Rob Walton Buys the Denver Broncos: An Explainer of the Wild Saga

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For nearly a decade, the Denver Broncos have been through turbulent times. Major changes have occurred on and off the field as the Broncos are looking to move on from one of its most disastrous five-year periods in franchise history. Since winning the Super Bowl in 2015, the Broncos have yet to return to the playoffs. They also suffered through their first back-to-back losing season in 2017 and 2018 since the 1971 and the 1972 seasons. That is 45 years of consistent winning, thanks to Pat Bowlen buying the team and saying them from obscurity. Now, that Rob Walton buys the Denver Broncos, we will see if this new owner can do the same thing. 

Rob Walton Buys Denver Broncos – How We Got Here

Since the hiring of George Paton as the new Broncos General Manager in January of 2021, the Broncos front office has shaken up the organization. Nathaniel Hackett became the new head coach in January of 2022, and Russell Wilson became the new quarterback a few months later. Now the biggest move of all was made public as Rob Walton, heir to the Walmart empire, was announced as the sixth owner in franchise history on June 6th, 2022. 

The sale of Colorado’s favorite sports team is reported to have fetched over $4.65 billion, the most ever for an American sports franchise. To put that into perspective, Chelsea FC, perennial Premier League power and worldwide adored soccer club sold for $3.1 billion to an American ownership group led by Todd Boehly.

For the uninitiated or the Broncos fans who haven’t paid attention, this will bring an eight-year power struggle to an end. The Bowlen family members have had some bitter infighting for control of the team. Some real contentious court battles took place for control of the team since 2014. Many of those in the Bowlen family believed they were next in line for one of the winningest franchises in the NFL. They fought tooth and nail to try and garner that power. 

So, with that context, how did the Broncos get here? How did the Broncos leave the possession of the Bowlen family– which was one of Pat Bowlen’s final wishes, to keep the Broncos within the family– and get transferred to one of the richest men in the world, and now the richest team owner in the NFL? 

This will be a crash course of everything that has been going on thus far in the saga of control of the Denver Broncos. 

Timeline

To fully understand how we got here, it’s important to take a look back at the series of events that had to have happened for the Broncos, one of the more stable franchises before 2014, to go down the road of going up for sale. A timeline of legal battles has been put together by Madi Skahill of 5280.com, and with a few added dates to show the entire story of the Bowlens with the Broncos, this timeline is a version that outlines dates and events that highlight the more important events and happenings of the Bowlen brawl for the Broncos.

1984- Pat Bowlen buys the Broncos from Edgar Kaiser Jr. for $70 million, With only a handful of winning seasons before that point, Bowlen turns the Broncos into a winning franchise, racking up eight Super Bowl appearances, three Super Bowl wins and 15 division wins. Bowlen goes on to become a revered figure in Denver for his commitment to the Broncos franchise. 

July 2014- Pat Bowlen steps down from day-to-day operations as the Broncos owner to a non-family operated trust, The Patrick D. Bowlen Trust, which was led by team president Joe Elli. The main objective was to find a new owner within the Bowlen kids.

May 2018- The Battle of the Broncos starts as Beth Bowlen-Wallace, Mr. Bowlen’s second-oldest child, wanted to take the mantle as the next Broncos owner. The Bowlen Trust deemed her ineligible due to Beth not working for the franchise for at least five years. This was a requirement as a contingency to own the team. This upset some of the other siblings and relatives of Bowlen, as many backed Bowlen-Wallace for the ownership spot. It then turns into he said, she said between Bowlen-Wallace and the Bowlen Trust. Beth stated she was fired because she wanted to pursue a college education. The Trust stated that this was not true. They state that she was fired for unspecified reasons. 

October 2018- Pat’s brother, Bill Bowen, files a lawsuit to remove Ellis and Pat’s lawyers as head of the trust. Bowlen claimed the trio wasn’t upholding his brother’s wishes. One of two lawsuits that the Bowlen family filed to stop the Trust from running the team. 

October 2018- Brittany Bowlen, considered by many close to the family to be Mr. Bowlen’s favorite child, states she wants to be the owner of the Broncos. She doesn’t immediately pass the Trust’s standards, due to her only being 28. 

August 2019- The lawsuit from Bill Bowen is dismissed. 

June 2019- Pat Bowlen dies from complications of his Alzheimer’s. He was 75. 

