A local ownership group that wants to buy the Carolina Panthers has hired advisers and is visiting stadiums as it prepares to make a bid, Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates told the Observer Thursday.
The Observer reported last month that Sabates was part of an effort to purchase the team from owner Jerry Richardson, who has said he is putting the franchise up for sale at the end of the season following a Sports Illustrated report alleging workplace misconduct by the Panthers owner. Sabates has said the group is very committed to Charlotte.
On Thursday, Sabates said the group consists of five people and that he would not be the majority owner by a “long shot.” He would not name any names but said two are currently minority owners of the team.
Others, he said, are interested in joining the effort, including some “sports celebrities” that he would not name.
“We have a group that has committed to do this thing,” he said. “We have hired outside consultants to run numbers to give us the probability of success, the possibility of failure and a lot of things before we jump on the bandwagon and go put a bid in.”
Forbes magazine has valued the team at $2.3 billion, but Sabates said he has heard some talk about a sale price as high as $3 billion. That number, he said, makes no financial sense.
“If some crazy wants to pay $3 billion for a football team let him have it because the numbers don’t work,” he said. “Two billion is marginal.”
His group won’t get involved if it doesn’t make financial sense, he said: “It’s that simple.”
Sabates, a longtime fixture on the local sports scene, has previously told the Observer that any sale will be complicated by unanswered questions about the future of the team’s 22-year-old stadium. Sabates said the team needs a new domed stadium that could host major events, and that state and city governments need to “pony” up to replace the current venue.
“The only way to make the numbers work is you have to create revenue between $40 million and $50 million a year,” he said. “And you can’t do that with the existing facility.”
A new building doesn’t have to have a retractable roof but does need a dome so it can host indoor events, he said. It also needs 20,000 parking spaces to generate revenue for the team. The Panthers have long noted that they don’t have the parking spaces to sell like other teams in the league.
Sabates would not name his consultants, but he did say a current unnamed NFL team president is helping them understand the numbers.
The president has been “helpful on sources of revenue this team doesn’t have, like parking,” he said. “That is a huge source of revenue. Another source of revenue is indoor, big concerts. You can’t do that here.”
For example, some stadiums charge as much as $500 for parking close to the building, he said.
Sabates said he has visited four stadiums so far, and Minneapolis was the most beautiful for the money. U.S. Bank Stadium, which opened in 2016 and is hosting the Super Bowl this year, had a total project cost of $1.129 billion.
The Panthers have said they won’t talk to any buyers until after the season is over. That could come as early as this Sunday if the Panthers lose a first-round playoff game in New Orleans.
The team announced this week that it hired New York investment bank Allen & Co. and New York law firm Proskauer Rose LLP to assist with the sale. Sabates said the law firm couldn’t talk until after the season, but he is arranging a conference call with the investment bank for next week – simply to introduce them to the group.
Sabates, 72, said he expects five or six legitimate bidders to be in the running and that it will be a drawn-out process. In one recent example, the Buffalo Bills sold a little more than five months after the death of the previous owner, Ralph Wilson Jr.
The Charlotte group eying the Panthers sees a possible purchase as an investment for down the road, Sabates said.
“We know we’re not going to make money right away,” he said. “I will never see a dime out of it. My grandkids will. My kids will. Some of the partners who are involved are young guys so they probably will realize it. I’m in the two-minute warning already with my life.”
Sabates said keeping the team in Charlotte is important to him after living in the city for more than 50 years.
“This community has been so incredibly nice to me,” he said. “They have given me a lot of opportunities in my life, and I want to do something to pay back. I think if I can put a group together, and it makes financial sense, that will be part of my legacy.”