ORLANDO — Part of the goal of this week’s NFL annual meeting has been to put some of the ugliness of the last few years in the rear-view mirror. And in regards to one big piece of that ugliness, the end is very much in sight.
According to multiple sources with direct knowledge of the situation, the league expects in April to have a buyer selected for the Carolina Panthers, who are up for sale now in the wake of misconduct allegations involving owner Jerry Richardson. The plan is to have the buyer vetted and ready to be voted on at the spring meeting in May.
Richardson didn’t make the trip to Florida, but the sale of his team, hastened by an SI story detailing a toxic workplace environment, has been a topic of discussion in hallways and on barstools at the meetings.
The goal, according to sources, has been to get the bidding for the team into the range of $2.6 billion. (The last NFL franchise to go on the market, the Bills, sold for $1.4 billion in 2014.) It’s unclear at this point whether or not Richardson will get that $2.6 billion figure, but two potential buyers have emerged from the fray.
The favorite from the beginning has been hedge fund manager David Tepper, a Steelers minority owner whom NFL owners have long believed to be well-equipped to join their ranks. Tepper’s capital (Forbes places his net worth at $11 billion) would give him the ability not just to write the checks necessary to buy the team, but also to invest back into the team and the league.
The larger question has been how much Tepper wants in, which has opened the door for an aggressive bid from South Carolina businessman Ben Navarro.
Navarro founded Sherman Financial, and two sources confirmed that the NFL is now vetting him. There was concern on the part of some owners over how Navarro made his money—a piece of it was in debt collection—and a case he settled in New York in 2014 over “repeatedly bringing improper debt collection actions against New York consumers.”
A source close to Navarro emphasized that “this wasn’t bad practices; this was for a missed statute of limitations,” and added that the fine assessed ($175,000) was relatively small in that world. One example given: Bank of America was fined $42 million for fraud last week.
Navarro has hired a PR agency, Luquire George Andrews, to help manage the criticism, and the agency was adamant on Tuesday that Sherman Financial should not be characterized as a debt collector. It issued a statement reading: “Sherman Financial Group is a global diversified financial services company based in Charleston, S.C. The company’s principal business is serving consumer credit needs through its subsidiary, Credit One Bank N.A., a federally regulated national bank. Credit One is the ninth-largest issuer of Visa- and Mastercard-branded credit cards in the U.S. and accounts for more than 90 percent of Sherman Financial Group’s revenue and earnings. In addition, Sherman Financial Group purchases and manages consumer debt; manages investments in corporate debt, real estate and structured credit; and is the owner of Kroll Bond Rating Agency, the nation’s largest post-financial crisis rating agency.”
There are other Panthers suitors on the fringes, one being mining industry executive Alan Kestenbaum, who is backed by Canadian investors. Another source said that Fanatics owner Michael Rubin’s bid, which reports also linked to Sean “Diddy” Combs, is not dead yet, but it’s becoming increasingly less likely to succeed, in part because of Richardson’s own feelings about who to sell the team to. There is believed to be a fifth bidder involved, though that group’s identity has been kept quiet.
Ultimately, the choice is up to Richardson, or at least it will be in advance of the vote to approve the new ownership group—which requires a three-quarters vote from the clubs.
If all goes according to plan, wherever this takes the Panthers, it looks like that vote is right around the corner.
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