September 2019- In the most egregious act of sibling rivalry yet, Beth Bowlen- Wallace –who originally named claim to the Broncos thrown– filed a lawsuit to nullify the Pat D. Bowlen Trust. Essentially blocking the inside track Britanny had to own the team. The lawsuit states that Mr. Bowlen did not have the mental capacity to create the Trust in the first place. This happened on the day before Britanny’s wedding. 

December 2019- After years of infighting between Britanny and the rest of the family, Joe Ellis threatened to go public with a team sale if the other siblings did not agree to sign off on Brittany becoming the next owner. This would not happen. 

July 2021- March 2022 is the deadline given to the Broncos and the Pat D. Bowlen Trust, by the NFL, to pick a sole owner before implementing heavy fines. Ellis sees the writing on the wall, and tells the Denver Post, “I don’t think [Brittany Bowlen] being the sole trustee is realistic.” Also, Beth files a motion to dismiss the lawsuit in hopes she can still be part of Bowlen’s will

December 2021- The Broncos are officially valued at $3.75 billion. As of February 2022, that value is now $4.5 billion. 

February 1st, 2022- The Broncos officially go on sale. Since no viable owner form within the Bowlen family was determined, the Pat D. Bowlen Trust has to go outside of the family and get an owner to buy the franchise. 

June 6th, 2022- The final bidders for the Broncos are announced. This brings the total number of viable bidders from 10 to 5. 

June 7th, 2022- Rob Walton buys the Denver Broncos. Its officially announced as the next owner of the Denver Broncos. Walton bid a record $4.5 billion for the 3-time Super Bowl champions. 

Who is Rob Walton?

By now all Broncos fans are familiar with the name of Rob Walton. They more than likely know that he is part of the Wal-Mart empire, which would make him very rich. Which would make them correct. According to Forbes, Rob Walton is the 19th richest man in the world. This would immediately make Walton the richest owner of an NFL team, second richest in American sports after Steve Ballmer. 

The 77-year-old native of Arkansas is the oldest of Sam Walton’s three kids. After graduating from Arkansas in 1966, the oldest Walton when on to graduate from Columbia Law in 1969. Walton started as the lawyer for his dad’s stores, then became the head of the board of directors after his father’s passing. in 1992. This is the period of Walmart’s history where the country saw unprecedented growth into the powerhouse we know today

Walton was CEO of Walmart until 2015 when he stepped down and had son-in-law Greg Penner– who is also part of the ownership group– take over the duties of CEO. Penner isn’t the only high-profile relative Walton has, as Los Angeles Rams owner–as well as other major sports teams like Arsenal FC, Denver Nuggets, and Colorado Rapids– Stan Kroenke is his cousin through marriage. Having an established owner of an NFL franchise as a family member had to have come with its perks as Kroenke put in a good word. 

The deal is not official just yet, as 24 of the other 31 owners need to agree to the purchase. But as mentioned before, having Kroenke as your mouthpiece in front of the other owners is not a bad plan. Outgoing team president Joe Ellis expects Walton at the first home game on September 18th when they take on the Houston Texans. 

Who did the Walton beat out?  

The Broncos are a high-value team franchise. Rob Walton was not the only ownership group who had an interest in buying the Broncos. There was a total of 10 ownership groups who had an interest in bidding on the Broncos. Owning an NFL franchise brings a lot of prestige, and when you can have access to one of the top 10 franchises in the NFL, according to Peter King. Those who are looking for that kind of cache will try to cache in their chips to own a top-tier NFL team. 

Those ownership groups were: 

  1. Rob Walton / Greg Penner 
  2. Josh Harris, owner of the Philadelphia 76ers and Magic Johnson (Private equity / Sports franchise mogul) 
  3. Byron Allen Group, media mogul
  4. Mat Ishbia, president and CEO of mortgage lender UWM Holdings 
  5. Jose Feliciano and Behdad Eghbali, founders of Clearlake Capital 
  6. Todd Boehly, owns DraftKings
  7. Robert Smith, private equity
  8. Jeff Bezos, Amazon founder 
  9. Ye and Antonio Brown, Entertainer, formerly Kanye West, and former football player
  10. An unidentified group 

The second round of bidding, which concluded on Monday, June 6th was down to four, groups who have a legitimate shot at winning the bid. According to 9News, those legitimate bidders were: Josh Harris, Mat Ishbia, Jose Feliciano, and Rob Walton. As we now know, there was no need for a third round of bidding as Rob Walton buys the Denver Broncos.  

