Minority 76ers owner emerges as potential Carolina Panthers bidder

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Michael Rubin (left) at a Philadelphia 76ers game with Meek Mill (center) and Kevin Hart.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — An e-commerce billionaire has emerged as the latest potential bidder for the Carolina Panthers, multiple sources have told the Observer.

Michael Rubin, a minority owner of the NBA’s 76ers and the NHL’s New Jersey Devils whose businesses include an online sports merchandise company, is looking into a potential bid for the NFL franchise, said sources who asked not be identified because the sales process is confidential. It’s possible Rubin could bring on a partner for any potential bid, one of the sources said.

Rubin, 45, joins the list of potentially viable bidders for the Panthers who have surfaced since owner Jerry Richardson put the franchise up for sale this year. The sale announcement came on the day an explosive Sports Illustrated report alleging workplace sexual and racial misconduct by Richardson became public.

Meanwhile, a local ownership group involving businessman Felix Sabates that has been considering a bid could be looking to partner with another bidder rather than making an offer of its own, a source familiar with the matter said. Sabates, whose group includes several prominent NASCAR drivers, has previously said that it planned to make a bid soon but that it would have to make “business sense.”

Other possible Panthers bidders reported so far include Pittsburgh Steelers minority owner and hedge fund manager David Tepper and Charleston, S.C.’s Ben Navarro, whose Sherman Financial Group includes a fast-growing credit card company that caters to largely subprime borrowers.

Although Forbes lists Rubin’s net worth as $3 billion, sources said he likely would not have the ability to buy the team on his own. He has connected in the past with deep-pocketed partners in his businesses, one source said, including Alibaba Group, China’s version of Amazon, and SoftBank Group, a Japanese conglomerate known for its tech investments.

NFL rules require the controlling owner to hold at least a 30 percent stake and limit the number of total partners in an ownership group to 25.

Forbes’ has valued the Panthers at $2.3 billion, but it’s not clear what he final price tag will be. Some sources have said it could go for more than that amount, although one source told the Observer on Saturday that it would likely be in the range of $2 billion to $2.2 billion.

Rubin started his entrepreneurial career in 1985 when he opened a ski-tuning shop in his parents’ basement at the age of 13, according to the website of his current company. By age 14, he had a shop at the mall that reached $125,000 in sales. He went to Villanova University after high school, but left after one year to focus on his business endeavors, including a sporting goods company called KPR Sports that became GSI Commerce.

In 2011, Rubin sold GSI to online auction site eBay Inc. for $2.4 billion. As part of the deal, his current company, Kynetic LLC, based in Conshohocken, kept ownership of online sports merchandise company Fanatics as well as shopping sites Rue La La and Shoprunner.

Fanatics says it operates more than 300 online and off-line partner stores, including the e-commerce business for the NFL and other major pro leagues.

An NFL ownership source who asked not to be identified because of the confidential nature of the sales process said that Rubin’s business relationship with the NFL, which includes an equity investment, isn’t likely to be a barrier to becoming an owner. He noted that other owners have business ties with the league and that Rubin could recuse himself from issues if necessary.

“I don’t think there would be any issue in approving Michael, and he would be a welcome partner,” the source said.

NFL owners have gotten to know Rubin over the years, and he would bring a different perspective to their ranks, the source said. “Michael is part of the next generation of where sports and business is going,” he said.

The source also noted that Rubin’s ownership of the 76ers and Devils shouldn’t be a factor because he is a minority partner. Rubin is known for having a good relationship with 76ers players, he said.

Another source familiar with the sales process told the Observer last week that a winning bid could be selected as early as the end of this month or early next month. That scenario would mean NFL team owners would vote to approve the sale during their May 21-23 meetings in Atlanta.

Speaking generally of the process, an NFL spokesman told the Observer the league’s staff and finance committee review all finances and businesses of all potential buyers.