The Carolina Panthers could emerge as the National Football League's best team with their first Super Bowl win on Sunday. But it may take years of success before the mid-market franchise becomes one of the NFL's financial elite.
The Panthers roll into Super Bowl 50 against the Denver Broncos with a 17-1 record. Carolina, led by dual-threat quarterback Cam Newton and a strong defense, came close to an undefeated regular season.
The franchise last season took in a middling $325 million in revenue and was 19th in the league with an estimated $1.56 billion valuation, according to Forbes. But it's not clear that this season's on-field dominance has vaulted the Panthers into the top of the NFL's financial ranks.
Building a football team into a financial powerhouse takes time, data show. The Super Bowl's reach — it attracted a record 114 million viewers last year — gives the Panthers an immediate opportunity to draw fans. But rather than bring instant financial gains, a Super Bowl victory sets the framework for long-term revenue and valuation growth, experts said.
"The franchise valuation key in professional sports leagues is to solidify the season ticket base, and the best way to accomplish that is to build a credible long-term strategy toward winning," said John Vrooman, a Vanderbilt University sports economist.
NFL team valuations continue to balloon as the most popular U.S. sports league increases sales, thanks in large part to lucrative television contracts. For the 2014-15 season, the NFL clubs shared $7.3 billion in revenue, or $226.4 million each, up 21 percent from the previous season. Franchises have other income sources, such as luxury seat sales, in addition to the shared pool.
The value of the average NFL team climbed to $1.97 billion by the start of this season, up 40 percent from the previous year, and showing a compound annual growth rate of 11.5 percent since 1991. That's more than double the trading value growth of the excluding dividends, Vrooman said.
The most valuable franchises share some similar traits: more than one Super Bowl victory, a new stadium, or both. The Dallas Cowboys and New England Patriots take Forbes' top two spots with market values of $4 billion and $3.2 billion, respectively. The Washington Redskins, New York Giants and San Francisco 49ers round out the top five.
Denver, which has won two Super Bowls and appeared in another championship only two years ago, ranks 11th.
The size of Carolina's television market may limit the club's financial ceiling, but a Super Bowl sets the team up for a long-term financial boost, said Manish Tripathi, a marketing professor at Emory University who studies sports marketing.
"Even just winning one can really drive your loyalty over time. Winning is certainly a driver of financial success," he said.
Tripathi highlighted the dominant runs enjoyed by the 49ers, Green Bay Packers and Pittsburgh Steelers, among other clubs, that inspired long-term brand loyalty.
Teams including the Patriots have shown the financial benefits of consistent on-field success. New England has become the league's second-most valuable team amid 15 consecutive winning seasons. Vrooman estimates that even a modest 1 percent rise in a team's long-term average winning percentage could boost its value by up to $25 million in a 20-year span.
Based on those projections, Carolina's success could fuel a big financial gain in the coming years. The Panthers have now made the playoffs for three-straight seasons. Vrooman expects season ticket demand and prices to rise after that run, though a Panthers spokesman declined to say whether the team had plans to raise prices.
Television households in a team's market can affect financial success in sports, but it's smaller than the effect of team performance, Vrooman said. Charlotte, where the Panthers play, has only about 1.2 million TV households, well below the league average of about 1.7 million.
In some cases, the value of a franchise is expected to be higher in markets with larger TV audiences. But teams including the Cowboys, Patriots and 49ers have higher valuations than would be expected, while the Panthers come in below their expected value.
Vrooman attributes those divergences partly to the value tied to the teams' stadiums. The more money a team's venue is worth, the more it adds to the team's overall value.
Carolina's Bank of America Stadium is in the midst of a roughly $125 million renovation project that will add luxury suites and other features, effectively boosting its ability to make money.