David Tepper moving Panthers to SC could be a mistake

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A smiling George Shinn is shown in this 1993 Charlotte Observer file photo, taken at the Charlotte Coliseum. Shinn founded the team and was its longtime majority owner.

Charlotte Observer file photo

He owned several professional sports teams in the Charlotte area who liked to straddle both Carolinas, sometimes playing one state against the other when he wanted something new built.

He decided his Charlotte-based pro team needed an SC-based academy and moved heaven and a lot of earth to make it happen – then ended up wishing he would put it in Charlotte in the first place .

He was initially popular in Charlotte due to his gregarious nature and humble origins, then became unpopular largely due to his own mistakes.

I’m talking, of course, about George Shinn.

Did you think we were talking about someone else?

Long before anyone in Charlotte had ever heard of a billionaire sports team owner named David Tepper, George Shinn was the original owner of the Hornets — the man who literally brought the NBA to Charlotte. Shinn also owned the Charlotte Knights of Minor League Baseball from 1987 to 1998, although that team did not play in Charlotte for most of that time.

Shinn’s problems managing these two franchises and providing them with updated facilities are repeated 25 years later, with Tepper and his Carolina Panthers ending their agreement on Tuesday to build a sophisticated headquarters and training center in Rock Hill.

What is past is a prologue, as Shakespeare wrote in “The Tempest.” “And we certainly have a storm of our own whirlwind right now with this Rock Hill/Panthers mess.

I called Shinn, 80, this week to discuss his own forays and flirtations with South Carolina during his 15 years as a professional sports owner in Charlotte.

Shinn was happy to talk, but wanted to make sure of one thing first: he doesn’t want what you read next to be seen as telling Tepper what to do.

“When it comes to ownership, we all have to accept that the owner has the right to do what they think is best for their franchise,” Shinn said. “I don’t want to fight with anyone.”

What Shinn was happy to talk about was his own experiences on the NC/SC border, which looks cobbled and tidy at Carowinds amusement park but proves much trickier in real life. The point that Shinn repeatedly made during our 40-minute conversation was this:

He wishes he had never moved anything to South Carolina (or New Orleans, for that matter).

“There’s no question that I would have preferred to have it all in Charlotte,” Shinn said, “and keep it all in Charlotte. That would have been ideal.

Shinn said he wished he could have made a deal with the city of Charlotte to either put a ballpark in downtown Charlotte (it happened, of course, but many years later under different ownership) , or build one by the old and now demolished Charlotte Coliseum.

Shinn likes to think what that would have been like. There would have been a veritable year-round sports and entertainment district off Tyvola Road, with the Hornets playing games all winter and spring, and then the Knights taking over the area in the summer.

“Since baseball was primarily a summer sport, we could have placed the new stadium near the old Colosseum and had all that parking available to share,” Shinn said.

If he had gotten that, Shinn said, he would have just built the Charlotte Hornets training facility nearby as well.

Moving baseball to South Carolina

Instead, Shinn started going back and forth across the Carolina border.

The Hornets were an immediate success, leading the league at the Charlotte Coliseum for the first eight years of their existence and regularly drawing 24,000 fans per game.

But Shinn was unable to turn this into a new stadium for the baseball team he had purchased from the Crockett family in 1987 (then named the Charlotte O’s, but soon renamed under Shinn as the Charlotte Knights). His baseball-related conversations with political leaders in Charlotte at the time, as Shinn recalls, were not fruitful.

“I wanted the city of Charlotte to build the ballpark, and then I would lease it to them,” Shinn said. “But obviously it didn’t work. So I needed a place for the baseball team to play. And so we went to South Carolina just across the line. I bought a property there and then invested my own money to build the stadium.

