Sale of the Carolina Panthers could drag on longer than expected

Sale of the Carolina Panthers could drag on longer than expected
Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson watches before the NFL football NFC Championship game against the Arizona Cardinals, Sunday, Jan. 24, 2016, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Bob Leverone)

The sale of the Carolina Panthers may drag on longer than previously expected.

Although it's likely the team's new owner will be identified before the NFL owners May 21-23 meeting in Atlanta, it's possible the transaction won't close until after that gathering, according to a source familiar with the process who was not authorized to speak publicly.

At the league meeting in March in Orlando, owners such as the New England Patriots' Robert Kraft had said the hope was to have a winner in place to vote on in May. The next owners meeting is not until October, but the source said it would not be unusual for a deal to be approved outside a regular meeting.

A league source, who was not authorized to speak on the record about the sale, told the Observer while there's still time to hold a vote at the May meeting, the vote could also take place at a later date.

The Panthers are expected to fetch a record price tag for a U.S. sports team — possibly over $2.5 billion — for the team that owner Jerry Richardson brought to the Carolinas in the 1990s.

A Panthers spokesman wouldn't comment.

This week, Richardson's son, Mark, threw his weight behind one of the bidders, Charleston financial services CEO Ben Navarro. In an interview with the Observer, Mark Richardson said he couldn't imagine "a better person being the next owner than him."

Meanwhile, another bidder, steel company CEO Alan Kestenbaum, was in Charlotte again for a visit this week, according to multiple sources. Along with Kestenbaum and Navarro, the Observer has identified two other bidders: hedge fund manager David Tepper and e-commerce entrepreneur Michael Rubin.

Jerry Richardson, 81, announced plans to sell the Panthers in December, on the same day Sports Illustrated reported allegations of workplace misconduct against Richardson. The sale process of the team officially kicked off in early January with the Panthers' loss to the New Orleans Saints in the first round of the playoffs. The NFL's investigation of Richardson is ongoing.

Once Richardson selects a winning offer, that bidder must appear in person before the NFL's finance committee, a group of eight NFL owners chaired by Houston Texans owner Bob McNair. The committee meets in person next week, but could also convene in Atlanta in May at the owners meeting to review Richardson's selection, said the source.

After the winner gets a recommendation from the finance committee, he or she needs to get approval from at least 24 of the league's 32 owners. If owners don't vote during the Atlanta meetings, Commissioner Roger Goodell could call for a teleconference to handle the vote.

After Atlanta, the owners next convene in person in October.

In the last sale of an NFL team, Terry and Kim Pegula were announced in early September 2014 as the winning bidders to buy the Buffalo Bills for a then-record price of $1.4 billion. That was roughly five months after the death of former owner and team founder Ralph Wilson. NFL owners approved the deal at their October meeting.

In the case of the Panthers, Jerry Richardson owns 48 percent of the team, leaving the other 52 percent to a group of about a dozen wealthy individuals and families from around the region.

One of the key questions in the sale of the team is whether any of these minority partners will remain investors under a new owner. If that happens, the new majority owner would not need to pay as much cash upfront to buy the team.

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

"That's cash he (Navarro) doesn't have to come up with," Richardson said of any investments minority partners might make. "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."