Carolina Panthers Headed Toward Record Sale Price
ORLANDO, Fla. — Four months after the Carolina Panthers went on the auction block, owner Jerry Richardson is on track to collect a record sale price for the team he founded in 1993.
However, while the Panthers will fetch far more than the Buffalo Bills, which Terry Pegula bought for a then-record $1.4 billion in 2014, previous reports that the team could sell for $3 billion or more now appear overly optimistic. Sports bankers and people involved in the process expect the Panthers to sell for around $2.5 billion.
That would still serve as a sign that N.F.L. teams remain extremely valuable, with leaguewide revenues reaching more than $14 billion. Earlier this year, Fox agreed to pay a record $600 million to broadcast Thursday night games. The day after the league terminated its national sponsorship with Papa John’s, it announced an even more lucrative deal with Pizza Hut.
The league has more than its share of challenges, though. Television ratings have fallen about 20 percent in the past two seasons. Some fans have been angered by players who protested during the national anthem the past two seasons. The league continues to battle concerns about safety. Youth tackle football rates have plummeted in certain communities.
“Each team is very separate, but I think this sale is going to be a decent litmus test,” one owner said at the league’s annual meeting here in Orlando. “If you want to be part of the N.F.L., this is going to be your base price. It’s going to be your new norm.”
The benchmark created by the sale of the Panthers, a team that plays in a midsize market with strong growth potential, could come into play in the near future when other N.F.L. teams go up for sale. Sports bankers said the Denver Broncos, New Orleans Saints and Tennessee Titans could change hands in the next few years.
While bidders have emerged for the Panthers, several of them appear unwilling to pay far more than what they believe to be the fair price — around $2.3 billion, according to people with knowledge of the process.
So far, there are six bidders, according to a person with knowledge of the process, though only four are publicly known. David Tepper, the founder of the hedge fund Appaloosa Management and a minority owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers; Michael Rubin, the chairman of Fanatics, the sports merchandise company; and Ben Navarro, who owns Sherman Financial Group, an investment firm; have made bids to buy the team. The three offers were between $2 billion and $2.2 billion, according to several people with knowledge of the bids who could not publicly discuss the auction.
Alan Kestenbaum, the chief executive of Bedrock Industries, which owns and operates metal and mining companies, has also bid, though it’s unclear at what price.
The sale of the team has been a point of focus at the N.F.L. owners meeting here. Representatives from the 32 teams were briefed on the progress of the auction on Monday. They were told that a winning bid could be selected by the end of April. Assuming the prospective owner survives due diligence, the owners could vote on that bid at their next meeting in Atlanta in late May. At least 24 owners have to approve a buyer before the transaction can be completed.
Richardson, who has taken a less active role in league proceedings in recent years, has not attended the meetings here. A team spokesman, Steven Drummond, declined to comment on the potential sale of the Panthers.
In December, the league said it would investigate allegations that Richardson sexually harassed female employees of the team over a period of many years. Soon after Sports Illustrated published a report detailing those allegations, Richardson, 82, said he would sell the team.
Certain N.F.L. owners have already started to make their preferences known. Many owners have said that, all bids being equal, they prefer Tepper because he already owns a stake in the Steelers, which he would have to sell if he bought the Panthers, and because he has the financial wherewithal, with a net worth of roughly $11 billion.
Rubin, who teamed up on his bid with Joe Tsai, the co-founder of the Alibaba Group, is also known to N.F.L. owners because Fanatics is the official retail partner of team merchandise.
While both Tepper and Rubin appear willing to continue bidding for the team, neither are prepared to pay $2.5 billion, according to several people with knowledge of the auction, though they could be posturing.
Representatives for Tepper, Rubin, Kestenbaum and Navarro all declined to comment.
At the meetings here, three owners who declined to be identified because they did not want to be seen injecting themselves into the process, said that Navarro’s holdings in companies that lend to subprime borrowers might be a stumbling block for them.
Navarro’s company, Sherman Financial Group, has stakes in financial services companies around the world, but 90 percent of the revenue and income comes from Credit One Bank, which issues credit cards to credit-challenged customers. Credit One has been sued for using aggressive collection techniques.
Among other things, Sherman Financial also buys and manages consumer debt. Sherman Financial also paid a $175,000 penalty to settle a case brought by New York attorney general Eric Scheiderman for unlawful debt collection.
Additionally, Sherman Financial also owns about half of a joint venture with the Chedraui family in Mexico that provides similar lending services. The company, Consupago, offers loans that are among the most expensive in Mexico to a captive market of government employees.
On Sunday, Bob McNair, the owner of the Houston Texans, voiced support for Navarro. He cited his philanthropic giving and said he had no issue with his line of work. “His business is a legitimate business,” McNair told reporters. “For me, that wouldn’t be a problem.”
Elisabeth Malkin contributed to this article.