Felix Sabates, a Charlotte businessman who is part of a local group exploring a bid for the Carolina Panthers, said Wednesday he is talking to the Smith motorsports family about joining his group.
Bruton Smith is executive chairman of Speedway Motorsports, the Concord-based operator of Charlotte Motor Speedway and other tracks, and his son, Marcus, is the CEO. In the past, they both have expressed interest in buying Charlotte’s NFL team if it ever came up for sale.
Sabates said he has talked with Marcus Smith, and “they are very interested in joining our group.”
“It makes sense for them to join up with us,” he told the Observer. “It makes sense for us to join up with them.”
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Through a Charlotte Motor Speedway spokesman, Marcus Smith declined to comment.
Marcus Smith, who tried to bring a Major League Soccer team to Charlotte last year, has said his family enjoys being part of the sports entertainment business and that “it’d be fun to do more of it.”
In a 2016 interview, Smith expressed interest in buying the Panthers. “It would be an incredible opportunity and such a neat opportunity and property for anybody to be able to shepherd into the future.”
Last month, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson announced plans to sell the team shortly after Sports Illustrated reported allegations of workplace misconduct by Richardson during his ownership tenure. The NFL is investigating.
Sabates said his group, which started with five businessmen, has added two race car drivers whom he declined to name. Sabates, a car dealer and longtime fixture on the Charlotte sports scene, has said he is not the majority owner by a “long shot.” His group also includes two of the team’s existing minority owners, he has said, although he has declined to name them as well.
To assist with the sale, the Panthers have hired New York investment bank Allen & Co., a blue-chip firm known for working on sports and media deals. It also lined up New York law firm Proskauer Rose and Billy Moore, a Charlotte attorney with Moore & Van Allen, to handle legal matters.
Sabates told the Observer he talked with Steve Greenberg of Allen & Co. last Friday, and “we had a very nice conversation.” The next step is for Allen & Co. to furnish potential bidders with more information, he said.
“Now the ball is in their court,” he said.
To be sure, Sabates’ group isn’t the only bidder likely to emerge for the Panthers, one of the NFL’s 32 teams. The Panthers are valued at $2.3 billion, but experts have said the team could go for as much as $2.5 billion to $2.8 billion.
Sabates has previously said his group has hired consultants to help with the bid. He also has repeatedly said that a new domed building is necessary to make buying the team financially worthwhile.
Richardson and his ownership group largely built Bank of America Stadium without taxpayer assistance, although the Charlotte City council agreed in 2013 to give the Panthers $87.5 million, of which roughly $75 million has gone toward renovations.
“Our intent is to stay here in Charlotte. But it will be up to the mayor and the City Council if we stay here or go somewhere else because we need to build a new building,” Sabates, 72, said. “But I expect we will get very good cooperation from the people in the city.”
He said he won’t reach out to the city “until we have something to talk about.”
Last week, WCNC reported that NASCAR CEO Brian France is part of a potential bidding group for the Panthers. According to the report, the deal would make France the next majority owner of the team. NASCAR has denied France’s involvement, however. Sabates has declined to provide names of the rest of his group.