Pigskin payoff: got an extra $2 billion? That's where bidding could start should the panthers hit the sales block.

Author:Pomeranz, Jim
Position:NC TREND: Sports business

Dealing in speculation may not be an exact science, but Jerry Richardson, owner of one of the most publicized businesses in the Carolinas, knows how to make the process intriguing. Richardson, 81, keeps his cards close to the vest, rarely talking to the media about stuff like abrupt departures of the Carolina Panthers' president or general manager or constant speculation on plans to sell the team. It's arguably no one's business except for the Big Cat and the wealthy Carolinas families who own about half of the team's equity. But the Panthers are among the most public of private companies: They wouldn't exist without a stadium financed by thousands of Carolinians or tens of millions of dollars of public subsidies. No other Tar Heel business makes national news when the corporate equivalent of a left guard--say an assistant auditor?--breaks his ankle or starts a bar brawl.

The team is entering its 23rd season amid high hopes that star quarterback Cam Newton can lead it to a Super Bowl for the second time in three years. In July, Richardson made clear who's in charge, rehiring popular former general manager Marty Hurney after firing the acerbic Dave Gettleman, whose analytical style had disturbed key players.

It continues a history in which the team's off-the-field moves are often as interesting as the on-field action. Pending issues are who will be the team's next owner and how committed that owner would be to Charlotte. Panthers spokesman Steven Drummond says there is nothing for sale, contradicting a CBS Sports report earlier this year that "many other NFL owners" expect the team will change hands sooner rather than later.

Richardson, who had a heart transplant in 2009 and shoulder surgery in 2016, has missed the last two annual owners meetings for health reasons. He fired his two sons--Mark and Jon (who passed away in 2013)--in 2009, with little explanation. Various publications have reported that Richardson's estate documents call for a sale within two years of his passing. Contributing to talk of the Panthers bolting is a stadium improvement deal, approved in 2013, that committed the team to its downtown Charlotte site for 10 years, with an option that makes it possible to move out after 2019. The city of Charlotte put up $87.5 million of improvements, less than Richardson had requested in a longer 15-year pact.

Whether NFL franchise values are peaking also may matter, given mounting evidence of concussion-related injuries and a...

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