Charlotte businessman confirms he's assembling group of investors to buy Carolina Panthers

Charlotte businessman and sports impresario Felix Sabates says a group of investors is “moving pretty fast” to buy the Carolina Panthers from owner Jerry Richardson with the goal of keeping the team in Charlotte. (Diedra Laird | The Charlotte Observer)
Charlotte businessman and sports impresario Felix Sabates says a group of investors is “moving pretty fast” to buy the Carolina Panthers from owner Jerry Richardson with the goal of keeping the team in Charlotte. (Diedra Laird | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Michael Gordon and Jim Morrill/The Charlotte Observer) - A group of investors committed to keeping the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte is "moving pretty fast" to purchase the team from owner Jerry Richardson, the Observer has learned.

Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates confirmed he's assembling a group of local and out of state investors to buy the Carolina Panthers.

The group, which includes both local and out-of-town members, is made up of "some very serious people, some very wealthy people who are very committed to Charlotte," said Sabates, a longtime fixture in the city's professional sports scene.

"They're moving pretty fast."

Sabates, a minority owner of the Charlotte Hornets, said he is not among those trying to buy the city's NFL team but has talked directly with some who are. Sabates declined to identify any of the potential buyers or say whether they are part of the team's minority ownership, which includes some of the city's most influential and wealthy business figures.

Former Bank of America CEO Hugh McColl counted himself among others who "want very much to keep the Panthers here. So there's certainly a lot of different people working on it."

Richardson, who owns 48 percent of the franchise, announced Sunday that he planned to sell the team – a few hours after Sports Illustrated reported that the 81-year-old owner had paid settlements to four employees over allegations of sexual and racial workplace misconduct.

He said he will not consider offers until the off season. The franchise is valued at $2.3 billion, and experts say the team and its assets could draw an even higher sale price.

The future sale is already drawing outside interest. Music mogul Sean "P. Diddy" Combs is reportedly heading a group that plans to make an offer.

"I will be the best NFL owner that you can imagine," Diddy said in a video posted to Instagram late Sunday evening and directed at the team's fans.

Any sale must be approved by the other NFL owners.

The team is under a lease to play at Bank of America Stadium through next season. While most analysts say that the next owners will try to move the Panthers to another city, Center City Partners President/CEO Michael Smith said Wednesday that nothing is guaranteed.

"We changed leagues as a city when we brought the NFL to Charlotte, and it's something worth fighting for," Smith told the Observer. "It's not a foregone conclusion that they are going to stay. It's time for the city to come together, and for civic, business and elected leaders to work with the new ownership to make sure it's really apparent what makes this city so great, and what makes this such a great NFL town."

Sabates says any sale will be complicated by unanswered questions about the future of the team's 22-year-old stadium, which he says must be replaced by a domed venue similar to the $1.6 billion Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta, which opened in September.

Team officials often described Bank of America Stadium as having "good bones." Sabates says it's obsolete, and that state and city governments must "pony up" to replace it.

"We need a world-class facility to get world-class events. We'll never have a Super Bowl here. We'll never have a Final Four again," he said. "Good bones? There are good bones in a cemetery, too."

WBTV contributed to this story.