Did Panthers' record sale mask NFL's mounting problems?

The Carolina Panthers just sold for a record $2.2 billion. But TV ratings continue to fall, youth participation is sagging and ticket sales are no longer booming. Is the NFL heading for a fall?

The NFL is making more money than ever. Its latest franchise to go up for sale, the Carolina Panthers, was purchased for a record shattering $2.275 billion, nearly double the $1.4 billion paid for the Buffalo Bills in 2014, the last time an NFL franchise was on the market.

Yet one wonders if those swelling numbers are hiding some dry rot threatening the long-term foundation of the league and its teams.

On the surface that would seem unlikely but the same is true with termites in your walls. You don’t notice the damage until the repairs become costly.

First, let’s look at the $2.2 billion in cash and $75 million in deferred payments hedge fund manager David Tepper paid to owner Jerry Richardson and his minority shareholders in May after sexual harassment charges forced Richardson to put up for sale the team he’d founded in 1993.

Twenty-five years ago, Richardson and his partners paid $206 million for the expansion franchise in Charlotte that became the Panthers. It was a stunning number then but today would be an estimated cost, with inflation, of only $350 million.

What Richardson received from Tepper was basically 100 times what he paid for the Panthers 25 years ago. As good as his first investment in what would become ownership of 500 Hardee’s fast-food franchises was, nothing compares to the spectacular growth in the value of the Panthers.

Yet he didn’t get anywhere near his original asking price of $3 billion and saw two potential buyers drop out, one when he was still looking for over $2.6 billion and the second when he could not come up with the financing behind his $2.6 billion offer. Whether Tepper got a bargain at $2.2 billion-plus remains to be seen but that number set a new benchmark for a North American sports franchise and hit just about exactly on the valuation Forbes magazine had put on the Panthers in 2017 of $2.3 billion.

Considering the league’s seemingly relentless expansion of its annual gross revenues, which commissioner Roger Goodell has promised will hit $25 billion annually by the end of his tenure, it would seem odd to ask if there is dry rot along the foundation of the United States’ most popular sport.

But there is.

Television ratings, which fund much of the financial growth of the league and its individual teams, have slumped the past two years.

The concussion crisis continues unabated despite improved technology by helmet manufacturers and rule changes that are fundamentally altering the sport.

Youth football participation rates are down nationally, which means hooking kids on football early is becoming more testing, and parents are questioning more and more if they want their sons to be exposed to the sport, fearing the concussion crisis and the overall injury factor.

Ratings are not the only issue however. Not so many years ago stadiums were not only jammed to capacity around the country but many teams had lengthy waiting lists of potential season ticket customers. Many languished for years on those lists, often having to pay to keep their names in limbo until something became available.

One of the hottest tickets was the Washington Redskins. Today that is no longer the case.

Where once the Redskins claimed they had a waiting list of over 200,000 hopeful future customers, the team recently announced their now is NO waiting list. What there is instead are season tickets available for purchase. “Good seats available’’ is not a sign the Redskins ever wanted to hang in front of their ticket office at FedEx Field but it is a reality today.

What makes that scenario even more troubling when one considers the long-term popularity of pro football is that Redskins’ owner Daniel Snyder made the decision several year ago to remove some seats from his stadium. So the Redskins now have fewer seats to sell than they did when their waiting list for season tickets was over 200,000 and can’t sell them.

It is easy, and fashionable, to blame Snyder’s consistent mismanagement of the Redskins for the slide but it is mirrored in a number of other cities around the country. Why do you think the Raiders are moving from Oakland to Las Vegas? Because business is good in the Bay Area?

Once it was a shock if an NFL game was blacked out locally because the stadium wasn’t sold out within 72 hours of kickoff. It isn’t any more.

So what do we make of these two opposite moments – the record $2.2 billion sale of the Panthers and the disappearance of the 200,000 names on season ticket waiting lists in Washington? What it seems to be is a warning to the NFL that their game is slowly starting to lose its grip on America’s sporting psyche.

As with any fall from the pinnacle, it is most often a slow process and then a Sunday flex point snaps. It happened with baseball, boxing and horse racing, which were once the country’s pre-eminent sports during what has been called the “golden age’’ of sports in the 1920s.

They didn’t disappear overnight and in fact still exist today. They just are no longer dominate the sporting landscape. Might football face a similar slow slide from the apex of sport in America?

That’s hard to confirm but you can’t deny this – Jerry Richardson didn’t get his asking price and, in the end, only one bidder emerged at nearly a third less than he was original asking. And you can’t deny that TV ratings have slid backwards for two years and the Redskins’ long waiting list is now not even a 140 character tweet because it doesn’t exist at all.

Termites are hard to see in the foundation. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t lurking there.

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