The NFL logo is seen after being painted on the field at Dolphin Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photographer: Richard Sheinwald/Bloomberg News)

NFL Bidding War Shines Spotlight on Two Low-Profile Billionaires

(Bloomberg) -- Sky-high bidding for the Carolina Panthers has pushed two of America’s more private billionaires into the spotlight.

Offers have topped $2.5 billion as at least three tycoons tussle for the National Football League team based in Charlotte, North Carolina. Two relative unknowns -- industrialist Alan Kestenbaum and Ben Navarro, founder of Sherman Financial Group LLC -- have each proposed more than that amount, while hedge fund titan David Tepper submitted a bid that is reportedly lower.

The rapid escalation in bidding prompted Michael Rubin, the billionaire executive chairman of sports-apparel company Fanatics, to drop out of the process. The last NFL team to change ownership was the Buffalo Bills, which sold for a record $1.4 billion in 2014.

Despite their dizzying offers, Kestenbaum and Navarro have long kept low profiles. The duo’s anonymity stands out in a world where most buyers have been among America’s wealthiest and most prominent moguls, including Stan Kroenke, Shahid Khan and Stephen Ross.

“Their wealth was well known by the media and public and their companies were also well known and visible,” said Marc Ganis, who’s been dubbed the league’s 33rd owner because of his ties to the sport’s power brokers. “Though it’s not impossible for someone with the wealth and credibility to be an NFL team buyer to be under the radar screen, it is not typical."

Hidden Billionaires

Their involvement suggests that both Kestenbaum and Navarro have long been billionaires in hiding. The NFL requires the controlling owner to personally invest at least 30 percent of the equity required to buy a team from pre-existing sources and demonstrate liquidity to operate the franchise. That means they could have to come up with about $700 million of cash.

Access to that kind of liquidity means their business empires are even more valuable. Kestenbaum is a founder of Miami-based private equity firm Bedrock Industries, which turns around struggling metal companies.

He bought Globe Specialty Metals Inc. for $1 million in 2006. After 11 acquisitions and a merger with Grupo FerroAtlantica, London-based Ferroglobe Plc is now worth about $1.9 billion. Bedrock owns a $1.1 billion stake in Canadian steel maker Stelco Holdings Inc.

Subprime Cards

Navarro, 55, whose father was a college football coach, named closely held Sherman Financial after his childhood dog, a yellow Lab given to the family by former New York Giants running back Tucker Frederickson. The company owns Credit One Bank, a mostly subprime credit-card issuer that’s the fastest-growing among the nation’s 15 largest card providers. It also owns Resurgent Capital Services, the largest buyer of soured consumer debt in the U.S., and Kroll Bond Rating Agency Inc.

The company had revenue of $3 billion in 2017, according to a person with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. Sherman bought back a 24 percent stake owned by MGIC Investment Corp. for $209.5 million in 2008.

While Houston Texans owner Bob McNair has praised Navarro’s Meeting Street Schools charity, which works with educators in South Carolina, some owners have voiced concerns about Navarro’s association with debt collection. Though a relatively small part of his business by revenue, it’s one reason why several owners have thrown their support behind Tepper, 60, according to people familiar with the process who asked not to be identified as the discussions are private.

NFL’s Troubles

NFL Bidding War Shines Spotlight on Two Low-Profile Billionaires

Such reservations may reflect increasing concern with the league’s own well-publicized problems. Jerry Richardson, the Panthers’ current owner, is selling the franchise amid allegations of sexual and racial harassment. The NFL is battling declining television ratings, lingering controversy over players kneeling during the national anthem and growing awareness of football’s health dangers.

Tepper’s a known quantity to the owners. As a minority stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers, he’s already been through a vetting process and there’s little doubt about his wealth. His $10.1 billion fortune is the 139th-biggest on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, which tracks the net worth of the world’s 500 richest people.

All three bidders declined to comment on their plans.

Whoever prevails will face a stringent financial and personal examination.

“The NFL has the most restrictive ownership criteria of any of the major sports leagues," Ganis said. “The NFL investigates prospective owners, with greatest emphasis on the controlling owner, very carefully.”

©2018 Bloomberg L.P.