Carolina Panthers

Jerry Richardson’s shocking decision to sell Panthers clouds NFL investigation

In an absolute bombshell of an announcement, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson released a statement through the team on Sunday night that said he will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of the 2017 NFL season.

The announcement came just hours after a Sports Illustrated report outlined allegations of sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson toward former Panthers employees.

The team announced an investigation into the alleged misconduct on Friday evening. The NFL said Sunday that it would take over the investigation.

“There has been no greater mission or purpose in my life than to have brought an NFL franchise to Charlotte,” Richardson said in a five-paragraph statement.

“I believe that it is time to turn the franchise over to new ownership. Therefore, I will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of this NFL season. We will not begin the sale process, nor will we entertain any inquiries, until the very last game is played. I hope everyone in this organization will be firmly focused on just one mission: To play and win the Super Bowl.”

Richardson’s statement did not address the allegations of misconduct.

A Sports Illustrated report released right before Sunday’s kickoff against Green Bay detailed the alleged “significant” monetary settlements with at least four former Carolina Panthers employees as a result of inappropriate workplace comments and conduct by Richardson.

The conduct, the news outlet reported, included “sexually suggestive language and behavior, and on at least one occasion directing a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout.”

SI said the settlements featured non-disclosure agreements forbidding the parties from discussing the matters.

It is unclear what Richardson’s announcement will mean for the NFL’s investigation into the misconduct allegations.

NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said that the league would not have an immediate comment.

By making the announcement when he did, Richardson could avoid the possibility of being forced out by the NFL depending on what its investigation uncovers. The Los Angeles Clippers sold for $2 billion in 2014, four months after owner Donald Sterling was banned from the NBA for life and fined $2.5 million after his racially insensitive comments were aired on TMZ.

Multiple sources told the Observer that players were not alerted to the announcement of the sale ahead of time. The players had left the stadium before the announcement broke, after beating the Green Bay Packers 31-24.

Interim general manager Marty Hurney, formerly a longtime GM of the Panthers who was rehired this spring in an interim role when Dave Gettleman was fired, told the Observer that he found out about Richardson’s intent to sell after the game on Sunday night.

“If this happens, I think it’s a major loss for the NFL,” Hurney said in a conversation with the Observer. “(Richardson) has my utmost respect as an owner and as a person. He has the respect of the employees and players in the organization. I came back because of my respect for him and the organization he developed.”

In his five-paragraph statement announcing the sale, Richardson said that he would not entertain offers or complete the transaction until after the 2017 season. At 10-4, the Panthers are poised to make a playoff run.

Richardson, a native Carolinian, began the process of trying to obtain an NFL team for Charlotte in 1987 and was awarded the franchise on Oct. 26, 1993. He has been the Panthers’ majority owner since the day it began play in 1995. He said in 2009 that his family owned 48 percent of the team, with the other 52 percent being owned by the minority partners (which include a number of prominent members of the Charlotte business community). Richardson is the only current NFL owner who also played in the league.

Richardson, 81, has taken a less-active role in league business over the last few years because of health reasons.

When the team was negotiating for public money for stadium renovations in 2013, Panthers officials said that Richardson planned to sell the team two years after his death.

According to a Forbes article published this year, the Panthers are worth $2.3 billion. Richardson and his ownership group paid $206 million for the expansion franchise in 1993.

The Buffalo Bills were the last team to be sold, in the fall of 2014. Buffalo Sabres owners Terry and Kim Pegula bought the team from the estate of Ralph Wilson for $1.4 billion.

If a new owner wanted to relocate the team, there isn’t a significant financial penalty the team would have to pay local taxpayers.

In April 2013, the Panthers and the city signed an agreement that called for the public to spend $87.5 million on stadium improvements and game-day expenses. Most of that money – $75 million – was for stadium improvements such as new escalators.

In return, the city said it had a six-year “hard tether” that would keep the Panthers in Charlotte.

The current season is the fifth season in the six-year tether. The 2018-2019 season will be the final season in the tether, which officially expires in June 2019.

The contract says that if the team seeks to leave during that window, the city can take them to court to attempt to prevent them from leaving.

But after June 2019, there is no provision that in the contract in which the team has agreed with the city that it’s supposed to stay in Charlotte.

If the team leaves after June 2019, the contract says the city would have either the option of buying the stadium for a fair market value or the Panthers would pay the city the remaining debt payment on the city’s $75 million investment.

The city didn’t have exact numbers of how much debt is remaining. The Panthers still plan on spending $7 million of the $75 million in the offseason on improvements.

Ron Kimble, who negotiated the original “hard tether,” said the city has been paying off the debt at about $7.5 million a year. That means there would be about $35 million to $40 million left on the debt.

If an owner did seek to move the team, that remaining debt would likely be an insignificant amount of money. The NFL requires teams that move to pay a relocation fee that can exceed $500 million.

The city paid for the $75 million in stadium improvements with hotel/motel taxes that are mostly paid by tourists. Kimble said there isn’t enough money in the existing tourism taxes to help pay for a new stadium, which would likely cost $1 billion or more.

Jourdan Rodrigue: 704-358-5071, @jourdanrodrigue

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