The best of luck

The beleaguered Big Cat finally catches a break, sparking a comeback that wins him Mover and Shaker of the Year.
By Spencer Campbell

 

People who know the majority owner of the Carolina Panthers describe him many ways. They call him hard-working, fair, compassionate, ambitious. Those virtues have taken Jerry Richardson far, but another trait, less vaunted but perhaps even more valuable, helped make him one of the most successful businessmen in the two Carolinas. As he himself once told a Sports Illustrated writer: “We’re as lucky as a dog with two … shut that tape recorder off for a minute.” Good fortune had been his partner for nearly 50 years.

Then came 2010, when he seemingly couldn’t — or wouldn’t — buy a break. The year before, his sons had left their jobs as team and stadium presidents. Rumor was that he had fired them. After a 12-4 season in 2008, followed by an 8-8 one, his team was awful, stumbling toward the league’s worst record and coming perilously close to losing its fan base. Many who had been in awe, almost worshipful, of the man they referred to as The Big Cat — or, more deferentially, Mr. Richardson — called him cheap and greedy for raising ticket prices on a product that, frankly, stank. If that weren’t enough, early 2011 would see him painted as a villain in the league’s collective-bargaining battle after he reportedly antagonized players leading up to what threatened to be a lost season. If Lady Luck hadn’t left him, she was surely stepping out.

Though he didn’t explain it well — explaining himself has never been his strength — Richardson had a plan, already in motion but becoming apparent only after the lockout ended in July. He would invest heavily (about $300 million) in his team’s core. Now, after being one of the most reviled men in the NFL, he and the Panthers are once again in favor. And with the new collective-bargaining agreement guaranteeing the league 10 years of labor peace, America’s richest professional sport is positioned to rake in more revenue than ever. After such a monumental swing in his, the franchise’s and the league’s fortunes, Jerry Richardson is Business North Carolina’s Mover and Shaker of the Year.

How much of this is due to his game plan is up for debate. Some of the players who got big contracts had limited impacts; a few were injured and didn’t play much. But fortune had smiled once again on Richardson, this time in the form of a 22-year-old quarterback who would break records and bring back the fans. Truth be told, Richardson is not the hero of his own comeback. He got lucky, which for him was business as usual.

 

Born in Spring Hope 75 years ago, Jerome J. Richardson was raised in Fayetteville, the son of a father who was a barber and a mother who worked in a department store. He played college football at Wofford in Spartanburg, S.C., distinguishing himself as a receiver and twice being named to the Associated Press Little All-America team. Selected by the Baltimore Colts in the 13th round of the 1958 draft, Richardson, despite his collegiate honors, was a long shot to make a team that featured two future NFL Hall of Fame wide receivers. Fortunately, he drew as a roommate Johnny Unitas, and the legendary quarterback took a shine to him. Neither liked to talk.

His main competitor for a roster spot was a former Michigan State player, and during the final preseason game, they rotated quarters. “I remember at halftime that John — and keep in mind we roomed together — asked me how I was doing, and I told him terrible,” he told Sports Illustrated. “The second half I caught something like seven passes. The next week, the other guy got cut. When I think about it, I might have gotten a little help. You have to have a little help sometimes, don’t you think?”

He spent two unremarkable years with the Colts, catching 15 passes, but had received a $4,674 bonus when Baltimore won the ’59 championship. After the following season, he felt he deserved a $250 raise, which would have brought his salary to $10,000. The front office disagreed, so he quit and, with no other prospects, drove back to Spartanburg. There he ran into his college quarterback, Charlie Bradford, who was trying to open Rocky Mount-based Hardee’s Food Systems Inc.’s first franchise. Richardson — who had saved his bonus — partnered up, getting in on the ground floor of an industry that would experience explosive growth. Opening their first Hardee’s in 1961, they worked hard to make Spartan Food Systems Inc. a success, grilling burgers, fighting the milkshake machine, learning to keep books. When it was time to expand, a friend arranged a meeting with a young loan officer with Charlotte-based North Carolina National Bank: Hugh McColl Jr.

McColl got the bank to lend Spartan $25,000 to open a restaurant in Charlotte. “He was always very straightforward,” McColl remembers, “very sure of himself.” They became friends. McColl would rise through the bank’s ranks, eventually leading its growth into what is now Bank of America Corp. His friend’s business got more and more financing, enabling its expansion across the Carolinas and into Georgia. By the early 1990s, Spartan, through a series of mergers and acquisitions, had become Flagstar Cos., South Carolina’s largest public company, with almost $4 billion of sales, more than 100,000 employees and Richardson as its CEO.

His relationship with McColl would keep paying dividends. When other top bankers in the state grew wary of committing an unspecified amount of money to Richardson’s NFL bid — costs of the expansion fee and stadium were unknown — the CEO of what was then NationsBank told them they could back out any time, “but, as far as our bank is concerned, whatever it takes, we are going to figure out how to make it work,” according to McColl: The Man with America’s Money, the banker’s 1999 biography. When George Shinn, who had brought the Charlotte Hornets NBA franchise to town in the 1980s and was talking about pursuing a rival NFL bid, demanded that the bank and a major law firm choose between him and Richardson, McColl told the lawyers: “You are making a choice between George Shinn and ever doing any more business with NationsBank and its clients.”