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Former Charlotte Hornets owner George Shinn talking to stars Larry Johnson (left) and Alonzo Mourning (right) in 1994. BOB LEVERONE Observer file photo

This 10,000 seat stadium was called Knights Castle, in Fort Mill, South Carolina, 15 miles from downtown Charlotte. And it wasn’t all of Shinn’s money. It was similar to the Panthers’ deal with Rock Hill – although the early 1990s numbers didn’t have as many zeros. York County gave Shinn tax breaks — worth about $5 million, the (Rock Hill) Herald reported in 1997.

At the time, Shinn called it “a marriage – a public-private partnership.” With the county paying for the infrastructure, he promised to develop the surrounding 320 acres of land into a thriving business park.

Shinn built a new practice facility for the Charlotte Hornets in 1993 behind the right field wall of the Knights’ castle. This building included a 4,000-seat hall that could be used for concerts and graduations when the Hornets were not practicing.

But none of that worked out well, Shinn now admits. Driving to South Carolina became a symbolic difficulty that Queen City baseball fans and Charlotte Hornets players didn’t really want to do.

“I was getting complaints from players like, ‘I live in North Carolina but have to drive to South Carolina to practice?’ recalls Shinn.

Baseball fans would say much the same. After some early success, Knights attendance dropped like a stone. Shinn lost millions to the Knights before selling the team in 1998 to Don Beaver.

“We decided the Hornets had to be our main focus,” Shinn said, “and we couldn’t keep racking our brains to get this minor league team going.”

“I didn’t want to leave Charlotte”

The original Charlotte Hornets Coliseum was found to be obsolete shortly after it opened due to a lack of skyboxes and premium seating. So, in the mid-1990s, Shinn wanted a new arena. There were even reports at the time that he could move the Hornets to South Carolina, though today Shinn scoffs at that.

“If someone said it, it was just a bargaining chip,” he said.

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Charlotte Mayor Harvey Gantt, left, and Hornets principal owner George Shinn wave to the crowd during a parade through downtown Charlotte celebrating the new NBA team on April 24, 1987. The Hornets started playing in the NBA in 1988. Davie Hinshaw Observer file

But the Hornets wanted a new building in downtown Charlotte under Shinn’s ownership, and they might have one too, if Shinn hadn’t messed it up.

“I didn’t want to leave Charlotte,” Shinn said. “But I had my own problems.”

Specifically, Shinn was prosecuted for sexual assault. His trial was nationally televised in 1999. A jury acquitted Shinn, but on the witness stand he had to admit to all sorts of questionable behavior, including two sexual encounters with women other than his wife. so.

This tarnished his relationship with the city and Hornets fans. In 2001, Charlotte voters overwhelmingly rejected a referendum that would have made the Hornets a new arena. In large part, this vote was seen as a personal rejection of Shinn.

“Of course I wanted to stay in Charlotte,” Shinn said during our interview. “But it got to the point that it was a situation that I felt couldn’t work, because of bad judgment decisions on my part. People had lost faith in me.

Fan holds George Shinn sign
In 1996, a Charlotte Hornets fan held up a sign referencing team owner George Shinn. Laura Müller Charlotte Observer file photo

Shinn moved the Hornets to New Orleans in 2002. But the NBA moved back to Charlotte in 2004, and eventually the Hornets moniker did too. The Charlotte Knights have been playing in downtown Charlotte since 2014 and regularly draw sold-out crowds. The Hornets also got their new arena, which includes a practice facility. And Shinn is retired and lives mostly in Franklin, Tennessee, with his third wife Megan, riding his bike every day and focusing much of his work on his many charitable endeavours.

As for lessons learned, Shinn said that if he had to do it all over again, he would “put everything as close to the main venue as possible.”

“I loved Charlotte,” Shinn said. “Doing again. And I should have kept it all there.

Sports columnist Scott Fowler has written for The Charlotte Observer since 1994. He has authored or co-authored eight books, including four about the Carolina Panthers. Fowler has won the Thomas Wolfe Award for Outstanding Newspaper Writing and won 18 APSE National Awards. He hosted The Observer’s 8-part podcast “Carruth”, which Sports Illustrated named “Podcast of the Year” in 2018.
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