Potential new bidder for Panthers is wealthy SC businessman, sources say

This is how you can buy an NFL team. But you probably can't afford it.

The team of legal and financial experts handling the sale of the Panthers will begin to meet with prospective ownership groups over the coming weeks. In charge of the legal side of the deal are Joe Leccese, New York-based chairman of Proskauer Ros
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The team of legal and financial experts handling the sale of the Panthers will begin to meet with prospective ownership groups over the coming weeks. In charge of the legal side of the deal are Joe Leccese, New York-based chairman of Proskauer Ros

A wealthy South Carolina businessman named Ben Navarro is actively exploring a bid to buy the Carolina Panthers, multiple sources familiar with the matter told the Observer.

In December, Panthers owner Jerry Richardson said he was putting the team up for sale following an explosive Sports Illustrated report alleging sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson in the workplace.

An NFL investigation regarding the allegations is ongoing. A source said that a team sale is allowed to happen before the investigation is completed.

Navarro could be the first known bidder with the financial wherewithal to buy the team outright.

With the inevitable sale of the Carolina Panthers, here's who could be the next owner of the team.

A former Citigroup executive, Navarro heads Sherman Financial Group, a Charleston-based debt collection firm.

His family’s ties to sports run deep, but the Panthers would be Navarro’s first foray into professional football. An NFL Network report by Ian Rapoport on Dec. 24 said that Navarro, 54, is “among those who have planned to purchase an available team.”

Navarro did not respond to multiple attempts for comment.

Charleston businessman Ben Navarro gives a Ted Talk in May 2014. According to sources, Navarro is putting together a bid to buy the Carolina Panthers. YouTube

In 1997, Navarro founded Sherman Financial. The firm buys and manages unpaid consumer debt, often in the form of credit card debt, in the U.S. and abroad. Navarro remains its CEO.

In 2014, the company settled a case with the state of New York “for repeatedly bringing improper debt collection actions against New York consumers.” Sherman and another debt collector filed suits against consumers based on claims that were beyond the legal time limit for their enforcement, the state Attorney General said. As part of the settlement, Sherman Financial was required to pay a $175,000 penalty and improve its debt collection practices.

Navarro appears to keep a low public profile, but his main charitable venture is well-known in South Carolina. He privately funds Meeting Street Schools, a nonprofit educational venture in the state that opened a public school under private management in a low-income part of North Charleston in 2014.

Navarro is the son of former college football coach Frank Navarro, who coached multiple teams, including Princeton and Columbia.

Ben Navarro and his wife, Kelly, have four children, according to Charleston Post & Courier reports. Their oldest daughter, Emma, is a promising young tennis player in South Carolina who has committed to play at Duke, according to the Post & Courier. And Navarro owns LTP Tennis and Swim Club, the facility where his daughter trains.

Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson leaves the team’s locker room after the wild-card playoff loss to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, Jan. 7, 2018. The game likely was his last as team owner after 23 seasons.

Through his businesses, Navarro contributed multiple times to Republican Nikki Haley’s campaign for South Carolina governor in 2010, The State newspaper reported.

And property records indicate the Navarros bought an 18th century home on Charleston’s famed Broad Street for $3 million in 2010.

Money up front

Per NFL rules, a team can be owned by up to 25 people, one of whom must own at least 30 percent and have full operating control. So based on the Panthers’ current valuation — $2.3 billion, according to Forbes — a majority owner must be able to write a check for nearly $700 million up front.

Experts have said, however, the team could go for as much as $2.5 billion to $2.8 billion, meaning a majority owner would need to come up with up to $840 million in cash up front.

It’s unknown what Navarro’s net worth is. Sherman Financial brought in about $2 billion in revenue in 2016, according to reports.

Several other prominent names have surfaced amid Panthers ownership talks, including NASCAR drivers Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch, Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates, musician Kid Rock, Golden State Warriors star Steph Curry, who attended Charlotte Christian high school and Davidson College, and rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs. It is unlikely that any one of these names could solely fund the 30 percent needed for purchase up front, however.

Carolina Panthers Luke Kuechly gets choked up talking about the end of the Jerry Richardson era and looking back on the past season. David T. Foster III -

Observer staff writers Rick Rothacker and Joe Person, and (Raleigh) News & Observer reporter Luke DeCock contributed.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

Katherine Peralta: 704-358-5079, @katieperalta