CHARLOTTE, NC (Scott Fowler/The Charlotte Observer) - It appears that David Tepper will be the answer to this question: "Who will buy the Carolina Panthers?"
But that's only the beginning. If Tepper — a Florida hedge fund manager worth an estimated $11 billion — does indeed buy the team from Jerry Richardson as multiple reports have indicated and get approved at the NFL owners meeting later this month, here are nine questions I would like Tepper to answer right away.
1. Can you guarantee that the Panthers will stay in Charlotte for the long term?
It has been reported that Tepper has no intention of moving the Panthers out of Charlotte. However, Tepper saying exactly that in public in front of a lot of cameras would go a long way. I have no reason to believe he's planning to go elsewhere, but it's important to hear it from him. And Tepper needs to address the stadium issue at the same time, preferably saying that Bank of America Stadium can be the team's home for a couple of decades to come as long as upgrades continue to be made.
2. What are you going to do with the Jerry Richardson statue?
At this point, I would give that 13-foot behemoth to the Richardson family and let them put it wherever they like — but not in the very front of Bank of America stadium in such a prominent place. There's no need to topple the statue, but it's time to get it out of there after all of the embarrassing stories that Richardson has faced from Sports Illustrated about his alleged workplace misconduct. Waiting for the NFL investigation to conclude would be prudent, but then move quickly.
But Tepper certainly is an independent thinker about where to store memorabilia — according to a 2009 New York magazine profile he has a pair of brass testicles in his office (a gift from a former employee). So I will be very interested to hear what he says about the statue.
3. Will you keep the current management team intact?
Head coach Ron Rivera and general manager Marty Hurney would certainly appear to be safe as they shepherd a team that has made the playoffs four times in the past five years. I do wonder about Tina Becker, who was Richardson's mysterious handpicked choice to take over running the Panthers' day-to-day business operations in December. I say "mysterious" because Becker hasn't done a single interview with independent media since her appointment five months ago — a striking lack of damage control that has made the Panthers look rudderless.
4. What will you do about the Panthers' Hall of Honor?
The team's hall has long been more like a broom closet, as it contains only one player who ever played a single down for Carolina (the late linebacker Sam Mills). There are all kinds of things you could do with this — add more players, add a small hall of fame in conjunction with the team store. But something needs to be done.
5. Will you disappear?
Tepper has long seemed to be media savvy and not at all camera-shy. I understand he has a big personality, which is good. The Panthers need an owner who gets out in front of his team and doesn't dodge interview requests for a decade at a time. For too long, the sounds of silence from the owner's suite have allegedly masked some creepy behavior.
If you own a team that you literally want fans to buy into, you better act like it. You need to make people believe in you. You need to admit mistakes when they are made. I will be very curious as to how Tepper — who lives in Florida — will conduct his life as a majority NFL owner (he already has a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, but had no real NFL media responsibilities in that role and will have to sell that piece of the Steelers to own the Panthers).
6. What will you do for PSL holders?
These are your most loyal customers, and a "let's get to know each other" gift of some sort would be appropriate. A guarantee of no ticket-price increases for two years? A meet-and-greet with the new owner? A chance to run pass patterns on the field with their kids? Something, or several things. There are about 23,000 accounts for permanent-seat license holders, and together they control about 62,000 seats in the stadium. Get most of those 62,000 stakeholders on your side — slightly more than half of them have been there since the team began — and you are halfway home.
7. Will you keep the NFL shield at midfield?
This was a Jerry Richardson thing, and a symbol that had long ago outlived its original purpose. Sure, you can keep the logo somewhere on the field if you like — a smaller NFL shield at each 20-yard line would work. But get the snarling Panther at the 50 to make the stadium feel more like home. And while you are at it in terms of the fan experience, study what the Charlotte Hornets do during timeouts to keep their fans entertained — it's miles ahead of what the Panthers have traditionally done.
8. What sort of workplace environment will you maintain?
The explosive Sports Illustrated allegations about Richardson's behavior toward women — Jeans Day, leg-shaving, the non-disclosure agreements and all the rest — speak not only to an 81-year-old owner who is out of touch with today's world but also to a group of high-level Panthers employees who protected and coddled the boss at every turn.
You're obviously not going to be in the office every day, but you are nevertheless the leader of an organization that has a reputation that has been badly sullied over the past five months. Transparency, not murkiness, will be a key.
9. What sort of connections will you make with Charlotte?