What happens next with the Carolina Panthers, explained

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With the Panthers’ season over, the team is now officially on the market.

In case you need catching up, owner Jerry Richardson is selling the team after bombshell allegations of sexual harassment and racial bias levied against him by employees of the Panthers. The 81-year-old Richardson said in December that the sale would come at the end of the season. Well, with the loss to the Saints on Sunday, that time is now.

Buckle up for months of endless speculation about who will buy the team, whether the team could move, whether the Panthers would get a new stadium and whether taxpayers will be on the hook for anything. It’s going to get exhausting. Let the Hunger Games begin.

At this point, what we don’t know dwarfs the available facts. Here’s my best breakdown of what’s going on.

Who owns the team? Is it just Jerry Richardson?

Richardson has had sole control of the team since landing an NFL franchise for Charlotte in 1993. But the team ownership includes a group of minority partners that include some of the Carolinas’ most prominent business people. These partners are the ones who commissioned that giant statue of Richardson that now stands outside the stadium.

This comes from the most recent team media guide.

Leaked documents published by Deadspin in 2013 shed a little more light on who owns what. It’s a pretty convoluted ownership structure, but basically comes down to this: Richardson and his family own 47 percent of the team, while everyone else owns chunks ranging from 2 percent to 16 percent.

In any case, the team has said that all of it is going up for sale, not just Richardson’s piece. However, current partners could (and likely will) be a part of the new ownership group.

Who’s probably going to buy it?

WBTV reports that they’ve heard six different ownership groups are exploring bids for the Panthers.

The leading contender would have to be the group of local businesspeople including Felix Sabates that are currently evaluating a bid. We only have hints so far as to who the other members are.

Sabates is a long-time CEO with his hands in a lot of things, including a yacht dealership, a Mercedes Benz dealership, NASCAR team and the Charlotte Hornets. He’s told the Observer that he would not be the majority owner of the team should his group submit the winning bid.

He’s said that two of the others are current partners with the Panthers. He’s also said they’re open to having sports or entertainment celebrities be a part of the group.

Felix Sabates and Ron Rivera in a TV commercial. Screenshot from YouTube

What current partners have that kind of cash?

Belks: The Belk family made its money through the Belk department store chain, which sold for $3 billion back in 2015. The family owned 70 percent of the company, giving the family now a net worth somewhere around $2 billion, according to Forbes. They’re definitely in the running.

Levines: The Levine family built Family Dollar, which sold for $8.5 billion in 2015. Forbes pegs their net worth at $1.4 billion, so they could be in contention for majority owner.

Bissell: Smoky Bissell and family sold Ballantyne Corporate Park last year for about $1.2 billion. That’s a lot of money, but even if they kept 100 percent of it, that wouldn’t likely put them in contention.

Close Bowles: The Close family made their fortune in textiles, through South Carolina-based Springs Industries. The company sold in 2013, but I think the family is worth in the hundreds of millions, not billions. They could continue as a minority owner.

Harris: The Harrises are major Charlotte developers but I don’t think they are billionaires.

Is Diddy (or Steph, or Kaep, or [insert celeb here]) really going to buy the Panthers?

You’ve probably seen that rap mogul Diddy has said he wants to buy the Panthers. Embattled quarterback Colin Kaepernick has said he wants in, as well as Warriors star (and Charlottean) Steph Curry.

All three could conceivably end up as part of the ownership team — but the chances of them running the show are slim.

The Panthers were recently valued by Forbes at $2.3 billion, and CNN Money says a sale could go for as much as $2.8 billion.

NFL rules require that teams have a controlling owner with at least 30 percent of the team. That means the new owner is going to have to have access to between $690 million and $840 million at a minimum — and NFL rules only allow $250 million to be debt.

Forbes put Diddy’s net worth at $820 million, making it a stretch to believe he could be the majority owner. Kaepernick and Curry have less money than that.

However, teams can have owners with as small as a 1 percent ownership stake. All three could fairly easily come up with $25 million.

Michael Jordan’s name has also been thrown around, and with a net worth of $1.4 billion, is in the right stratosphere. But most of his money is tied up with owning the Hornets. I could see him come in at 1-3 percent but wouldn’t expect him to run this deal.

photo via Accelerate Basketball

Who gets to make the decision?

Richardson gets to drive the process and has hired New York investment bank Allen & Company LLC to field offers. The bank specializes in sports team sales and handled the sale of the Buffalo Bills in 2014.

Everyone is predicting that the Panthers will get interested from multiple buyers and that the bidding could get intense.

In theory, Richardson could accept a lower price from a local ownership group. However, all of the other owners in the group get to vote on accepting or rejecting offers (it’s unclear what exactly the voting arrangement is with the Panthers partners). They’ll have more incentive to maximize their return on their ownership stake and could make that difficult.

Could the team move?

Sure, it’s possible. But I think it’s unlikely.

Richardson negotiated a deal with the city of Charlotte in 2013 to renovate Bank of America Stadium, installing new escalators and video board. Taxpayers put in about $88 million, and in exchange got a six-year “tether” guaranteeing that the team would stay local.

That deal expires in 2019.

But Charlotte remains an attractive market that would be difficult to leave, even if the new owner is an out-of-towner.

What about Bank of America Stadium?

This is going to be one of the sources of endless speculation.

Opened in 1996, Bank of America Stadium is now on the older end of NFL stadiums (10th-oldest out of 31). It’s gone through a few significant renovations, but there’s talk that the new ownership group could want something more.

It feels pretty clear that the new owner will ask the city of Charlotte to help pay for something as that six-year “tether” comes to an end.

But what the ask could be has a wide range. It could be for a roof or dome to be put on the stadium to help attract more cold-weather activities and sporting events. It could be a brand new stadium — either Uptown or somewhere with more available parking.

The newest NFL venue, Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, opened this year and cost about $1.6 billion. It has a retractable roof, sideline suites and 3,200 feet of video board.

Gov. Roy Cooper has said he’s open to using state incentives to help keep the team local. City councilman James Mitchell, who heads the economic development committee, has said they’ll want to meet with the new owner as soon as possible.

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Andrew Dunn
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