Carolina Panthers will be biggest US sports team sale ever

Daniel Roberts
Senior Writer

Following explosive allegations of workplace misconduct against Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, he is selling the football team at the end of the season, Richardson announced on Sunday.

Richardson’s official statement on selling the team does not mention the accusations, nor does it give any specific reason for his decision. “I believe that it is time to turn the franchise over to new ownership,” he said. “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.”

Jerry Richardson’s son Mark had originally said earlier this year that the family would sell the team when his father, now 81, passes away. It would certainly appear the scandal has sped up the process.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell (L) and Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson (Getty)

The Panthers will be the first NFL team to sell since 2014, when the Buffalo Bills sold to Terry and Kim Pegula, owners of the Buffalo Sabres NHL team, for $1.1 billion.

That remains the current record price tag for an NFL team. But the overall US sports team sale record is $2.2 billion, the price Tilman Fertitta reportedly paid for the Houston Rockets just a few months ago. (The UFC sold last year to an investment group for $4 billion, but that was an entire league, not one team.) The $2.2 billion Rockets price tag edged out the $2 billion that the LA Dodgers sold for in 2012 and the LA Clippers sold for in 2014.

Expect the Panthers to set a new record.

What price can the Panthers fetch?

The last 15 US pro sports teams to sell (NFL, NBA, or MLB) have all fetched price tags far above their Forbes franchise valuation at the time. It’s a sign that the ultra-wealthy see a sports franchise as an investment almost guaranteed to accrue value.

And teams are able to sell at a premium regardless of their on-the-field success: this year the Miami Marlins, a team that had not made the postseason in 14 years, sold for $1.3 billion to a group of investors led by Derek Jeter. Only weeks before the sale, Forbes had pegged the Marlins at $940 million, ranking them 25th out of baseball’s 30 teams. Owner Jeff Loria got $350 million more than that, and a 700% return on his initial investment of $156 million in 2002.

Take a look at the past six pro teams to change ownership hands: the Rockets, valued by Forbes at $1.65 billion, sold for $2.2 billion; the Marlins, valued at $940 million, sold for $1.3 billion; the Seattle Mariners, valued at $1.2 billion, sold a 90% stake last year for $1.26 billion; the Brooklyn Nets, valued at $1.6 billion, sold for $1.7 billion in 2015; the Atlanta Hawks, valued at $825 million, sold for $850 million in 2015; and the Bills, valued at $935 million, sold for $1.1 billion in 2014.

You might say many of these buyers overpaid. But any of those teams could sell again in just a few years for more than the buyers paid.

Charlotte, NC, is not a top-20 media market, according to Nielsen. But the team has a recent history of excellence: winning the NFC South division four times in the last 10 years, and going to the Super Bowl in 2015.

Forbes values the Panthers at $2.3 billion. It would set a new sports franchise sale record if the team sold at that price, but it’s likely to sell for even higher, perhaps as high as $3 billion.

Yes, the NFL has had a bad year, marred by declining TV ratings and political controversy. But its revenue continues to rise, and it remains the top dog in American sports properties by a wide margin.

Who might buy the Panthers?

Jerry Richardson and his ownership group paid $206 million for the Panthers, an expansion team, in 1993.

Now any of the team’s minority owners could hypothetically make a bid to buy the majority stake. Among them: Erskine Bowles, former president of UNC and White House chief of staff to President Clinton; Tim Belk, who sold Belk department stores into private equity in 2015 for $3 billion; and Leon Levine, founder of Charlotte-based Family Dollar.

Any of those minority owners could potentially want the team, though Richardson’s wording in his statement suggests a public, open sale process.

Separately, Marcus Smith, CEO of Speedway Motorsports Inc and son of SMI owner Bruton Smith, said publicly last year that the Smith family has interest in owning the Panthers. SMI and the Charlotte Motor Speedway are iconic American auto-racing locales and the Smiths are auto-racing royalty in Charlotte.

Of course, any celebrity or athlete could make a bid. And in the minutes after Richardson’s announcement broke, rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs tweeted out his interest in owning the team. He added that the NFL has no African-American majority owners, and said, “Let’s make history.”

And on Monday, former NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick retweeted Combs and said, “I want in on the ownership group,” which stoked instant discussion online.

Of course, if Kaepernick were to become an owner, his career as a quarterback would truly be over. There’s also Michael Jordan, who is a Charlotte local and already owns 90% of the Charlotte Hornets NBA team.

Regardless of who buys the Panthers and for how much, a new era is about to begin for the 24-year-old football franchise.

Daniel Roberts is the sports business writer at Yahoo Finance. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

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