The numbers are clear, and presumably they don’t lie. Interest in the Carolina Panthers in the Triangle may be at an all-time high, or so say the TV ratings and polling numbers. And yet for some reason, I can’t shake the sense that people were a lot more excited about the Panthers in 2004 than they are now.
The upwelling of support for the Panthers in the Triangle in the fall of 2003 and winter of 2004 was surprising to the point of being jarring. The Panthers went from an afterthought to the forefront of conversation with mind-bending speed. Suddenly, there were Panthers fans everywhere, transplants and natives alike.
Not quite as quickly, that wave of fervent fandom receded in the years that followed, only to swell again this season, but without the same ubiquity.
It just doesn’t feel the same this time around. The Triangle has changed since 2004. I certainly have.
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The evidence for a surge in support for the Panthers is strong. The ratings in this market from the NFC Championship game blew away the Panthers’ two previous appearances – a 40.0 rating and 55 share, meaning 55 percent of TVs in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill market were tuned to the Panthers’ win over Arizona. That’s compared to 32.2 and 42 in 2006 and 36.0 and 48 in 2004, according to WRAZ, which broadcast all three games (and did not have a comparable rating available for 1996).
In a recent statewide Public Policy Polling poll, 61 percent of those surveyed in the 919 area code declared the Panthers their favorite NFL team, up from 44 percent in October and 22 percent in December 2014. That question has only been polled since 2013, so there’s no way to compare it to the Panthers’ last Super Bowl appearance.
This much is certain: there are more die-hard Panthers fans than there were then, a natural phenomenon now that the team has been around for more than two decades. If there aren’t as many people jumping on the bandwagon, it may be because it’s already crowded.
And maybe there’s no way to compare the Triangle to what it was then, either. Most of downtown Raleigh was still quiet at night in 2004, outside from Glenwood South. The Carolina Hurricanes had yet to win the Stanley Cup, so the Triangle was still in search of a taste of greater glory, and willing to embrace a Charlotte team with a chance to do it. It seemed like a Panthers flag fluttered from about half the cars on the streets.
Now downtown Raleigh and downtown Durham are both day-and-night destinations while migrants from elsewhere have continued to surge into the area, bringing with them existing allegiances to NFL and other pro teams elsewhere. There’s been a general cultural shift toward a hipper, funkier vibe, led by a new generation that has broader interests, both sporting (soccer, primarily) and otherwise.
Most important, the Hurricanes won the Stanley Cup in 2006, giving the Triangle the state’s first major-league title and cementing their role as a unifier of neighbors divided by college loyalties (a role the Hurricanes assumed briefly in 2002 and the Panthers assumed briefly in 2004).
The way the Triangle went gaga for the Hurricanes that spring, with every game a clock-stopping event, and one game coming quickly after another, raised the bar forever. Nearly every aspect of life in the Triangle — from politics to school to religion — suddenly revolved around hockey for two months, as improbable as that may have once been. And it was the Triangle’s team, period.
A Charlotte team could create that kind of vortex before that, but not after.
If the Triangle has changed, so has my viewpoint on it. In 2005, I was 30 and single, out watching NFL games on Sundays, in position to gain a solid apocryphal sense of the waxing and waning of the Triangle’s NFL fanbases. I was pulled onto the Panthers beat and covered the Super Bowl, propelled by the fervor but immersed in it as well.
Now I’m older and married and live a quieter life, with the Sunday Ticket package at home. So there’s some observation bias there, unquestionably. I watched – and was as shocked as anyone – as Panthers fandom spread through the previously unaffected Triangle like a virus in 2004, but I can’t say the same this time around. Maybe it’s just as simple as the car-flag fad passing (although it’s going strong in Charlotte right now).
There are certainly plenty of Panthers fans here, and there were more of them when this season started than in the fall of 2004. The longer the Panthers are around, the more fans will be born into fandom. But it seems like there are just as many fans of other NFL teams as well, a dynamic that hasn’t changed, that won’t change as long as the Triangle’s economy makes it a destination for transplants.
In 2004, the Panthers were unquestionably the Triangle’s team, if only for a brief moment. That void has since been filled. The Triangle has a pro team and a title of its own. Other NFL allegiances die hard. There are more Panthers fans than there were 12 years ago, and every reason to be excited about the Super Bowl, but that kind of moment won’t come again.
Luke DeCock: 919-829-8947, firstname.lastname@example.org, @LukeDeCock