CHARLOTTE, NC (Katherine Peralta and Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - After a relatively quiet two months since the Carolina Panthers went up for sale, the process could soon pick up, and the team could choose its buyer within the next month.
March is going to be "the action month" in the sale process, a source familiar with the matter told the Observer. That means the names of a few more serious bidders could also emerge in the coming weeks as the process unfolds.
Bidders are considered "serious" if they can afford to buy the team outright, and the NFL franchise could sell for between $2.3 billion and $2.8 billion, experts say.
A winning bid could be selected as early as the end of this month or early next month, according to the source, who asked not to be named since the process is ongoing. That scenario would mean NFL team owners would vote to approve the sale during their May 21-23 meetings in Atlanta.
Before that time, the purchase agreement will have to be negotiated and the league will have to conduct an extensive background check on the frontrunner. Those processes can happen concurrently.
This timing jibes with what was reported last week by NFL Network reporter Ian Rapoport, who tweeted that the Panthers sale is tentatively slated to to be discussed and voted on at the owners meeting in May, and that a deal won't be ready by the annual league meeting in Orlando, Fla., March 25-28.
There is a deadline for submitting bids, although it is unclear when that is. A group that includes Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates plans to submit its bid April 1, Sabates told the Observer last week. It is not yet known, however, whether Sabates' group includes an individual with the means to buy the team outright.
Experts say drummed-up interest in the team could help nudge up the purchase price, which would be a victory for owner Jerry Richardson, who holds 48 percent of the team, and the team's approximately one dozen minority owners, who hold 52 percent. Some minority owners are hoping for "a bidding war," a source told the Observer recently.
Some possible bidders reported so far include Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner David Tepper, casino owners Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta; Charleston businessman Ben Navarro, and Sabates' group, which includes several prominent NASCAR drivers.
A high-ranking league source, who is not authorized to speak publicly, told the Observer the NFL expects the names of a couple additional bidders to emerge in coming weeks. All potential buyers were required to sign a confidentiality agreement, prohibiting them from talking about their interest publicly.
NFL rules require the controlling owner to hold at least a 30 percent stake and limit the number of total partners to 25.
In reality, the league wants its owners to hold a much larger stake, and also prefers a smaller number of limited partners than what its rules allow, according to industry experts.
When they bought the Buffalo Bills in 2014, billionaires Terry and Kim Pegula acquired all interest in the franchise from the trust of Ralph Wilson. The Bills announced in September of that year that they had reached what the team called a "definitive agreement" with the Pegulas to purchase the franchise for $1.4 billion, a record at the time.
A month later, NFL owners unanimously approved the sale during their fall meeting. (At least three-quarters of the league's 32 owners, or 24 must approve the sale, per NFL rules.)