Son of Panthers' owner Jerry Richardson picks a favorite among those seeking to buy team

Son of Panthers' owner Jerry Richardson picks a favorite among those seeking to buy team
FILE: Mark Richardson, son of Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson and the former team president, said Tuesday he supports Ben Navarro's bid to purchase the team. (David T. Foster III | The Charlotte Observer)

CHARLOTTE, NC (Joseph Person/The Charlotte Observer) - The son of Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson says he can't imagine a better choice to buy the NFL franchise than Charleston businessman Ben Navarro.

Mark Richardson, a former team president who is part of the ownership group, met Navarro several months ago and came away impressed with the billionaire who is one of four people known to have bid on the Panthers.

"I'm sure there are multiple people that could be the right next owner. I personally know Ben and I know what he stands for," Richardson told the Observer on Tuesday. "I know where his heart and his head is, and what his commitments are. And I can't imagine a better person being the next owner than him."

Mark Richardson said he has not spoken to his father or any of the brokers on Navarro's behalf, although he has had conversations with Navarro about the sale process. The ultimate decision on the sale is up to Jerry Richardson.

Mark Richardson said he would consider remaining with the Panthers as a limited partner if Navarro wins the bid.

"I would give serious consideration if he were the next owner and if he wanted me to continue to be involved," Richardson said in a phone interview.

Richardson said it would make sense for Navarro to have some of the current partners "roll their interest" over and remain part of the ownership team.

"That's cash he (Navarro) doesn't have to come up with," Richardson said. "So the more people that would agree to stay, the less money he would have to come up with or the less of a limited partner group he has to put together."

The Richardson family owns 48 percent of the Panthers. The remainder is owned by a group that includes some of Charlotte's wealthiest and most prominent families who were investors with Jerry Richardson when the NFL awarded Charlotte an expansion franchise in 1993.

Jerry Richardson announced he was selling the team in December, hours after a Sports Illustrated report detailed allegations of sexual and racial misconduct against him.

Navarro is one of four bidders identified by the Observer. The others are steel company CEO Alan Kestenbaum; e-commerce entrepreneur Michael Rubin; and hedge fund manager David Tepper. Bloomberg has reported that Rubin dropped out when bids exceeded $2.5 billion, but a source has told the Observer that he remains interested at the right price.

Navarro is believed to have bid $2.6 billion, The New York Times has reported, which would be a record for a U.S. sports franchise. Sources close to the confidential sale process have said Jerry Richardson is expected to pick a winner in the coming weeks, and a vote by NFL team owners could come at the league's May 21-23 meeting in Atlanta.

Mark Richardson, a real estate developer who splits his time between Charlotte and Charleston, said he learned of Navarro through their shared passion for providing underprivileged children with a quality education.

Richardson is active with a Clemson program called Emerging Scholars, as well as Teach for America. Navarro founded Meeting Street Schools, a nonprofit educational venture that opened a public school under private management in a low-income section of North Charleston in 2014.

"I know people who have worked with him in multiple different areas and everybody always says the same thing about him, and it's all positives," Richardson said. "He's a people person. He's low-key, not a lot of people know him. He flies under the radar."

Navarro, whose father is a former head coach at Ivy League schools Princeton and Columbia, is said to like the open-air aspect of Bank of America Stadium and its in-town location.

That's another plus for Navarro where Mark Richardson is concerned. He helped pick the stadium site 25 years ago after reviewing 80 locations.

Jerry Richardson fired Mark and his brother, Jon, who was in charge of stadium operations, in 2009 after what the Observer reported were "ongoing sibling disputes."

Jon Richardson died in 2013 at age 53, following a long battle with cancer.

Mark Richardson was asked whether Navarro is the type of person his father would want buying the team.

"I think he would be the type of guy that everybody in the Carolinas would like the team to be sold to," he said.

"I'm a fan of his and I'm a fan of what he stands for and how he does things. He's committed to the right things for the right reasons.

"I think he'd be a wonderful owner."

Rick Rothacker contributed to this report.