Sports-marketing consultant Max Muhleman had masterminded Shinn’s NBA bid but was now working with Richardson. When Richardson’s NFL effort began in the late ’80s, Muhleman had told him the franchise fee would be about $75 million. When the league approved the bid in 1993, it was more than $200 million, which, even with the state’s banking elite behind him, was all Richardson and his partners had, and they still needed to finance a $200 million stadium. “This might be it,” Muhleman recalls Richardson saying. “We can’t pay for both.” Muhleman came up with an idea: permanent seat licenses. Fans could buy their seats, which they would own as long as they renewed their subscriptions for season tickets each year. Now, most new stadiums include some form of this financing. Anticipating about 10,000 applications for PSLs their first week on the market, the organization received some 40,000.

 

For the most part, “Mr. Richardson” has been a beloved, if somewhat distant, owner since the Panthers began play in 1995, and he and his team were near the peak of their popularity in December 2008. Carolina had finished the regular season with a 12-4 record, tied for best in franchise history and one win better than 2003, when postseason play ended in a last-second loss to the New England Patriots in the Super Bowl. In a metro that ranks 24th among the NFL’s 30 markets, player pay averaged $2 million a year, 12th in the league, helping build a roster that included quarterback Jake Delhomme and end Julius Peppers, the Tar Heel native many considered the game’s premier defensive player. Yahoo Sports had ranked Richardson fourth among the league’s best owners, and in a few months, the North Carolina Press Association would name him its 2009 North Carolinian of the Year.

But his luck already had started to change. Owners had opted out of the then-current collective-bargaining agreement, setting the stage for negotiations that would come to consume him. A more serious concern was his health. He had long had heart problems and gotten a pacemaker in November. By year-end, he was on the transplant list at Carolinas Medical Center. In January, the Panthers lost by 20 to the Arizona Cardinals in the second round of the playoffs after Delhomme threw five interceptions and fumbled once. Richardson spent Super Bowl Sunday under the knife, getting a new heart. While he was recovering, Peppers started making noises about leaving, and Delhomme, despite his performance in the playoffs, got a $42 million contract extension. Soon after Richardson returned, his sons departed. Talk was, they couldn’t get along with each other while he was recuperating. Carolina went 8-8 and failed to make the playoffs.

Before the 2010 season began, Peppers left for the Chicago Bears. Delhomme was cut loose. The front office replaced them with no-names. It slashed player expenses 16.2%, Forbes reported. That didn’t stop the team from jacking up ticket prices. The Panthers started the year losing and would finish 2-14. Never a loquacious owner — Richardson hadn’t held a press conference in eight years — his silence became too loud to ignore. He did write a letter in December to PSL owners, saying that talking to the media wasn’t his style. (He didn’t talk to BNC for this story). “In the absence of Jerry speaking to the public, it wasn’t really clear what they were doing,” Charlotte Observer columnist Tommy Tomlinson says. “People were left to interpret it in their own way.” Many construed his penny-pinching as greed. Though revenue increased 4% to $257 million, operating income skyrocketed 106% to $31 million, according to Forbes. He finally held a press conference in January 2011. But after admitting that he hadn’t fired head coach John Fox before the season because he didn’t want to pay the empty contracts of his coaching staff and grousing, “You know, we are running a business here,” the consensus was that he should have remained quiet. “It was really weird,” Tomlinson says. “This was like his first moment in front of the fans. It got people worried that maybe … what’s going on with him?”

The labor negotiations could have been a factor. The CBA is a pact between the owners, representing the league, and players, represented by the NFL Players Association, that outlines, among other things, the revenue split between them. The previous compact had been signed in 2006, and Richardson had played a crucial role in shaping the accord. But owners soon realized they got a raw deal. “Revenue has continued to climb like this,” Panthers President Danny Morrison told BNC last year, titling his hand at a 45-degree angle, “while players salaries have climbed like this,” jutting the other toward the ceiling. The Green Bay Packers are the only NFL team that releases financial information, and though its revenue increased 18% between 2007 and 2010, operating profit dropped 71%. The main reason: player costs, which leaped 45% to $160.8 million. At his January press conference, Richardson had drawn a circle on a legal pad representing the league’s increased revenue from ’06 to ’08 — $3.6 billion. Players got $2.6 billion of it. “Now, I don’t think many business schools would say that’s a model that’s going to sustain itself,” he said.

To extend the previous agreement in 2006, each side had been granted an opt-out window after the 2008 season that could terminate the contract in 2011 rather than 2013, when it was supposed to expire. Owners, unhappy with their share of revenue, had pulled the trigger. Richardson again led the league’s negotiating committee, but this time he didn’t play nice. In February 2010, an ESPN source called him the “least flexible and most pessimistic” owner. Later, Yahoo Sports reported that he had mocked Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning and New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees during a meeting. “You guys made so much [expletive] money,” he reportedly told a player who expressed concern about safety. “If you played three years in the NFL, you should own your own [expletive] team.” Some players and media members said he should be barred from the negotiating table. The Biz of Football website asked, “Is Jerry Richardson the Darth Vader of NFL Labor Battle?” Someone started a Facebook page titled simply: “Jerry Richardson’s an asshole.”

