PANTHERS will sell its King Street, Newcastle, club to the Wests Group if members of both organisations agree.
Panthers Group chief executive Warren Wilson confirmed a handshake agreement had been reached between the boards of the two clubs, with the votes of members likely from May.
Members are expected to agree to the deal, which follows the Wests Group’s purchase of the Cardiff Panthers club in late 2012.
If successful, the transaction will mark the end of 14 years of Panthers’ presence in the Hunter – an era which began in 2001 when Panthers took control of the two clubs, known then as Newcastle and Cardiff Workers.
A driving force behind that deal was former Wests boss Bob Ferris, who moved from Wests to the workers clubs and helped introduce the then union-run clubs to the big-spending Panthers.
The Newcastle Herald was unable to obtain official comment last night from present Wests chief Philip Gardner, but speculation had been mounting in sporting circles that a deal had been done.
The Panthers Newcastle club still has an advisory board, set up at the time of the 2001 takeover, and sources familiar with its operations said Panthers had rejected a Wests offer of about $12million a year ago.
The Herald reported in October 2013 that the club had an asking price of $20million – almost double the reported $11million Wests paid for Cardiff a year before.
Mr Wilson said it was not his place to say what the deal would mean for Wests, but he said the sale of the Newcastle club, and the Cardiff deal that preceded it, was about reducing Panthers’ debt and “getting the balance sheet in order”.
He said further details of the transaction would be sent out in information packs and voting forms. The deal also needed approval by state government club regulators.
The Panthers takeover of Newcastle and Cardiff workers clubs was part of a dramatic expansion by the western Sydney operation, which borrowed heavily to build a group that peaked with 14 sites across NSW.
The Newcastle takeover was controversial at the time, with many members unhappy at the idea of the Penrith Panthers setting up shop in the Hunter at the time Andrew Johns had just taken the Newcastle Knights to its second premiership.
But the workers club owed about $12million to the National Australia Bank and in July 2001 the club told members it was unable to meet a $750,000 payment.
The 1989 Newcastle earthquake was a massive blow to the club and it is widely accepted the club never regained the pivotal place it played in Newcastle’s social life after the rebuild.
Panthers also ran into trouble with its debts, which had stood at a reported $80million to $90million for about a decade.
Mr Wilson is credited with a turnaround policy that has also resulted in league legend Phil Gould taking up the football director’s role for the Panthers football club.
The Wests Group already has clubs at New Lambton, Mayfield, Nelson Bay and Cardiff, with accommodation attached at New Lambton, Mayfield and The Anchorage at Port Stephens, plus the region’s largest locally owned fitness chain in Balance.