16-ounce can. 

And Dundon did something Karmanos couldn’t: He embraced the team’s past as the Hartford Whalers. The Canes now sell Whalers gear, and Hartford’s widely admired logo is a common sight in the Triangle. With league permission, they designate an annual game as Whalers Night; the players wear Hartford-styled uniforms and celebrate goals to “Brass Bonanza,” the Whalers’ iconic goal song.

The Hurricanes’ average attendance, which was 11,776 in the full season before Dundon, is now 18,505—eighth among 32 teams. That’s 99 percent of the 18,680 capacity. The team sold 13,600 season-ticket equivalents this year, Waddell said—more than double what it sold five years ago.

Hurricanes player Jalen Chatfield laughs at a teammate during a game against the New York Rangers. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

But Dundon’s theory of change is based on one principle: winning. His first spring, the Canes missed the playoffs again after making no big moves at the trade deadline under General Manager Ron Francis, not known as an active trader.

So Dundon acted. Before the season ended he shifted Francis, a beloved center and captain in Hartford and the early Carolina years, to a smaller role. Seven weeks later, he fired him. Head Coach Bill Peters also left. 

After a search for replacements, Dundon chose two hockey lifers who were in the building and fit his culture. He made team President Waddell both president and general manager, overseeing both the business and hockey operations. 

And he made a man he had come to know as a kindred soul—Rod Brind’Amour, captain of the Cup team—his head coach. “Everything I think the world should be, everything I think about the way people should act … the way they should lead—this man does it,” Dundon said

Three years later, Brind’Amour was named the NHL’s coach of the year.

Tepper, 65, also preaches culture, accountability, and excellence, along with what might seem a contradiction—patience to let things develop, but a willingness to take big risks. 

He left Goldman Sachs as a head trader after being denied a partnership, and in 1993 he founded Appaloosa Management, which he built into a booming hedge fund, making billions of dollars for himself and his clients. He’s now worth $18.5 billion, Forbes estimates.

When Tepper bought the Panthers for $2.275 billion from the family and partners of founder Jerry Richardson, Richardson had been accused of workplace misconduct. So one of Tepper’s stated priorities was improving the office culture. “This is going to be an open place,” he said.

He also stressed the need for a new practice facility and for renovating Bank of America Stadium to bring more concerts and other events to Uptown Charlotte, plus a Major League Soccer team. And he promoted “win-win” public-private partnerships, with those who benefit also sharing the cost.

What he didn’t discuss much, and where he said he’d be patient, was leadership of the football team, coming off an 11-5 season.

“You actually are blessed with a pretty good football side here,” he said. “I’m not looking to do too much there.” 

That didn’t work out for Tepper. His choice for team president did have management experience in football—but the kind played with a round ball. Tom Glick went on to help Tepper land Charlotte’s pro soccer franchise the next December—just as the Panthers were finishing Tepper’s second straight losing season, at 5-11.

Building an Identity

When Dundon arrived, he lamented that the Canes generated little buzz. Now they do. Their new visibility is owed to both strategy and serendipity. 

In his first meeting with the team, Dundon said: “We’re in the entertainment business. These people pay a lot of money to come see you, and you’re going to have to engage back.”

On October 7, 2018, Dundon was leaving an 8-5 win over the Rangers when he heard an audacious response to his challenge, inspired by captain Justin Williams. The players had circled up on the ice and were leading fans in a version of the Minnesota Vikings’ Skol chant—two drum beats and an overhead clap, repeated in a quickening tempo. 

In what came to be called the Storm Surge, the Canes continued the routine after home wins, following the clap with a skit—“light saber” duels with hockey sticks, duck-duck-goose, human bowling. One night, boxer Evander Holyfield “knocked out” Canes forward Jordan Martinook. The marketing team kicked in ideas, Waddell said, and rollicking fans stayed long after the game ended.

Don Cherry, a TV analyst, former player, and coach whose attire is as iconoclastic as his hockey sense is traditional, ripped the Storm Surge on CBC’s Hockey Night in Canada four months later, calling the Canes a “bunch of jerks.”

“That was about 8 o’clock at night,” Waddell recalled. “We called our T-shirt manufacturer, and we were selling T-shirts by midnight. … I think we did over $3 million in merchandise with that slogan.”

The Canes had an identity: Bunch of Jerks.

The Hurricanes also have a provocative social media game. “I’m always pushing on them to be interesting … without being insulting,” Dundon has said. But that’s a fine line. The Canes’ Twitter account trolled Nashville so hard after a 2021 playoff series’ win that the Predators’ account blocked them.

The Hurricanes brand is now worth $75 million, Forbes says, 11.7 percent of the team’s value of $640 million. The team value is up 52 percent since Dundon arrived.

