Commentary: David Tepper tackles the NFL with the purchase of the Panthers

 In July 2018

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Commentary

No one would say that National Football League owners represent a cross-section of America. They are almost entirely white men, and they are of course rich — very rich.

But that aside, teams don’t often come up for sale, so when one gets sold, as the Carolina Panthers just did, it’s worth paying attention to the buyer and the source of his wealth. It may not be a lesson in diversity, but it does show us where the economy is going.

David Tepper, who paid $2.2 billion for the Panthers, runs a hedge fund called Appaloosa Management that manages more than $16 billion. Tepper himself is worth more than $11 billion. That’s a lot of Cam Newton jerseys.

People often confuse hedge funds with private-equity funds. But they’re different creatures. Private-equity outfits buy, own, manage and resell. Hedge funds don’t want to run a company; they just want to make money on the movement in its stock or bonds. It’s all about knowing when to buy and sell.

Hedge funds get a bad rap, and not just because they bet against success. At times, they can seem like meteorologists who want to control the weather so their forecasts are accurate. We saw this in the epic battle between Bill Ackman and Herbalife, which has a huge facility in Winston-Salem.

Ackman shorted the stock, betting it would go down once federal regulators found Herbalife to be a pyramid scheme. He tried at great expense to fuel that narrative. His failure was costly for him and his investors.

Tepper, by contrast, is best known for taking chances on companies that are in trouble. He invested in Bank of America at the depths of the financial crisis. Later, he bought into some big California utilities that were circling the drain. He’s also bought distressed debt issued by various companies that were in bankruptcy proceedings. These are all bets on recovery.

There’s an essential optimism to this approach, hunting for the upside. But there’s also something else at play: A belief in institutions. Buying financial stocks in 2008 was a bet that the government wouldn’t let the big banks fail. Same with the utilities. It’s a recognition that our world is complicated and that while small is beautiful, big — and complicated — is essential.

So, what does this mean for the Carolina Panthers? First, the NFL, like the big banks and the big utilities, is an institution, so Tepper will be right at home. He grew up in Pittsburgh, and to buy the Panthers, he has to sell his minority stake in the Steelers, a team that has been a model of stability and consistency, not to mention on-the-field success.

Of course, this is what all owners want. For Tepper to do that, he will need to move past the role of the hedge-fund manager and become an active owner, not just an investor. It’s a different way of looking at assets, both human, as in coaches and players, and physical, as in Bank of America Stadium, whose name still looms over Charlotte as a reminder of Tepper’s big bet on the upside.


On a personal note, this will be my final column for Business North Carolina. I’ve decided to pursue work beyond journalism. My thanks to the magazine’s editors for their faith in me, and to you, the readers, for joining me along the way.

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