CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Businessman Felix Sabates confirmed to NBC Charlotte he is heading up a group that wants to purchase the Carolina Panthers and keep the team in Charlotte. This week NBC Charlotte has learned who else is part of that group.
Current owner Jerry Richardson said he was putting the team up for sale after he became the subject of an investigation into allegations he had sexually harassed some female employees and used a racial slur.
Sabates told NBC Charlotte in a phone interview he believes a new stadium will have to be built to increase revenue. The businessman said a new stadium would help land a Super Bowl.
Brian France, the head of NASCAR, is part of a group that wants to buy the Carolina Panthers with France becoming the new major holder, multiple sources confirmed to NBC Charlotte.
NBC Charlotte learned in late December a group was being formed to purchase the team, but this is the first big name attached to it.
Brian France and the France family built the NASCAR dynasty that began with early races on the sand at Daytona Beach. It grew to become a string of super tracks spread across the country.
France follows in the footsteps of his father Bill France and is said to be a millionaire many times over.
Sabates would not comment on France being part of the group. However, three sources, all in positions to know, confirmed to NBC Charlotte that France was part of the group and would be the majority owner if the deal goes through. NBC Charlotte agreed not to name the sources because they were not authorized to speak publicly.
NASCAR attendance and TV ratings have been declining. It is not known if that played a part in France’s interest to acquire the Panthers or if he plans to sell his stake in NASCAR to finance the deal.
A spokesperson for NASCAR denied NBC Charlotte's report.
Bruton Smith and his son Marcus, who made a name in developing the Charlotte Motor Speedway and tracks across the country, are now interested in joining the local group that wants to buy the Carolina Panthers.
Sabates today told NBC Charlotte he had spoken to the Smiths and added they have an interest in pursuing further discussions.
Bruton Smith is chairman of Speedway Motorsports that operates the Charlotte Motor Speedway and other tracks across the country. Marcus Smith is CEO of the company and recently led the effort to bring a major league soccer team to Charlotte.
Speedway spokesperson Scott Cooper said the Smiths were not going to comment on any interest they might have in buying the team.
James Mitchell, the powerful head of the Economic Development Committee of the Charlotte City Council said he will do all he can to keep the Panthers in Charlotte.
Mitchell was responding to an NBC Charlotte report that the Sabates group was interested in land located off Carowinds Boulevard at the state line.
Asked if he could support that location, Mitchell said, “We are about keeping the asset that we cherish in Charlotte.”
He then added, “I’m going to keep all possibilities open but my preference will be Charlotte.”
State Representative Chaz Beasley who represents the area nearest the state line said everyone needs to keep an open mind.
“This is a regional team. It’s the Carolina Panthers, not the Charlotte Panthers and we need to treat it that way. We should try to do what’s best for the entire region and the state as well,” he said.
Where the new Carolina Panthers stadium could be built
Farmer Jim Miller owns 220 acres of land right on the line between North and South Carolina. From his property, you can see uptown Charlotte from a distance.
Two sources, including a Charlotte government official, have told NBC Charlotte that there is interest in building a new stadium for the Carolina Panthers in the Carowinds Boulevard area and Miller’s property fits the bill.
“A long time ago, this was one of the first places that they picked to put it right on the state line and call it 'State Line Stadium,'” Miller said.
He continued, “They said they thought it was too far out. Now it's not a bit too far out.”
Sabates would not confirm to NBC Charlotte that he is looking at Miller's farm, but he has said if his group does buy the Panthers, they would need a new domed stadium with parking for 20,000 cars.
The Miller farm would fit that bill with ample space for high-revenue parking, something an uptown location would likely not be able to offer.
And there is this connection: Jim Miller has a son named Steve, whose wife went to school with Felix Sabates' son.
Jim Miller is a longtime Panthers fan and said it was intriguing to think about the future and the possibility the Panthers would be playing on the old Miller homestead.
“Yeah, that sounds pretty good, doesn't it?” he said with a smile.
New stadium? What's wrong with Bank of America Stadium?
With all the talk about a new Panthers owner wanting a new stadium, many are asking -- what's wrong with Bank of America Stadium?