The Panthers brand is worth much more, $170 million, but that’s just 4.7 percent of the franchise value of $3.6 billion, nearly three-fourths of which comes from revenue shared by the NFL and its media rights empire. Despite the team’s struggles, the franchise is worth 57 percent more than when Tepper bought it, and ranks 39th globally among sports franchises.

The Panthers also have a well-known mantra—“Keep Pounding,” coined in a talk to the team by beloved former linebacker and assistant coach Sam Mills as he battled terminal cancer during Carolina’s run to its first Super Bowl in 2004.

But the loss of stars has challenged their identity. “With the rise of social media … the impact of star players on team brands is tremendous,” Thilo Kunkel, director of the Sport Industry Research Center at Temple University, told The Assembly.

The Panthers had marketable stars in 2018, including a newcomer, running back Christian McCaffrey. Two years earlier, when Carolina played the Denver Broncos in the Super Bowl, Newton, Kuechly, and Olsen were among the 15 most popular names on replica NFL jerseys.

They’re all gone. 

Revolving Doors, Bad Deals

While the nameplates in the Canes’ front office haven’t changed much, the Panthers’ front office has seen frequent turnover. Last year alone, Glick left as team president and was replaced by Kristi Coleman; Nick Kelly became the first CEO of the Panthers’ parent company, Tepper Sports & Entertainment, but resigned three months later; and TSE’s chief operating officer, Mark Hart, also left.

Tepper’s Panthers have had two general managers: Marty Hurney and, for the past two years, Scott Fitterer.

Ganis, president of Sportscorp Ltd. in Chicago, who counsels so many teams he’s been called the NFL’s “33rd owner,” says turnover in the early years isn’t unusual.

“There’s a learning curve for every owner,” he told The Assembly. “They have to go through a cycle of hiring and firing. It’s as much art as it is science.”

But when you can afford to lose money, that cycle can include expensive mistakes in coach and player deals, too. 

Hurricane fans try on merchandise at a store inside PNC arena. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

Tepper hired Baylor University coach Matt Rhule to his first job as an NFL head coach, with a seven-year, $62 million contract, in January 2020. An agent told CNBC that other owners “were absolutely livid” about the benchmark that contract set.

Last October, Tepper fired Rhule, whose record was 11-27. The Panthers’ obligation to pay the rest of Rhule’s contract, more than $40 million, was offset when the University of Nebraska hired him, but Rhule says Carolina still owes him—and he’s seeking about $5 million in arbitration. Last month Tepper conceded that he “could have run a better process” before hiring Rhule.

At quarterback, the Panthers in 2021 acquired Sam Darnold, who had led a 13-35 Jets team for three seasons, and committed to pay him more than $23 million over two years. Not satisfied after Darnold’s first season, they got Baker Mayfield from Cleveland last year. After paying Mayfield $5 million and again seeing limited success, they released him in December.

The Canes, meanwhile, seem to get more for less. 

Last summer they acquired Brent Burns, a winner of the Norris Trophy as the NHL’s best defenseman, from San Jose for spare parts, with the Sharks retaining a third of his $6.5 million contract. Burns has been essential this season. 

Waddell and the Canes have secured other solid contributors without breaking the bank, and fortune smiled in 2018 when the team rose to No. 2 in the draft lottery and grabbed forward Andrei Svechnikov, now an All-Star.

And while Brind’Amour has steered the Canes for five seasons, the Panthers have had five head coaches (two were interim) during that period. 

Their key position on the field has been even more unsettled. Their starters at quarterback since their 2018 opener: Newton, Taylor Heinecke, Kyle Allen, back to Newton, back to Allen, Will Grier, back to Allen, Teddy Bridgewater, P.J. Walker, back to Bridgewater, Darnold, back to Walker, back to Newton, back to Darnold, Mayfield, back to Walker, back to Mayfield, back to Darnold. 

On the field, as in the front office, 2022 was the quintessence of Tepper’s mercurial tenure. As summer turned to fall, Rhule was the head coach, Mayfield the starting quarterback, and McCaffrey the star running back. All were gone before the chill of December settled in.

And fans’ fervor has cooled. Official attendance slipped from an average of 73,772 in 2018 to 71,351 in 2022. In home games against the San Francisco 49ers and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last October, many seats were either empty or filled with opposing fans.

Tepper’s biggest fumble was over the state line.

The Panthers and South Carolina state and local officials agreed in 2019 that the team would build an $800 million training facility and headquarters in Rock Hill, with a mixed-use community around it. Contractors started the work in 2020. 

But last March, the Panthers halted the project in a funding dispute. And on June 1, GT Real Estate Holdings LLC, which Tepper founded to manage the project, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy

Lawsuits followed. Settlements with Rock Hill, York County, and the contractors reportedly cost Tepper’s company more than $100 million. 

