In September 2017

By Jim Pomeranz

Dealing in speculation may not be an exact science, but Jerry Richardson, owner of one of the most publicized businesses in the Carolinas, knows how to make the process intriguing. Richardson, 81, keeps his cards close to the vest, rarely talking to the media about stuff like abrupt departures of the Carolina Panthers’ president or general manager or constant speculation on plans to sell the team. It’s arguably no one’s business except for the Big Cat and the wealthy Carolinas families who own about half of the team’s equity. But the Panthers are among the most public of private companies: They wouldn’t exist without a stadium financed by thousands of Carolinians or tens of millions of dollars of public subsidies. No other Tar Heel business makes national news when the corporate equivalent of a left guard — say an assistant auditor? — breaks his ankle or starts a bar brawl.

The team is entering its 23rd season amid high hopes that star quarterback Cam Newton can lead it to a Super Bowl for the second time in three years. In July, Richardson made clear who’s in charge, rehiring popular former general manager Marty Hurney after firing the acerbic Dave Gettleman, whose analytical style had disturbed key players.

It continues a history in which the team’s off-the-field moves are often as interesting as the on-field action. Pending issues are who will be the team’s next owner and how committed that owner would be to Charlotte. Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond says there is nothing for sale, contradicting a CBS Sports report earlier this year that “many other NFL owners” expect the team will change hands sooner rather than later.

Richardson, who had a heart transplant in 2009 and shoulder surgery in 2016, has missed the last two annual owners meetings for health reasons. He fired his two sons — Mark and Jon (who passed away in 2013) — in 2009, with little explanation. Various publications have reported that Richardson’s estate documents call for a sale within two years of his passing.

Contributing to talk of the Panthers bolting is a stadium improvement deal, approved in 2013, that committed the team to its downtown Charlotte site for 10 years, with an option that makes it possible to move out after 2019. The city of Charlotte put up $87.5 million of improvements, less than Richardson had requested in a longer 15-year pact.

Whether NFL franchise values are peaking also may matter, given mounting evidence of concussion-related injuries and a surprising 8% decline in TV ratings last year. Forbes magazine in July estimated the Panthers’ value at $2.08 billion, ranking 22th in the league and 37th among global sports franchises. That’s a nice bump from the $206 million franchise fee that Richardson’s group paid in 1993, which shocked many in the sports world who doubted the Carolinas could support an NFL franchise.

Under Richardson’s steely leadership, the Panthers have emerged among the league’s better-performing franchises, outpacing regional peers in Jacksonville, Nashville and Tampa. It had operating income of $53 million last year, Forbes estimates. The likelihood of Charlotte losing the Panthers to another city is slim no matter who buys the team, says Sal Galatioto, president of New York-based Galatioto Sports Partners, which helps finance sports acquisitions.

Galatioto expects bidding to start at $2 billion, then end at a sharply higher price. “There will be a lot of bidders, but that doesn’t mean the team would move,” he says. “The infrastructure for success is in Charlotte — the fans are great, the team owns the stadium. There aren’t too many places in the United States as attractive as Charlotte for all these factors and more. Now, if Toronto or London are in the mix, it might be a different story, but I think the [NFL] owners wouldn’t entertain the idea of moving the team from Charlotte.”

As always, this ball is in Jerry Richardson’s hands.

Featured photo of Jerry Richardson by Panthers/Mark Olenck

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