 

But everyone knew he would soon have Luck on his side — literally. Following the 2010 season, football experts predicted that Stanford University quarterback Andrew Luck would be the draft’s No. 1 pick, which the Panthers held. But the Cardinal quarterback decided to return to college for his senior season. Suddenly, there was no consensus prediction on who would be the top pick, though a popular guess was Cameron Newton, a quarterback from Auburn University.

He had started his collegiate career at the University of Florida, but was stuck behind Tim Tebow. After two years, he transferred to Blinn, a community college in Texas, where he led the Buccaneers to an 11-1 record and the 2009 National Junior College Athletic Association title. Transferring to Auburn the following year, he won another national championship and the Heisman Trophy. But there were concerns his abilities wouldn’t translate to the pro game and questions about his character. At Florida, he had been accused of stealing a laptop computer, and pay-for-play allegations emerged after he had transferred to Auburn. Still, he was charismatic, talented and handsome. “My contention was, if you want to put fans in the seats, then you need to get Cam Newton. For at least the first couple of years, he’ll have such a strong draw,” UNC Charlotte sports economist Craig Depken says. But on draft day, it still wasn’t clear whom the Panthers would select.

The team took advantage of having the No. 1 pick, their silver lining, by throwing the franchise’s first draft party, inviting fans to watch the TV broadcast at Bank of America Stadium. More than 10,000 showed up. Most had gathered around a massive video screen outside the south entrance when NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell walked to a podium in Radio City Music Hall in New York. “Come on,” a man wearing a Panthers jersey in Charlotte shouted. “Cam! Bring some football to Carolina!” When Goodell announced Newton’s name, the crowd roared. “I’m ecstatic,” Aaron Honore, a fan from Columbia, S.C., said. “This is a better move than we’ve made in a long time. Especially after losing Peppers last season. I was upset about that. He’s a winner. That’s what we need in this organization.”

But Newton couldn’t help the team if there were no games to play. Finally, after months of haggling, players and owners signed a new CBA in late July. Negotiations had been difficult on Richardson. His main role, Goodell says, was to keep other owners updated. After sometimes getting or placing dozens of phone calls a day, few were the nights he didn’t watch the hands on his bedside clock crawl through the early morning hours. But under the new deal, players get about 4% less of total revenue. (Salary caps are higher, which might cut into owners’ gain.) “Jerry led the committee from start to finish,” the commissioner told BNC in an email, “and his impact was second to none.”

With the lockout behind him, Richardson locked down the backbone of his team. Defensive end Charles Johnson got more than $70 million, linebacker Jon Beason, $50 million, and running back DeAngelo Williams, more than $40 million. Richardson felt vindicated. While visiting Panthers training camp at Wofford in August, he asked reporters, “Does anybody feel just a little bad about calling me cheap last year? Just a smidgen?” He even spent time cultivating a more accessible image, speaking to an Atlanta radio station about the rigors of the lockout, sitting for an interview with a local TV station and appearing on Charlie Rose’s public-television show. But all that paled before Newton’s impact. About 30,000 fans — a record — visited training camp during the four weeks the Panthers were there. Many, such as 14-year-old Montez Gore from Greer, S.C., were there to see him. “I’m actually a Patriots fan. I just like Cam Newton.”

The Panthers didn’t have a great year — finishing 6-10 and missing the playoffs — but Newton did. In his first game, he broke the passing record for a rookie (422 yards), then broke it again in his second (432 yards). He finished the year with 4,051 passing yards (10th in the NFL), becoming the first rookie to pass the 4,000-yard milestone, and threw 21 touchdown passes (11th in the NFL). His 14 rushing touchdowns not only ranked second in the league but broke the season record for any quarterback ever. When a Twitter account was created to encourage Chiquita Brands International Inc. to move its headquarters from Cincinnati to Charlotte, posts pitched his presence, along with nice golf courses and good weather. A local radio station called him “Black Jesus” and compared his potential — both athletic and commercial — with that of Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods. TV ratings increased 14% in the Charlotte, 56% in the Greensboro-Winston-Salem and 42% in the Raleigh-Durham markets. The quarterback the Panthers weren’t sure they wanted, the one who had fallen into their lap, was their best and most popular asset.

“What was so frustrating to me was that our supporters had lost hope,” Richardson told Observer sports columnist Tom Sorensen. “I think people [now] have hope, enormous hope, in fact.” He is among them. During the Panthers’ 48-16 victory over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in week 16, Newton found a seam in the line and burst toward the goal. Standing in his box above the end zone, Richardson looked down at him. “He’s running toward me,” he told Sorensen, “and I could see him smiling at the 25-yard line. It was perfect. He was running straight to me.” Luck, once again, was coming his way.