"I think this is a great, classic football stadium," said architect Ron Smith. And I would hate to see it go away."
Smith is Principal Manager of McMillan, Pazdan, Smith, which along with David K. Wagner of Wagner-Murray, helped make renovations to the stadium which were estimated to cost close to $300 million.
Those renovations, which are still being completed, included two new video boards, escalators, suite upgrades, ribbon scoreboards, and WiFi.
"The idea was to enhance what we already had with as many modern fan amenities as we could and to make it a viable stadium for years to come," Smith told NBC Charlotte.
In fact it was just April 2014 when David K. Wagner said: "we'll basically have a brand new stadium that will last another 15 to 20 years."
But Sabates told our reporter Rad Berky a new stadium would need to be built.
And while that's not something Smith would like to see, he knows that's part of a multi-billion dollar sale of an NFL franchise.
"Certainly a new owner needs to entertain whatever thoughts they would like to entertain," he said.
And entertainment is the wave of the future.
It's almost like an indoor Disney World at some stadiums to some degree," Smith said of newer stadiums.
Brand new stadiums like the ones in Atlanta and Minnesota have field level suites, fixed or retractable roofs, party decks, and even bigger video screens.
"It's trying to attract the fan from their couch at home." Smith said, "and get them in there and give them as many things to do to entertainment."
But Smith would put Bank of America Stadium up there with any in the league, especially when it comes to luxury seating and fan experience.
"It competes with what they have," Smith said, "and more in some ways."
Ex-Panthers employees say Jerry Richardson made payouts for workplace misconduct, SI reports
CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Two days after the Carolina Panthers announced an investigation into owner Jerry Richardson, reports accuse the owner of workplace misconduct.
According to reports from Sports Illustrated, at least four former Panthers employees "received ‘significant’ monetary settlements due to inappropriate workplace comments and conduct by owner Jerry Richardson."
In the report, the Panthers owner allegedly asked female staffers to turn around "so he could admire their backsides," on his way to his office. This behavior was treated like "a running office joke," the Sports Illustrated report says.
Richardson was also accused of "directing a racial slur at an African American employee," according to Sports Illustrated.
In addition to the settlements, the ex-employees say the settlements came with non-disclosure agreements forbidding the former employees from discussing the allegations.
Following Carolina's 31-24 win over the Green Bay Packers, Panthers coach Ron Rivera told the media the following, in response to the allegations against Richardson:
The only thing I can speak on is what he’s been to me. A lot of you know I had a house fire and he was there for Stephanie and I, he was tremendous in supporting us. My brother passed and Mr. Richardson was there and helped me get to the funeral and back. I can’t speak on anything other than that. That’s the only thing I can say as far as I’m concerned.
I told the guys I don’t have a lot of information out there, I don’t know what’s been written or what’s been said.
All I know is what Mr. Richardson has been for me and that’s been very supportive. You guys know my second year, he could have easily fired me after it. He and I sat down and he gave me an opportunity to go in to my third season and this is where I am today. You’re guessing at this point, so we’ll just let the process unfold.
The NFL took over the investigation. The league has reportedly retained outside counsel to investigate workplace misconduct allegations against Richardson.
The investigation was initially led by an outside international law firm, Quinn Emanuel Urquhart and Sullivan, LLP, and will be overseen by former House Chief of Staff Erskine Bowles, according to the Panthers.
Panthers announce Tina Becker will take full control of team as COO
The Carolina Panthers announced Tina Becker will take over as the Chief Operating Officer with day-to-day management of the team.
“These have been some of the most difficult days of my 19 years with the Panthers, but I am lifted up by the strong resolve and the commitment our employees have shown to this organization,” Becker said in a statement. “Our team on the field is performing at a very high level, and I believe is bound for the Super Bowl."
Becker, who was once a Top Cat dancer, worked her way up the Panthers' ladder by being involved in the team's business operations, ticketing and sponsorship, stadium operations, entertainment and fan engagement.
Becker said her immediate focus as the team's new COO is to make sure the corporate side of the organization performs at "the same high level."
The announcement comes the day after Sports Illustrated published a report alleging that Richardson paid off "significant monetary settlements" due to inappropriate workplace comments and conduct.