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Volume 21 No. 17

Franchises

The sale price for the Carolina Panthers could top $2.5 billion, a record for a U.S. sports franchise.
Photo: getty images

This month is always a time for whispers and rumors in the NFL, as the weeks before the draft sees mud flung at players hoping to hear their name called. This April, however, there has been another NFL whisper campaign, and instead of rookie players, it is directed at prospective rookie owners.

 

The sale of the Carolina Panthers has witnessed an unusually steep level of speculation about the three known bidders, so much so that one of them — David Tepper — publicly refuted last week a New York Times report that he had backed out of the process.

But the buzz isn’t limited to whether Tepper is in or out. Consider claims about:

Media outlets having a dossier detailing the alleged ties to shady interests by bidder Ben Navarro’s Mexican lending business.

Bidder Alan Kestenbaum’s rumored ties to Russian mining interests, and his long-ago partnership with late financier Marc Rich, who President Bill Clinton infamously pardoned.

A fourth bidder could be in the mix.

Bidding for the Carolina Panthers

David Tepper
The best-known of the three, he is a limited partner in his hometown Pittsburgh Steelers and founded Appaloosa Management, a hedge fund focused on distressed debt.

Alan Kestenbaum
Chairman and CEO of Bedrock Industries, which owns and operates metals, mining and natural resource companies.

Ben Navarro
CEO of Sherman Financial, which specializes in subprime consumer lending.

Marc Ganis, a consultant whose Sportscorp has worked with NFL teams for decades, said the rumor mill reflects the fact that some of the bidders are relatively unknown.

“It is typical people who buy NFL teams are well-known before they buy an NFL team,” Ganis said. 

That notion was amplified last month when Bob McNair, the Houston Texans owner and like Navarro a native of South Carolina, said he had never come across the subprime lender during his time in the state.

“I don’t know him, but he is from Charleston and I have a home … and business interests down there and I have never run into him,” McNair told reporters at the NFL owners meeting in Orlando.

Panthers bidder David Tepper is a Steelers limited partner and best-known by the NFL.
Photo: getty images

However, the universe of individuals who can buy an NFL team has shrunk drastically in recent years as the prices have skyrocketed and league rules limit debt and the number of partners. Depending on one’s source, the price for the Panthers could top $2.5 billion. To put that in perspective, that is more than the combined total of the last two teams that were sold: the Buffalo Bills, in 2014 for $1.4 billion, and Cleveland Browns in 2012 for $960 million.

Tepper is of course well-known to the NFL, as the fund manager is a limited partner in the Pittsburgh Steelers. He appears to be the most qualified bidder but also the one who is willing to pay the least, sources said.

The sales process is being run by Allen & Co., which faces a tough situation. Panthers owner Jerry Richardson has very high price expectations, some say over $3 billion. Yet the bidder with the deepest pockets, Tepper, is promising not to overpay and is believed to be in the low $2 billion range.

The NFL wants a new owner by the league’s next owners meeting, set for May 21.

After spending 22 years as a tenant in RFK Stadium, D.C. United’s move into its own soccer-specific stadium this summer is proving to be a boon to the team’s sponsorship revenue.

 

“It’s been a massive game changer for us,” said Rob Hur, D.C. United vice president of corporate sponsorships. “Whether it’s been the attraction of the first new sports venue to open in Washington, D.C., in 12 years, the growth in MLS, the amazing fan base we have here with so many youth participants in the area or other factors — you put that all together and it’s been a perfect storm.”

Although its year-over-year revenue growth tied Toronto FC for best in the 23-team league last year, D.C. United’s sponsorship revenue ranked last in MLS, due to its limited ability to sell or control certain inventory at RFK as it neither owned nor operated the venue.

Now, after a slew of new deals tied to the energy around its move to Audi Field, it ranks ninth in the league in sponsorship revenue.

Its latest partnership is with Coca-Cola, a new three-year agreement that will give the company exclusivity in the soft drink, water and energy drink categories, and make its products available throughout Audi Field. Previously, the team had a one-year deal with Pepsi. While financial terms of the new arrangement were not disclosed, it provides D.C. United with a significant revenue increase over its previous deal, as well as an increase in the amount of in-market activation Coca-Cola will do around the club, Hur said.

Audi Field, which opens this summer, has fueled major gains in the team’s sponsor revenue.
Photo: d.c. united

The club’s naming-rights deal with Audi for the stadium, signed last February, has proven to be a bellwether. That deal, which runs at least 12 years, is valued at $4 million annually, making it the league’s second-largest naming-rights agreement behind LAFC’s deal with Banc of California, which is valued at roughly $6.67 million annually. Most naming-rights deals around the league are valued in the $2 million to $2.5 million range.

D.C. United hopes its next jersey sponsorship will be similarly impactful. Its current deal with government contractor Leidos is valued at $3 million annually but expires after this season, and the team will not be renewing it. Hur said the club is in talks with potential new partners and expects to increase its revenue from the jersey rights by at least 50 percent. D.C. United engaged Nielsen last year to value the rights, and felt its existing deal was undervalued. Hur said the club is still deciding if it will use an outside agency to aid its search for a new jersey sponsor.

D.C. United is also building a training facility and stadium for its USL team in northern Virginia’s Loudoun County, where Hur said the club is exploring naming rights and other sponsorship opportunities. The club is heavily focused on landing a partnership with an airline, as it is the only major professional team in the D.C. market without one.