What’s left—girders supporting a massive, unfinished sloped roof—will be torn down within days as a step toward selling the site, Rock Hill Mayor John Gettys said this week. 

As for facility plans now, including their stadium’s future, a Panthers spokesperson told The Assembly: “We continue to evaluate our options.” Tepper’s yearslong vision for an Uptown entertainment district is also still just a vision.

It hasn’t been all stumbles for Tepper. His MLS team, Charlotte FC, played its first season last year before an average home crowd of 35,260, second in the league and near stadium capacity, since the upper deck was not sold for most matches. Its home opener drew 74,479 fans, a league record.

The soccer team’s addition helped Tepper Sports land at No. 19 on Forbes’ list of the world’s most valuable sports empires, with an estimated value of $4.55 billion.

“The success of the soccer team has been pretty eye-opening,” Ganis said. It’s also a bright spot in a bleak sports era for the Queen City, where the NBA’s Hornets, now under majority owner Michael Jordan, last won a playoff series in 2002.

But Tepper’s stadium renovations for soccer and other events were not universally loved. He installed artificial turf because the extra events would’ve worn down a grass field, and the stadium, which hosted 14 major events in 2017, held 39 last year, a team spokesperson said. But Panthers players have complained about the turf. After a game last December, linebacker Shaq Thompson said it felt like concrete.

Dundon has had his own misstep, although it wasn’t related to his stewardship of the Canes. In January 2019, he pledged $250 million to rescue the Alliance of American Football, a development league struggling to pay the bills after its first week. Less than seven weeks later, he pulled the plug, losing $70 million. Lawsuits filed by a bankruptcy trustee against Dundon for $180 million, and by Dundon to recover losses, are still in the courts

Emotionally Invested

Only an epic collapse would keep the Hurricanes from a fifth straight playoffs appearance, and they’re built for a run at the Cup. They’re still young, with an average age of 27 and talent in the pipeline. 

Their long-term future might depend on the fate of 80 state-owned acres around the arena and stadium. The Hurricanes have first refusal as developer, and Dundon would like a district that could include hotels, dining, retail, entertainment, and a sportsbook, if the legislature approves online sports betting. He also wants public money for arena improvements. If it all happens, the Canes could extend an arena lease deep into the future.

But several entities have a negotiating stake, including North Carolina State University, local governments, and the Centennial Authority, a body created by the legislature that essentially acts as the arena’s landlord, with N.C. State and the Canes as tenants. 

The Carolina Hurricanes cheer team. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)
Fans cheer as the Carolina Hurricanes score a goal against the New York Rangers. (Cornell Watson for The Assembly)

“I’m pretty optimistic that we’re gonna get there,” authority chair Philip Isley told The Assembly. “I have a great relationship with those guys. I talk to Tom all the time.” 

Dundon bought out his minority partners in 2021, and is now the sole owner of the team. 

Whatever happens, Waddell said, Dundon’s approach, and his willingness to spend money where needed, “saved this franchise.”

As for Tepper, aside from the facility issues, he’ll be dealing with lofty expectations for new head coach Frank Reich, given the popular support for naming former interim coach Steve Wilks to that job.

And he’ll need to settle the quarterback issue. Free-agent signings begin March 15, and the draft is April 27-29, when the Panthers, unless they trade up, will select ninth in the first round, by which time the most coveted QBs may be gone.

Tepper still believes he can succeed. 

“Don’t let anybody tell you that he doesn’t care,” Mick Mixon, the Panthers’ play-by-play radio announcer from 2005 until he retired in January 2022, told The Assembly. “He’s emotionally invested in this team. He wants to win. He wants Super Bowls, ticker tape, the whole thing.”

Ganis says it’s in reach. New NFL owners usually need four to six years to figure it all out, he said.

“I’m optimistic because I know [Tepper] so well,” Ganis said. “He’s a very competitive person who has won most of his life. He obviously has the financial resources. He has the motivation, and he’s brilliant. Sometimes … all of a sudden, things just start to click.” 

Terry and Kim Pegula bought the Buffalo Bills in October 2014 and saw their team go 30-34 in four seasons. They’ve made the playoffs every year since. And Robert Kraft’s New England Patriots were 59-53 before a head coach named Belichick and a quarterback named Brady settled in. Kraft now has six Super Bowl rings.

Panthers fans can hope.

Eric Frederick was a reporter, editor, and audience strategist at The News & Observer for more than three decades. He’s now a freelance writer, an editorial advisor at EducationNC, and author of NC Local, a weekly newsletter on journalism in North Carolina, for the NC Local News Workshop.

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