CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person and Katherine Peralta | The Charlotte Observer) - While there won't be a stipulation that the Carolina Panthers remain in Charlotte as part of the ongoing ownership change, NFL commissioner Roger Goodell said Wednesday he expects the league's owners to prefer that outcome.
"That will clearly be the intent of our ownership," Goodell said Wednesday during his state of the league address to the media.
Goodell noted that any NFL franchise relocation is subject to three-quarters approval of the league's 32 owners. Two recent franchise shifts to the Los Angeles market – the St. Louis Rams in 2016 and San Diego Chargers in 2017 – were approved by owners, and the Raiders have been approved for a move from Oakland to Las Vegas.
But New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, whose team will meet the Philadelphia Eagles in Super Bowl LII on Sunday, said 75 percent of NFL owners might be too high a bar for new Carolina ownership – if that owner even wanted to move the franchise.
"I'd be very surprised if someone would try to move that team," Kraft said after Goodell's address. "First of all, Charlotte's an amazing area. ... It's an area of growth. The fans there have been great.
"I think a new owner would have a very tough time getting 24 votes to move the team."
Panthers owner and founder Jerry Richardson announced in December that the team would be sold after the season, which concludes with Sunday's Super Bowl.
Goodell said there won't be a stipulation by the league that new ownership request keep the team in Charlotte. But he expected that to be the preference of the league.
"I think all of us and the owners believe Carolina is a great market, a market we'd like to stay in," Goodell said. "We hope that the franchise owner that is eventually selected will have that view. As you know, that is subject to review by the ownership in the ownership process, and I'm sure that will be a question many of the owners will ask."
Carolina, with 157 consecutive sellouts and a stadium paid for in part by the holders of 67,000 PSLs, could be subject to an attempt to move the team by new ownership.
Kraft, who has owned the Patriots since 1994, said Richardson, whose Panthers began play as an NFL expansion franchise in 1995, has been "a great partner."
Richardson was the subject of an explosive Sports Illustrated article in December, in which Richardson's alleged workplace misconduct – including accusations of sexual harassment and a racial slur – and announced that same day he would put the franchise up for sale after the season.
"I came into the league the same time as Jerry Richardson," Kraft said. "He's one of the best guys I've ever met. He's a wonderful guy. He's been a great partner and the way I know him he's a classy, wonderful guy."
The sale of Richardson's franchise is proceeding, and some interested parties have already signed confidentiality agreements as they move forward with the process.
Bankers have said the next step is for possible buyers to formally indicate their interest in bidding for the team. The Panthers' bankers would then work to narrow down that list for further discussions.
Reports that the field of prospective buyers has been narrowed to six were inaccurate, sources told the Observer. On the contrary, the process is just getting started, a person familiar with the matter but unauthorized to speak on the record said.
City Councilman James Mitchell said he knows of "up to six potential bidders that have shown interest." But to his knowledge, Mitchell added, the field "has not been narrowed."
Marc Ganis, a Chicago-based sports consultant who is close with Goodell and Richardson, said narrowing down the formal list of potential buyers usually doesn't happen this quickly.
"You may have an idea of who's serious and who isn't," Ganis said Wednesday. "But a few weeks into a process, it's typically a little more time than that."
Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates has said he is part of a local group that includes two of the team's existing minority owners that is exploring a bid. He has not named anyone in the group although he has said he has talked to the Smith family that runs Charlotte Motor Speedway about joining the group. The Panthers' minority owners include prominent local families such as the Levines, Belks and Harrises.
Mitchell, citing a source he declined to name, said the process is expected to pick up quickly after the Super Bowl, and that new ownership could be in place by the time the NFL draft rolls around in April.
But potential bidders are not approaching Charlotte City Council, Mitchell said.
"They haven't worked with us at all," he told the Observer. "We have no leverage in this whatsoever."