In an absolute bombshell of an announcement, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson released a statement through the team on Sunday night that said he will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of the 2017 NFL season.
The announcement came just hours after a Sports Illustrated report outlined allegations of sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson toward former Panthers employees.
The team announced an investigation into the alleged misconduct on Friday evening. The NFL said Sunday that it would take over the investigation.
“There has been no greater mission or purpose in my life than to have brought an NFL franchise to Charlotte,” Richardson said in a five-paragraph statement. Richardson has been the team’s sole owner since the Panthers’ inaugural 1995 season.
“I believe that it is time to turn the franchise over to new ownership. Therefore, I will put the team up for sale at the conclusion of this NFL season,” said Richardson’s statement. “We will not begin the sale process, nor will we entertain any inquiries, until the very last game is played. I hope everyone in this organization will be firmly focused on just one mission: To play and win the Super Bowl.”
Richardson’s statement did not address the allegations of misconduct.
A Sports Illustrated report released right before Sunday’s kickoff against Green Bay detailed the alleged “significant” monetary settlements with at least four former Carolina Panthers employees as a result of inappropriate workplace comments and conduct by Richardson.
The conduct, the news outlet reported, included “sexually suggestive language and behavior, and on at least one occasion directing a racial slur at an African-American Panthers scout.”
SI said the settlements featured non-disclosure agreements forbidding the parties from discussing the matters.
Multiple sources told the Observer that players were not alerted to the announcment of the sale ahead of time. The players had left the stadium before the annoucement broke, after beating the Green Bay Packers 31-24.
Interim general manager Marty Hurney, formerly a longtime GM of the Panthers who was re-hired this spring in an interim role when Dave Gettleman was fired, told the Observer that he found out about Richardson’s intent to sell after the game on Sunday night.
“If this happens, I think it’s a major loss for the NFL,” Hurney said in a conversation with the Observer. “(Richardson) has my utmost respect as an owner and as a person. He has the respect of the employees and players in the organization. I came back because of my respect for him and the organization he developed.”
NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said that the league would not have an immediate comment about the pending sale.
According to a Forbes article published this year, the Panthers are worth $2.3 billion.
If a new owner wanted to relocate the team, there isn’t a significant financial penalty the team would have to pay local taxpayers.
In April 2013, the Panthers and the city signed an agreement that called for the public to spend $87.5 million on stadium improvements and game-day expenses. Most of that money – $75 million – was for stadium improvements such as new escalators.
In return, the city said it had a six-year “hard tether” that would keep the Panthers in Charlotte.
The current season is the fifth season in the six-year tether. The 2018-2019 season will be the final season in the tether, which officially expires in June 2019.
The contract says that if the team seeks to leave during that window, the city can take them to court to attempt to prevent them from leaving.
But after June 2019, there is no provision that in the contract in which the team has agreed with the city that it’s supposed to stay in Charlotte.
If the team leaves after June 2019, the contract says the city would have either the option of buying the stadium for $1 or the Panthers would pay the city the remaining debt payment on the city’s $75 million investment.
The city didn’t have exact numbers of how much debt is remaining. The Panthers still plan on spending $7 million of the $75 million in the offseason on improvements.
Ron Kimble, who negotiated the original “hard tether,” said the city has been paying off the debt at about $7.5 million a year. That means there would be about $35 to $40 million left on the debt.
If an owner did seek to move the team, that remaining debt would likely be an insignificant amount of money. The NFL requires teams that move to pay a relocation fee that can exceed $500 million.
The city paid for the $75 million in stadium improvements with hotel/motel taxes that are mostly paid by tourists. Kimble said there isn’t enough money in the existing tourism taxes to help pay for a new stadium, which would likely cost $1 billion or more.
This is a developing story.
This story first appeared at CharlotteObserver.com.