Vincent “Vinnie” Viola, a prominent New York businessman and former minority owner of the NBA’s Nets, is leading a group in completing a deal to purchase the Florida Panthers from Palm Beach businessman Cliff Viner, an industry source said Wednesday.
Letters of intent have been executed, but the transaction still needs to be signed and approved by the NHL. The source said it’s conceivable the deal could fall through, but both sides want to make it happen.
The sale price is $230 million, and Viola is buying out several of the team’s minority owners. Last season, Forbes had placed the franchise’s value at $170 million.
The Panthers are expected to remain in South Florida; the team’s lease with the Broward County-owned BB&T Center runs through 2028.
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Sunrise Sports & Entertainment, which operates the arena, is the profitable arm of the Florida Panthers family of companies and is said to be part of the transaction.
The team had no comment after the New York Post first reported a group of unidentified New York-based investors were buying the team. The Panthers have been losing more than $20 million per season in recent years, the source said.
A source close to the team confirmed the sale was in the works and said general manager Dale Tallon has been telling players interested in coming to the Panthers — such as former All-Star goalie Tim Thomas — that a new owner would be in place soon.
An announcement could be coming in the next few weeks.
Captain Ed Jovanovski, who said he heard reports of a new owner on a “weekly” basis while with the Phoenix Coyotes, said word of a new owner shouldn’t affect the team at all.
“For the most part, you have a bunch of guys who just want to play hockey,” Jovanovski said. “Whatever happens on the ownership side will be taken care of by the executives in place. I think for us, we just wait and see. We’re trying to be in the right frame of mind for the start of the season.
“But someone new coming in must be eager to take over the team. You have to look at that as a positive. We’ll see.
“Anytime you have an ownership group that wants to win and wants to spend money, that’s exciting for a player.”
Viola is a successful commodities dealer who previously was chairman of the New York Mercantile Exchange and is now chairman of Virtu Financial, an electronic commodities trading company.
He was a minority owner of the New Jersey/Brooklyn Nets — of which Brett Yormark, twin brother of Panthers’ president Michael, is CEO — several years ago but is no longer, according to the team.
Viola was born in Brooklyn in 1956, graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1977 and served as an officer in the 101st Airborne. He transferred to the Army Reserve in 1982 before leaving the Army Reserve as a major in 1993.
Viola and his wife, Teresa, now live in Manhattan after raising three sons in New Jersey.
According to the Nets’ media guide, Viola joined the New York Mercantile Exchange as a local trader after leaving the army. He became a member of the exchange in 1982, the same year he graduated from New York Law School. He was the company’s chairman from 2001 to 2004 and helped the exchange through the turmoil of the Sept. 11 attacks.
Leah McGrath Goodman’s 2011 book, The Asylum: The Renegades Who Hijacked the World’s Oil Market, offers details about Viola and the New York Mercantile Exchange when he was chairman there.
“Viola was perhaps the handsomest of all the exchange chairmen, but beneath the spit and polish he was still a tough guy from Brooklyn,” Goodman wrote. “ After becoming a local in the NYMEX gasoline pit, he finally found his niche. He compared trading to being in an army platoon.”
Goodman wrote Viola “had a nasty temper, but [predecessor chairman Lou] Guttman says he didn’t lose control of his emotions easily.”
In the book, Guttman said Viola “exuded leadership. His personality was amazing. He drew people in. He was a phenomenal speaker. Even if he didn’t know what he was talking about, he sounded like he knew what he was saying. He was an astute businessman and an extreme opportunist.”
Goodman wrote that Viola, the son of a truck driver, “set up a dojo in his office to study kung fu” and that his fondest wish, according to a former associate, “was to be ambassador to Italy or to the Vatican.”
In the book, interviewee Ben Kaufman, the son of a big oil trader who interned at NYMEX, said Viola “was the street-smart Italian guy, always with a bunch of Brooklyn and Staten Island kids hanging around him. Vinnie had the influence and the intimidation factor going for him. He dressed and acted like a Mafioso don.”
Viola has received numerous awards for his philanthropy. He gave $2 million to Fordham University to establish the Avery Cardinal Dulles, S.J., Chair in Catholic Theology. After the Sept. 11 attacks, he financed the Counter-Terrorism Center at West Point.
He also co-founded the National Children’s Educational Reform Foundation, which is dedicated to the improvement of inner-city education with an emphasis on bilingual programs in immigrant communities.
Viner, who has helped the Florida Panthers foundation raise a considerable amount of money for charity, took over the Panthers along with Stu Siegel from Alan Cohen in 2009. Viner became the sole general partner a year later.
The Panthers would be the latest NHL franchise to change hands in recent months as Phoenix and New Jersey — both struggling financially — have new ownership groups.
“I’m going to let this play out,” coach Kevin Dineen said.
“Nothing has been finalized or anything like that. Like everyone else, I’ll wait and see what happens.”