They own part of the Carolina Panthers, but remain silent as sale of team looms

They own part of the Carolina Panthers, but remain silent as sale of team looms

CHARLOTTE, NC (Rick Rothacker/The Charlotte Observer) - Since the first efforts to create the Carolina Panthers in 1987, Jerry Richardson has been the face of the team's ownership group, but he's not the only partner.

That group includes 11 members outside the Richardson family, according to the Panthers latest recent media guide. It's mostly prominent Charlotte businesspeople who were investors alongside Richardson back in 1993 when the NFL approved the team's entry into the league. Some of the listed partners represent family holdings.

For years, Richardson, 81, has said he planned for the team to be sold within two years of his death, but that timetable abruptly sped up Dec. 17 when he announced he would sell the franchise at the end of the season. That decision came just hours after a Sports Illustrated report outlined allegations of sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson toward former Panthers employees.

The announcement has raised questions about what role the limited partners will have in the planned sale, including whether any of them would be interested in buying the franchise. Limited partners contacted by the Observer have either declined to comment or did not respond about the pending sale.

The Panthers have said Richardson and his family own 48 percent of the franchise, with the remaining partners owning the rest. Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond said Thursday the limited partners participated in the decision to sell and will sell their stakes along with the Richardsons. It's possible, however, that some of the minority owners could be buyers of the team, he said.

The Observer reported last week that a group of investors committed to keeping the Panthers in Charlotte is "moving pretty fast" to purchase the team from Richardson. 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 Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates, who said he is involved with the effort. He declined to identify any of the other potential buyers or say whether they are part of the team's minority ownership.

In the past, some minority owners have said Richardson is firmly in control of the franchise but that he does seek their counsel from time to time. "It's a wonderful dictatorship," Charlotte businessman Cameron Harris, one of the partners, told the Observer in 2013.

‘The Steinbrenner effect’

The Panthers ownership structure is not an unusual arrangement. The NFL has said under today's rules that a team can be owned by up to 25 individuals, one of whom must own at least 30 percent and have full operating control of the team.

The Panthers provide few details about the team's operations, but some information has leaked out over time. In 2012, the sports website Deadspin.com published leaked documents on the operating structure of the team and some of its financials, including a $12 million distribution to partners in 2010.

Richardson and his family are the owners of a limited liability company called Panthers GP, which has a stake in Richardson Sports Limited Partnership, the entity that owns the team, according to these documents. The business description of Panthers GP is to "manage professional football franchise," according to North Carolina Secretary of State records.

The limited partners hold their stake in the team through a company called Carolina PSLFC, according to the leaked documents. Secretary of State records describe its business as "ownership of limited interest in professional football team."

John Vrooman, a sports economist at Vanderbilt University, says these types of partnerships are popular for sports franchises but can cause problems.

He has written about what he calls the "Steinbrenner Effect," after the late New York Yankees general partner. That's where the general or controlling partner "has an incentive to maximize his own interest very often at the expense of the financial interest of his limited partners who are often silent." One example would be overspending on players.

This can cause problems for a league if a general partner more aggressively spends money toward winning because that owner's risk is effectively subsidized by his limited partners. That's why the NFL has rules against corporate ownership and rules requiring minimum ownership shares of 30 percent for the general partner, Vrooman said.

To be sure, the Panthers' arrangement is likely to be quite lucrative for the team's limited partners. The team is valued at about $2.3 billion by Forbes magazine but could sell in the $2.8 billion to $3 billion range, Vrooman said.

Prominent families

The Panthers ownership group led by Richardson, a former NFL player who made his money operating Denny's and Hardees restaurants, has stayed mostly the same over the years.

Two original members, former Coca-Cola executive Don Keough and former Century 21 CEO Richard Loughlin, have died. Bill Simms, who resigned a top post at insurance company Transamerica in 1997 after facing questions about his fabricated college credentials and Olympic accomplishments, is no longer listed as an owner.

Here's a look at the other limited partners named in the Panthers media guide:

  • M.C. Belk Pilon: Board chair of the John M. Belk Endowment and part of the Belk family that long led the Charlotte department store chain that was sold to a private equity firm in 2015.
  • Katie Belk Morris: Past chair of the Belk Foundation and part of the Belk family.?
  • Derick Close: Springs Creative Products Group, part of the Springs Industries textile family.?
  • Elliott Close: Developer, part of Springs Industries textile family.?
  • Erskine Bowles: Former president of the University of North Carolina system, White House chief of staff, investment banker. He is married to Crandall Bowles, a businesswoman who is part of the Springs Industries textile family.?
  • Johnny Harris: Charlotte developer.?
  • Cameron Harris: Charlotte businessman and Johnny’s brother.?
  • H.C. “Smoky” Bissell: Developer of Ballantyne Corporate Park. He is a former brother-in-law of Johnny and Cameron Harris, and was married to their late sister, Sara Harris Bissell.?
  • Leon Levine: Founder of Family Dollar Stores.?
  • Jerry and Steve Wordsworth: Rocky Mount brothers whose food distribution business, Meadowbrook Meat Company, was bought in 2012 by a Berkshire Hathaway subsidiary.

The limited partners showed their respect for Richardson in 2016 when they unveiled a nearly 13-foot statue of him at Bank of America Stadium in honor of his 80th birthday.

"It will always represent a symbol of heartfelt appreciation and gratitude to the Richardson family for everything they have done for us as partners, fans and the community," Steve and Jerry Wordsworth said in a statement at the time.