Panthers’ summer camp got $150K through state sports marketing program

May 19, 2019

Investigative Reports

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By RICK BRUNDRETT

In 2015 and 2016, S.C. lawmakers approved spending a total of nearly $4 million for a “Sports Development Marketing Program,” $150,000 of which was used for the Carolina Panthers’ summer training camp, records released Friday to The Nerve show.

In an email response, Dawn Dawson-House, spokeswoman for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism (PRT), said the state budget provisos authorizing the spending of surplus tax dollars for the program were initiated by lawmakers and were not park of the agency’s budget requests for fiscal years 2016 and 2017. The provisos did not specify which sporting events would receive the funding.

Then-Gov. Nikki Haley vetoed the provisos in both years, writing in June 2016 that the $3 million sought for the program in fiscal 2017 was “nothing more than a bundled group of earmarks designed to pass through the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism’s budget to hand-selected private entities,” though she didn’t identify the Panthers’ training camp.

The provisos in both years were first approved by the budget-writing House Ways and Means Committee, chaired then by state Rep. Brian White, R-Anderson, records show.

Lawmakers overrode Haley’s vetoes in both years. Of the total $3,875,000 appropriated, $150,000 – $75,000 for each year – was used to “cover part of the expenses for the Panthers Training Camp Fan Experience,” Dawson-House said. She could not immediately provide a breakdown of how the balance of those funds was spent.

The Nerve on Wednesday reported that Haley in 2014 vetoed a budget proviso – inserted by lawmakers the day before the regular legislative session ended – that would have specifically funneled $75,000 through PRT to the Panthers’ training camp, held annually since 1995 at the private Wofford College in Spartanburg. Haley’s veto was effectively sustained that year.

Still, PRT has made taxpayer-funded sports marketing a priority in recent years. The state agency, for example, is listed online with other mainly corporate “partners” supporting three annual major sporting events in South Carolina: the “RBC Heritage Presented by Boeing” PGA golf tournament on Hilton Head Island, the “Volvo Car Open” women’s professional tennis tournament in Charleston, and the “Bojangles’ Southern 500” NASCAR race in Darlington.

Budget records reviewed by The Nerve show that since fiscal 2016, the agency through its general fund budget has operated a “Sports Marketing Grant Program,” appropriations for which have ballooned from $500,000 in fiscal 2016 to $4.5 million this fiscal year.

For the fiscal year that starts July 1, the House would allocate $5.5 million for the program under its version of the state budget, while the Senate would provide $7 million. Lawmakers will return this week to Columbia to deal with a compromise version of the budget and other matters.

Among other things, lawmakers will consider a final version of a bill that would extend job tax credits to the Charlotte-based Panthers, whose billionaire owner, David Tepper, has offered to locate the team’s headquarters and practice facilities in York County in exchange for tens of millions of dollars in taxpayer-backed incentives, including a $40 million interchange on Interstate 77.

S.C. Gov. Henry McMaster, who is pushing the Panthers’ move to South Carolina – meeting with Tepper in March at the governor’s mansion – vetoed the $4.5 million for this fiscal year for the sports marketing program. In his July 2018 veto message, McMaster wrote that the proposal and a group of unrelated appropriations “represent a collection of legislative earmarked appropriations void of transparency,” adding that “in most cases, my Cabinet agency directors did not request the funds and do not know who inserted the lines in the state budget or how they are intended to be used.”

Lawmakers overrode the veto in a special legislative session in October.

In seeking $500,000 to launch the “Sports Development Marketing Program” in fiscal 2016, PRT in its written budget request said it had “identified sports tourism as a valuable yet underutilized and underdeveloped segment of the state’s overall tourism industry.” The request said the goal of the program is to “provide financial assistance to non-profit tourism and sports-related organizations, applying through their respective local governments, to attract or grow high quality new sporting events in South Carolina that generate a significant economic impact to local communities through participant and visitor spending.”

The program would “only provide matching funds for advertising costs associated with the recruitment and promotion of sporting events,” and events generating “direct admissions and accommodations tax revenues will be given higher priority during the review process,” according to the budget request.

Haley vetoed the $500,000, contending in her written veto message that “such excessive funding for an already robust tourism marketing budget is simply irresponsible.” Lawmakers overrode that veto and her separate veto that year of the budget proviso authorizing another $875,000 for sports marketing – $75,000 of which was used for the Panthers’ summer training camp.

Dawson-House on Friday provided The Nerve with a copy of an October 2016 grant application for $75,000 – which was approved by PRT director Duane Parrish, a member of the governor’s Cabinet – submitted by Wofford College on behalf of the college, the city and county of Spartanburg, the Spartanburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, and the Spartanburg Area Chamber of Commerce.

The college in the application said the $75,000 would “assist in enhancing the Panthers Fan experience while in Spartanburg, SC attending Training Camp sessions,” typically held over a 2.5-week period in July and August.

“Fans would come to town and were provided with free shuttle service from various parking lots around Spartanburg, free admittance to (the) daily Training Camp, free admittance to the Opening Kickoff Party, etc.,” the application said.

A required report provided with the application shows that of $102,930 and $104,047 in total actual revenues for the camps in 2015 and 2016, respectively, the $75,000 state grant in each of those years was the single-largest revenue source, followed by county accommodation taxes, hospitality taxes and city accommodation taxes.

But despite PRT’s stated purpose that sports marketing grants would “only provide matching funds for advertising costs,” the report lists a relatively small percentage spent in each year for what could be considered as advertising. Instead, much of the money went to bus transportation for visitors and event staff costs.

The camp “fan experience” lost a total of $423.70 in 2015 and $26,233.50 in in 2016, according to the report.

Brundrett is the news editor of The Nerve (www.thenerve.org). Contact him at 803-254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @RickBrundrett. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.

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