What Does Walton Mean for the Broncos? 

Of course, the memes from AFC rival fans have been flung at Broncos supporters as soon as the news came out that the owner of the Broncos is associated with Walmart. The “Great Value” jokes are aplenty on the internet, but all that is just banter. Realistically what can Broncos fans expect now that they have the richest owner in football?

Mike Ozanian, the author of the Forbes that broke the original story, outlined why Walton as the Broncos owner is not necessarily a bad thing, “His fortune would give the Broncos an advantage in signing expensive players because the NFL requires teams to put the money owed to guaranteed contracts in escrow. Current NFL teams owned by the same family for generations often don’t have that type of money lying around because so many family members feed off the team.”

Bigger names can come to Denver knowing they’ll have guaranteed money and not tied up in incentives. This can be a big leg up in the free agency market for Denver, knowing that players are going to prefer to have security about their future earnings and not wondering if the money is going to be less after an injury season. This can make Denver, a destination place for future disgruntled players looking for a new team and a new contract. This also means that Russell Wilson’s reported wanted an extension of 5-years $250 million is not completely out of the question. If the quarterback can bring sudden success to Denver, why not reward him? This can show Broncos Country you carefully invested in the team.

There is, however, always a fear that a mega-rich owner, who has investments elsewhere will not pay close attention to the team. Stan Kroenke, Walton’s cousin-in-law, owner of the Denver Nuggets, Colorado Avalanche, Los Angeles Rams, and Arsenal F.C., is accused of such actions. But a showing of aggressive team spending can win over the fans. 

This also means that the Broncos are going to be a generational team for the Waltons. Rob, who is leading the charge to purchase the team is 77 years old. Realistically, this doesn’t mean an extremely long tenure as owner. Walton’s daughter Carrie Walton-Penner and the aforementioned Penner, are going to play a big part in the present and future. The 51- and 52-year-old, respectively, are going to be a part of Broncos Country for a while.

There have been rumors that the Walton/Penner group has been trying to woo Peyton Manning in an advisory position, with an opportunity of a share in ownership. Manning has also made Denver his home. He loves the city and loves the franchise, “I’ll always be indebted to Denver, you can only live in one place and Denver’s been a great place to live.” A living legend being a part of the team for the foreseeable future would be a great show of commitment to the fanbase a part of the Waltons. It would be a wise move to do this, after Rob Walton buys the Denver Broncos, to build a bridge to the fans as an act of good faith. 

A new Stadium? 

Does Walton as the new owner mean a new stadium in Denver? Many believe so, including Broncos President Joe Ellis. Ellis has made it clear that a new stadium would be something in play for Walton to decide. “It’ll be the No. 1 decision the new owner will have to make. How are we going to proceed long-term when it comes to the stadium? There are all kinds of things that go into evaluating a new stadium. From a big picture perspective — that will be issue No. 1.”

If a new stadium and not just renovations to Empower Field are in the plans, this could be a dividing issue among the citizens of Arapahoe County. Fans and taxpayers may not want the stadium to go to the outskirts of town. Empower Field is still one of the few stadiums that are still at the heart of the city. This could eventually lead to some contention between the new Broncos ownership group, the fans, and the taxpayers of Denver.

If a new stadium is in the works, a retractable roof would be in play. This would bring a long-awaited Super Bowl to the Mile High City. The project could fetch a price of $2 billion. That is leaps and bounds from what the stadium in 2000 cost. A cool $409 million. This might win over some of the fan base. Something as shiny as a new stadium might endear the Walton to fans who are willing to pay the taxes. Those fans see not only a Super Bowl in Denver but other events as well, like a World Cup game in 2026 and other big-time events

So now, officially, Rob Walton buys the Denver Broncos. Only the future knows what is in store for the Denver Broncos with a new general manager, coach, quarterback, and now owner. Most signs point to the Broncos moving in a new direction and leaving their current losing path behind. Money invested wisely by the Walton/Penner family into the Broncos should inject life back into the Broncos. Cash rules anything around me, a group of great philosophers once said. If that is the case, the Waltons can rule a lot of things. Broncos fans are hoping one of those things is the NFL.