Former Carolina Panthers bidder: Richardson should not sell the team

CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - A Charlotte businessman who recently dropped his bid to buy the Carolina Panthers says current team owner Jerry Richardson should not be selling the team.

In mid-December, Jerry Richardson announced he was selling the team after Sports Illustrated reported allegations of misconduct in the workplace. Richardson, who founded a Panthers franchise that started NFL play in 1995, reportedly had an original plan for the team to be sold within two years of his death.

Since the announcement, there have been a handful of bidders who have expressed interest in buying the team. Among them was Charlotte businessman Felix Sabates.

Sabates told WBTV's Maureen O'Boyle during a one-on-one interview Tuesday that he was approached by three perspective majority owners when Richardson made the initial announcement about selling the team. They wanted his Carolina connection, business expertise and cash as a minority partner.

Sabates was among the first names made public as potential bidder started coming forward. Monday, he pulled himself out of the process.

"These type of deals - you have to look at long-term. I mean the Panthers, when they came here, they were $300-plus million and today some $2.5 billion, but took 20-some years to get there," Sabates said. "I'm 72 years old. I had a number in mind that my group and I were willing to spend to become a partner but when it went above that doesn't make any sense to me."

He says his cap was in the "very, very low $2 billion range."

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But Sabates doesn't think Richardson should even be selling the team.

"I think he should have waited until he died and let somebody else sell it," he said. "But he thought he was doing the right thing for him and the community. I think it was the wrong [thing]."

If he's going to sell, Sabates thinks Richardson is going about it the right way.

"He hired somebody. I don't think he wanted to get emotionally involved in the daily negotiations and the grind of all these outside investors, so he did the right thing."

While money talks, Sabates says ultimately Richardson will decide the fate of the team.

"Jerry has the option to sell the team for less money if he likes somebody else better. He's the boss," Sabates said. "No one can tell him what to sell the team for. So he can choose who to sell it to."

While Sabates says he's doesn't have any inside information he believes businessman Ben Navarro from Charleston could be in the top two contenders. The other is steel company CEO Alan Kestenbaum.

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"Navarro would be a great owner because he knows a lot of people in the community already. He's not an outsider," Sabates said. "[He is] a wonderful human being. Everyone in the world who knows him - loves him."

Two other bidders have been identified in the process - e-commerce entrepreneur Michael Rubin and hedge fund manager David Tepper.

Last month, Bloomberg reported that Rubin had dropped out after bids reached $2.5 billion, but a source told the Observer he remained interested at the right price. Tepper also told the Observer on Monday that he is still in the bidding process, despite a report by the New York Times saying he had withdrawn.

Sabates says he thinks the sale of the team wears on the Panthers but thinks Richardson made a smart move by extending the contract of head coach Ron Rivera, through 2020.

"Rivera is a hot commodity. He was uncertain with a new owner now, at least, he's got a long-term extension to his contract," Sabates said. "I think it's great."

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