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Black Panthers

How Sean Combs could make his dream of becoming the NFL’s first black principal owner a reality.

 Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Steve Marcus/Reuters.
Sean Diddy Combs Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Steve Marcus/Reuters.

Following a report in Sports Illustrated on his alleged workplace misconduct, Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson announced he will sell the Carolina Panthers at the end of the NFL season. Almost immediately after this announcement, an unexpected figure declared his interest in purchasing the franchise:

On Tuesday, Yahoo Sports reported that Sean Combs was serious about wanting to buy the team—that he was “moving to set meetings with potential investors in hopes of shaping a prospective ownership group.” One of the most powerful men in the NFL, New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft, endorsed the artist and mogul’s business acumen in a video published on Tuesday. “I’m a big fan of Diddy,” Kraft told TMZ. “He’s a very good businessman and I have a lot of respect for Diddy.” Combs’ proposal to make history was also followed by professions of interest from Steph Curry, Janelle Monáe, and Colin Kaepernick, who all noted that they’d want in on a potential ownership group. Combs, for his part, posted an Instagram video in which he said he would “immediately address the Colin Kaepernick situation and put him in the running for next year’s starting quarterback.”

Whether or not Combs is able to build a serious bid, his point about the lack of black ownership in the NFL is an important one. That’s especially true given that SI reported that Richardson allegedly “direct[ed] a racial slur at an African American employee.” Richardson, a fast food tycoon, also presided over Denny’s in the 1990s, a period in which the chain, per SI, “agreed to pay more than $54 million to settle lawsuits filed by thousands of black customers.

With only 32 franchises and teams changing hands very rarely, the NFL is one of the nation’s most exclusive clubs. It’s also one of the country’s whitest clubs. The Jacksonville Jaguars’ Shahid Khan and the Buffalo Bills’ Kim Pegula are currently the only people of color who are majority owners of NFL franchises. None of the league’s majority owners are black. This is not just a football-specific issue. A 2013 study by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida noted that the Charlotte Bobcats’ Michael Jordan was the only black principal owner in the NFL, NBA, or Major League Baseball.

To make an obvious point, the Panthers are worth whatever someone is willing to pay for them. Forbes values the team at $2.3 billion, and the New York Times reported that “[s]ports bankers say the Panthers will almost assuredly bring in more than the $2.2 billion that Tilman J. Fertitta paid this year for the Houston Rockets of the NBA.” Given that price, it seems very unlikely that a single black owner could purchase the team. Forbes listed 2,043 billionaires in its 2017 list. Just three of them—Oprah Winfrey, Robert Smith, and Michael Jordan—are black Americans. “It’s unlikely you will see a person of color who will own the team—celebrity or otherwise—unless they are a minority [stakeholder] or part of a group of other owners,” Bobby Samini, the lawyer who represented disgraced former Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling during that team’s sale, told me.

While an imperfect comparison, the Sterling deal is perhaps the most relevant parallel to Richardson’s situation. In that case, Sterling was caught on tape making racist statements. NBA commissioner Adam Silver banned him from the league for life and he was made to sell the team. The Clippers ultimately went to former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who paid a reported $2 billion for the team.

The Richardson situation is different in several important ways. The NFL is still planning to conduct a formal investigation of the allegations against the Panthers owner, and the league hadn’t issued any kind of reprimand when he announced he was selling the team. Still, the mechanics of that Sterling sale can provide insight into how a potential Panthers transaction might go. Generally, Samini says, the franchise that’s up for sale will hire a large investment firm like Bank of America or Merrill Lynch to vet interested buyers and identify qualified bidders. There would then be a deadline for these qualified bidders to submit sealed offers, followed by a later meeting attended by all the qualified bidders in which the bids would be announced. Finally, there might be a private auction to determine the highest bidder.

The Clippers sale never went to an auction round as Ballmer outbid the competition by a huge amount. Ballmer, whose net worth is estimated by Forbes to be more than $30 billion, “knew generally” what other bidders were prepared to offer and went between $500 million and $600 million above that price to ensure there would be no second round of bids, Samini says. The next highest bid was around $1.6 billion, Samini notes, while the other bids were in the $1.1 billion range.

One of the groups that pursued buying the Clippers was fronted in part by Magic Johnson, who was actually one of the victims of Sterling’s abuse. Although Johnson came up short that time, his group did succeed in buying the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2012, although Johnson is not the controlling owner of the team. That would be Mark Walter, who is white. Likewise, Derek Jeter is the public face of the group that bought the Miami Marlins, but Bruce Sherman—who is white—is the billionaire in charge. Similarly, Jay-Z owned a small stake in the Brooklyn Nets, but the team’s principal owner is Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov.

Combs’ net worth, according to a May report in Forbes, is around $820 million—well under what the Panthers are likely to sell for. That being said, an investment group led by Combs and made up largely of black partners could bid on, and win, the right to purchase the Panthers. In fact, such an ownership group might be ideal for the NFL from a public relations standpoint if the league is interested in moving past the racially retrograde practices displayed by men like Richardson, who team employees referred to exclusively as Mister. “The league should encourage ownership form somebody like a Diddy because of his appeal across every demographic,” Samini told me.

Ultimately, simple economics might not be the only factor that determines the next owners of the Carolina Panthers. The Times noted in its reporting on Monday that Richardson might “decide to pick, say, a local ownership group with a lower bid.” If such a group were to win the right to buy the team ahead of, say, a group of famous black millionaires that included the seemingly blacklisted Colin Kaepernick, that would raise a whole lot of questions about who the NFL wants to allow into its ownership club.

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