Carolina Panthers Bring NFL Excitement to Upstate Fans, Boost to Upstate Businesses

The temperatures may still be soaring outside, but autumn and its promise of NFL football were on the minds of thousands as the Carolina Panthers rolled into Spartanburg for their 18th annual training camp at Wofford College recently. Nearly 20,000 came out for the for the team's opening weekend of practice, and with thousands more expected, the team has already broken its record number of visitors from last season.

That record-breaking number of visitors can largely be attributed to the record breaking performance of Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, last year's AP Offensive Rookie of the Year. In 2011, Newton became the first rookie quarterback in NFL history to throw for more than 4,000 yards in a season while also setting the rookie record for most rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and passing yards in a single game.

In short, the 23-year-old has become a bona fide NFL superstar, and the face of the franchise.

Even as a rookie, Newton was largely credited for bringing out a record number of people to last year's training camp. The former Heisman Trophy winner and number one overall draft pick generated quite a buzz then, and the superstar performance he turned in last year has fans hoping for even bigger things this year. Panthers starting center Ryan Kalil took out a full-page ad in the Charlotte Observer promising a Super Bowl victory for the franchise this year, and the fans at the team's 2012 practices seem just as energized for the upcoming season.

Loud cheers erupt as Newton and other favorites like veteran wide receiver Steve Smith take the field, and "ooohs" escape from the stands in unison when defensive stars like Jon Beason come up with big hits in scrimmage plays. At times, the excitement of the crowd at a Panthers' practice is nearly indistinguishable from an actual game.

It's not just the adults who get to have all the fun at a training camp practice though. The Panthers also allow children between the ages of six and 13 to register to be "Panther Pals." Before the end of each practice, five lucky kids are chosen at random to watch the remainder of practice from field level. The youngsters chosen also receive free T-shirts and get to hang out with a Panthers player after the day's practice.

The Panthers Training Camp's brand of family friendly excitement isn't just great for the fans; it also translates into a big boost to Spartanburg's economy, much of that coming in the form of tourism.

According to a survey conducted last year by the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), 35 percent of the fans who came to watch the Panthers at Wofford came from further than 50 miles away. Of those visitors, a full 72 percent said they wouldn't have visited Spartanburg otherwise. Those tourists also come with dollars to spend, providing local businesses with a late summer shot in the arm.

On average, out-of-town attendees to last year's training camp spent $168 while in visiting the area according to the survey, amounting to almost $2 million in revenue for local businesses. About 85 percent of those visitors were in town just for the day, but 15 percent stayed overnight, providing a boost for area hotels.

Though no survey on this year's training camp visitors is being conducted, Spartanburg CVB Marketing and Communications Manager Amy Phillips says that it's likely that most of the camp's new visitors are coming from out of town.

In addition to the "Cam Newton factor" bringing in more visitors, the group also did more marketing this year for the training camp than in years past. "We did billboards in Greensboro and Gastonia, because the Panthers actually told us that those were some of their target audiences," she said.  Phillips said that the Spartanburg CVB office received many more calls before this year's training camp than in previous years, with folks from as far away as California making plans to attend.

Whether for the fans coming from distances great and small to see the favorite players or for the Spartanburg businesses reaping the rewards of having thousands more potential customers during the Panthers' stay, the NFL team is always a welcome sight, and perhaps even more welcome than ever with its record-breaking superstar drawing even more fans down for the action.

There's still time for those who haven't caught a practice yet, there's still time to make the trek to Wofford College to see the team before they take the field at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte next month. Practices are free to attend, and you can find a complete schedule of dates and times here, and directions can be found here.

Christopher George is a freelance writer and multimedia professional living in Spartanburg.