Mick Mixon is quick to point out this odd little fact: the Carolina Panthers logo was designed to mimic the outline of North and South Carolina.
It’s more subtle than some other visual tricks in team logos, but it’s a nod to something those who run the team believe: The Panthers, despite a stadium in Charlotte and jerseys a shade of Tar Heels baby blue, are very much South Carolina’s team. The team’s website even boldly declares, “Two states, one team.”
But it’s sometimes not clear how much that rings true.
“South Carolina is unique because of how prominent the colleges are,” said Mixon, who worked in Columbia radio in the 1980s and now calls play-by-play for the Panthers on radio. “It is not a state that has really been touched, unless you count racing, that has been touched by professional sports in the way that, say, Charlotte had been. The Charlotte Hornets and later the Bobcats.”
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The state’s reputation as having a college sports bent has been earned by the loyal dedication to both the University of South Carolina and Clemson. When the Panthers first came into existence, they needed a temporary home, and then-University of South Carolina athletics director Mike McGee was steadfastly against allowing the team to play there.
Currently, a few local businesses seemed to reflect some level of ambivalence in the products they stocked. An informal poll of three Columbia-area Target Stores, three Wal-Marts and a pair of Dicks Sporting Goods locations showed most had relatively little in the way of Panthers paraphernalia in the days right after Carolina earned its trip to the Super Bowl.
At most, two of three Targets had infant jerseys. Two Wal-Marts had a smaller selection of sweatshirts and T-shirts, while one had nothing. One of the Dicks boasted team apparel, and more of it was NFC championship items than regular stock
That’s in comparison to a Gastonia, N.C. Wal-Mart, which, according to an employee, had a full rack of jerseys. All of the local stores had some measure of South Carolina apparel, plus some Clemson and even local high school items.
Panthers games are broadcast by 16 radio stations in South Carolina, compared to 34 in North Carolina.
But there’s also a case those beyond Rock Hill and York County have embraced the NFL team across the border, and that starts with the team’s history.
South Carolina governor Carroll Campbell partnered with his North Carolina counterpart to form the task force to explore the option of the states getting a professional team.
“South Carolina is, in many ways, is ground zero for football,” said Bob McAlister, a longtime aide and friend of Campbell. “There are not more rabid college fans in the country. Whether the citizens of South Carolina would accept the Panthers was never much of a question mark. The question was would it detract from college sports?”
Considering the interest in Gamecock football, it hasn’t.
Although the Panthers were barred from playing in Columbia, they made Clemson their home in the first season. Owner Jerry Richardson went to Wofford in Spartanburg, and the team still holds training camp there (Richardson was also good friends with Campbell and attended his funeral).
It’s also fair to say, it’s not as if any other NFL teams have encroached on the Palmetto State. Facebook posted county-by-county maps of the largest fanbases by its data. More than half the counties had more Panthers fans than any others (the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers were well-represented, plus one county heavy on Atlanta Falcons fans).
Mixon said he regularly comes down into the state for promotions at local radio stations (mostly in the bigger cities outside York County). The team’s director for community relations, Riley Fields, said the team’s outreach — grants to high schools, military base visits, raising money after the flooding this year — impacted South Carolina and wasn’t concentrated in the part of the state near Charlotte.
Panther games have also had priority in the state’s television markets. Initially it irritated some, but now a generation of young South Carolinians have grown up watching the team.
McAlister admitted it took a while to come around on the team. He plans to root for the Panthers come Sunday, and most folks around him will as well. But he couldn’t have imagined doing that 10 years ago.
“It took awhile because we’re not used to pulling for anybody in Carolina blue,” McAlister said. “We are just genetically predisposed to not like any sports teams from North Carolina.
“Over time, they grew on us.”