17 Apr NC politicians say they want to help keep the NFL in Charlotte — but at what price? – Triangle Business Journal
It looks like the Carolina Panthers are close to getting a new owner. And, as soon as they do, one of the next questions will be: What does that new owner want?
City government and the NFL franchise in 2013 negotiated a 10-year agreement to keep the team at Bank of America Stadium through 2023, but the ironclad provisions of the agreement keeping the team in Charlotte expire in 2019. Since team founder and principal owner Jerry Richardson disclosed plans to sell the Panthers in December, reporters, fans and politicians have speculated whether the next owner will demand a taxpayer-subsidized billion-dollar stadium or other inducements to stay put.
Gov. Roy Cooper told me it’s impossible to say what the state might do to help the team since the next owner has yet to be selected. At the same time, Cooper, a first-term Democrat, said he has been in contact with business leaders trying to get a sense of the best approach to ensuring the NFL team makes a long-term commitment. Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, who, like Cooper, is a Democrat, told me earlier this year that she considers the Panthers the city’s most important economic retention project.
What seems most plausible for city government would be an extension or expansion of the current arrangement, with additional money from existing tourism taxes used to make improvements at 22-year-old BofA Stadium. If the request goes much beyond the $87.5 million approved by City Council in 2013, then the state would be called upon, assuming politicos agree the NFL franchise merits a larger investment.
Leaders of the Republican-controlled General Assembly have said little about those prospects, and Cooper told me he has yet to broach the topic with GOP lawmakers, which seems curious for someone pondering how to keep the team.
As for the Republican leaders, the office of Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger (R-Rockingham) has not responded to several requests submitted by Charlotte Business Journal for comment on the Panthers.
Rep. Tim Moore, the House speaker and a Cleveland County Republican, responded to my interview requests with a statement shared by his spokesman.
“I look forward to meeting the new owner of the Carolina Panthers when the private sale of the team is complete,” Moore said. “The team is important to the Charlotte region’s local economy and a big source of pride across the state. To this point no prospective buyers have approached me with any requests for assistance for the House of Representatives to consider. My sons and I are big Panthers fans and I’m committed to keeping the team in North Carolina under new ownership.”
The New York Times reported this week that the bidding for Richardson’s team is down to two contenders, South Carolina financial services company owner Ben Navarro and Alan Kestenbaum, an executive and investor whose main investments have been in the steel and mining industries. A third bidder, Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner and hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper, reportedly balked as the price reached $2.5 billion, though Tepper later told The Charlotte Observer he remains in the auction for the team.
New York investment bank Allen & Co. is handling the sale for Richardson.
Others reported to be interested, including e-commerce billionaire Michael Rubin and Raleigh software magnate Jim Goodnight, have, in the former case, cooled at the prospect as the price has risen and, in Goodnight’s case, never acknowledged media reports of pursuing the Panthers.
“It’s very competitive because there are so few opportunities to own a major league franchise,” George Postolos, an industry consultant and former executive in the NBA and Major League Baseball, told me. “That’s true in the NFL and Charlotte’s a highly attractive market. There are many capable investors (interested in the Panthers).”
Postolos knows the Charlotte area well — he was among the bidders for the city’s NBA team in the sale that ultimately went to Michael Jordan in 2010.
None of the principals involved in the Panthers bids responded to CBJ requests for comment and nondisclosure agreements have kept them from saying much elsewhere. Neither the NFL nor the Panthers offered any update on the sale. Other NFL owners and industry sources have predicted Richardson will sell the team soon enough for a vote during the league meetings in Atlanta scheduled for May 21-23.
In 2013, Richardson lobbied aggressively in Raleigh to land a larger incentives package that would have included state money — and would have committed the team to Charlotte for a longer period. Republican Gov. Pat McCrory, a former Charlotte mayor, and the GOP legislature, which then included current U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis of Cornelius as House speaker, rebuffed the NFL team, though lawmakers did allow Charlotte greater flexibility with existing tax revenue to help secure a smaller pact.
At that time, Bob Rucho, a Mecklenburg Republican, was co-chair of the state Senate finance committee, one of the most powerful perches in the legislature. Rucho subsequently retired, but has recently relocated to Iredell County and is running for a newly created Senate district.
Asked about the Panthers and potential state funding, Rucho told me, “I’m sure it would be taken under serious consideration. They make a positive impact on the state.”
At the same time, he declined to commit to anything and, when asked about what Berger and Moore might view as realistic scenarios, declined to speak for his former colleagues or speculate on their intentions. Rucho over the years has embraced tax cuts and argued that government incentives should not pick winners and losers — that is, cater to individual companies and businesses — at the expense of others.
He told me that when incentives are warranted, they must create new jobs. That would seem unlikely in the case of the Panthers, unless the actual construction work itself was considered. Those would be temporary jobs, not permanent ones.
Felix Sabates, a local car dealer and sports investor whose local bid for the Panthers sputtered this week, told me any new owner “would be stupid” to leave Charlotte, where the NFL team has 60,000 season tickets sold and plays in an area that is growing in population and jobs.