Panthers sale proceeding quietly, but ramping up

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There’s a general sense among NFL owners in Orlando this week that the sale of the Panthers will wrap up in time to vote on at their May meetings.

But while a few bidders have been identified, the pace of things seems to be picking up back in Charlotte — where owner Jerry Richardson remains this week.

According to a source with knowledge of the process, “at least three more” serious bidders have engaged in serious talks to buy the team beyond those already reported, buyers who insisted on confidentiality as part of any prospective bid.

There are also indications that at least one bidder is planning to be in Charlotte this week to take a first-hand look at what is expected to be a $2.5 billion investment, give or take a few hundred million.

Richardson hasn’t been to any league meetings in years (other than a brief appearance at one in Charlotte), but the investigation into his alleged workplace harassment ensured he won’t be turning up in Orlando this week.

Steelers minority partner David Tepper, South Carolina financier Ben Navarro, Philadelphia e-commerce billionaire Michael Rubin and Canadian steel investor Alan Kestenbaum have been identified as being a part of the process thus far. A report last week suggested that Rubin is no longer in the mix, though the confidentiality agreements signed as part of the process will keep most of these things from becoming known.

North Carolina software magnate Jim Goodnight’s name has been speculated as a possibility as well, though he hasn’t previously shown interest in professional sports franchises.

One name that came up early in the process was British businessman Joe Lewis. While it’s unclear if he’s still in the running to purchase the team, his presence in the process is interesting for several reasons.

Lewis owns the English soccer team Tottenham Hotspur, whose new North London stadium was built with input from the NFL.

The league has contributed to the construction cost of the project, and has a 10-year-deal with the club to host games there as part of the international series. The stadium has been built to NFL specifications, and has a fully retractable grass soccer pitch over a football-ready artificial surface. The Seahawks and Raiders are scheduled to play there on Oct. 14.

So while the league has targeted the May 21-23 spring meeting in Atlanta as a time to potentially vote on a new owner, things are progressing quickly, and a decision by Richardson could be reached well before then. Any new owner would have to be vetted by the league and approved by 24 of 32 owners, though in the case of Tepper at least, most of the legwork has already been done.