Owner Jerry Richardson said Sunday that he won’t start the process to sell the Carolina Panthers until after the team’s season ends, but speculation is already swirling about who might be the next owners.
NFL franchises are rarely sold, and the interest among potential owners is likely to be high. The Panthers are worth an estimated $2.3 billion, and a sale could plunge Charlotte into uncertainty: The new owners would not be bound to stay in the city long-term. A “tether” tying the team to Charlotte in exchange for stadium improvements funded by the city runs only through June 2019.
The Panthers have a large group of local owners who hold smaller stakes in the team, in addition to Richardson, and it’s possible that some of them could band together and buy the team. Or the Panthers might find a totally new owner, such as local auto racing tycoon Bruton Smith and his family.
The Charlotte Chamber declined to comment Monday. In a brief statement, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles said the city will work with whoever emerges to buy the team.
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“We understand transitions are inevitable, and we look forward to working with current and future ownership,” Lyles said. “Keep pounding.”
Felix Sabates, owner of multiple car dealerships and co-owner of the Charlotte Hornets, said he doesn’t know who will buy the Panthers. But he said interest will surely be high.
“I’m sure there are going to be people coming out of the woodwork,” he said. “The team’s going to be sold to the highest bidder, and that’s the way life works.”
Richardson’s unexpected announcement to sell followed a bombshell Sports Illustrated report Sunday morning that outlined allegations of sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson toward former Panthers employees. On Monday, the team announced Richardson had stepped aside, effective immediately, and longtime executive Tina Becker would take full control as the team’s chief operating officer.
On social media, hip-hop mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs (Forbes-estimated net worth: $820 million) quickly said he wants to buy the Panthers.
“It’s time for Black ownership!! The time is now. Let’s make it happen!!” Combs tweeted Sunday night. “I will have the best halftime show, the best selection of music, and we will win Super Bowl after Super Bowl,” Combs added on Instagram.
Golden State Warriors basketball star and Charlotte native Steph Curry quickly followed up, announcing “I want in!” Former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, who’s out of the league after starting a wave of kneeling protests during the national anthem, followed up Monday and said he wants to join.
“I want in on the ownership group! Let’s make it happen!” Kaepernick tweeted. Former NFL players Maurice Jones-Drew, Shawne Merriman and Greg Jennings also said on Twitter they would be interested.
NASCAR to NFL?
The Panthers’ minority owners include some of Charlotte’s best-known – and wealthiest – figures, including real estate magnate Smoky Bissell (who recently sold Ballantyne Corporate Park for $1.2 billion), developer Johnny Harris, philanthropist and Family Dollar founder Leon Levine (Family Dollar was sold for $9.1 billion in 2015) and members of the Belk family (the Belk department store company was sold to a private equity firm in 2015 for $3 billion).
Most of the minority owners didn’t return messages seeking comment on Monday. Cameron “Cammie” Harris, an insurance executive and Johnny Harris’ brother, declined to comment.
One potential group of buyers could come from a different part of the professional sports world. Speedway Motorsports chairman Bruton Smith and his son, CEO Marcus Smith, have both expressed interest in eventually buying the Panthers.
“Would we be interested? Yeah. It would be an incredible opportunity and such a neat opportunity and property for anybody to be able to shepherd into the future,” Marcus Smith said in a 2016 interview with the Observer.
In a 2016 interview with Motorsport.com, Bruton Smith, 90, expressed similar sentiments. He and his family have a Forbes-estimated net worth of about $1 billion.
“Would I buy them? I’ve got some boys that want me to, and so we may – on a weak moment – we might would do that,” Smith told Motorsport.com.
The Smiths declined to comment Monday morning. Speedway Motorsports owns and operates racetracks, including Charlotte Motor Speedway. NASCAR has struggled with declining attendance in recent years.
The Smiths recently lost out on the chance to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to Charlotte in that league’s expansion. Marcus Smith headed a group that sought to buy an expansion franchise, with a league fee of $150 million, and start playing in 2020 in a proposed $175 million soccer facility to be funded largely with public money.
Basketball superstar Michael Jordan struck a deal in 2010 to buy the Charlotte Bobcats for $275 million. At the time, the basketball team was losing money. Jordan brought back the Charlotte Hornets name, increasing ticket sales and helping to turn the team’s fortunes around. The Hornets are now worth $780 million, according to an estimate from Forbes.
Jordan, as a major league sports owner in Charlotte with deep pockets, could potentially be involved in any bids for the Panthers, though he hasn’t publicly expressed any desire to buy the team. Jordan declined to comment Monday.
In 2013, when the Panthers were negotiating a taxpayer contribution toward stadium renovations, team representatives told Charlotte officials the Panthers would be sold within two years of Richardson’s death because of tax implications.
Jonathan Jensen, a sports marketing consultant and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said it appears the Sports Illustrated report prompted Richardson to move up that timetable.
“Sounds like the plan all along had been to begin the sales process upon Richardson’s death, and these issues simply accelerated those plans,” he said.