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Broncos ownership narrowed to 5 candidates with Josh Harris first to visit

Rob Walton, Todd Boehley and other investment groups also scheduled to visit.

DENVER — Josh Harris received the ball first.

9NEWS has learned Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils owner Josh Harris was the first ownership candidate to meet with bank and transaction lawyers and Denver Broncos executives. Some of those meetings, which took place Thursday, may be away from Broncos’ facilities, but a tour of Empower Field at Mile High and the team’s headquarters and practice facility was also on Harris’ itinerary.

"We had a first round of bidding with about 10 bids coming in,'' a Broncos source familar with the process told 9NEWS. "We narrowed the field down to five based on those bids. We entered those people into a second round."

The second round consists of an exchange and review of much more information, documents and gives the bidders the ability to ask questions of team executives, lawyers and bankers.

"That second round is underway with five parties in it,'' said the source. "There are no 'finalists.' There are five parties in the second round.''

The auction process has not yet asked for second-round bids, according to the source.

"Only when we get the second-round bids will there be determined either a winner or finalists,'' the source said.

Credit: AP Photo/Bill Kostroun
In this Feb. 24, 2018 photo, Josh Harris is shown during ceremonies before a hockey game in Newark, N.J.

With the Harris group visiting the team's Dove Valley headquarters Thursday, four other ownership candidates – including former Walmart chairman Rob Walton and current Walmart chairman Greg Penner, and possibly Todd Boehly, who is partial owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers – were also scheduled to visit the Broncos in the next week or two.

The Denver Gazette reported there are only two bidding groups remaining -- Harris and Walton. Again, a Broncos source familar with the sale process said there are five competing groups.

Joe Ellis, the Broncos’ chief executive officer and president, and one of three trustees to the estate of late owner Pat Bowlen, announced Feb. 1 that the team was up for sale. Steven Greenberg of Allen & Company, and Joe Lecesse of Prokhauer Rose LLP were hired to handle the ownership transition.

The Broncos are being sold through auction as a sale involving trust holds fiduciary responsibilities to the beneficiaries – in this case Pat Bowlen’s seven children -- to get the highest possible price. The Broncos were valued at $3.75 billion by Forbes in the fall of 2021, but the selling price is expected to exceed $4 billion and could approach $5 billion.

John Bowlen, Pat’s brother, owns 22 percent of the Broncos with the seven Bowlen children each holding 11.14 percent of the team via their father’s trust. Pat Bowlen died in June 2019 following a lengthy battle with Alzheimer’s.

Harris, 57, appears to have the financial means to win the bid – even if his $7.6 billion net worth, as reported by Bloomberg, pales next to Walton’s reported $70 billion.

Harris first built his wealth through Apollo Global Management, a publicly-traded firm which invests primarily in distressed properties. Harris and Leon Black were co-founders of Apollo in 1990. In 2011, Harris, along with David Blitzer and Fanatics founder Michael Rubin, bought the NBA 76ers for $280 million. Two years later, they bought the NHL Devils plus the Prudential Center for $320 million.

RELATED: A closer look at Broncos ownership candidate Josh Harris

They bought 18% of the Premier League’s Crystal Palace soccer team in 2015, and got a 5 % stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers in 2020 – replacing the share David Tepper held until he bought the Carolina Panthers in 2018. Even with the 5% minority ownership, Harris would have been vetted and approved by the NFL's finance committee and its ownership group. Harris’ sports holdings are under the umbrella Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment (HBSE).

Harris’ group recently bid on buying the Chelsea soccer club from the Premier League but Boehly, the minority owner in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers, has been chosen to enter into exclusive negotiations with the team’s current ownership group. Boehly is also a candidate to buy the Broncos and sources tell 9News Boehly has enough fat-wallet investors included in his group that he would have a strong enough financial structure to purchase both franchises.

Two investor consortiums bidding on the Broncos have not yet been identified. Media tycoon and entertainer Byron Allen told 9NEWS in early February he was putting together a “Who’s Who” of investors for his ownership bid. However, Allen has since signed a non-disclosure agreement and has not returned messages to 9NEWS in recent weeks.

For nearly 90 years, the NFL had strict rules against cross ownership -- people owning franchises in multiple sports. But whether it was Stan Kroenke who opened Pandora's Box (or was a pioneer) when he bought the NFL Rams to go along with his control of the NBA Denver Nuggets and NHL Colorado Avalanche, or soaring franchise values greately diminished the pool of potential buyers, the NFL lifted its cross-ownership ban in October 2018.

Harris and Boehly are examples of those who own teams across multiple sports leagues. 

Harris is well-backed. Rubin’s Fanatics has been widely reported as the world's largest retailer of officially licensed gear for U.S. sports fans. Fanatics also owns Candy Digital, which digitally controls valuable sports art memorabilia or non-fungible tokens (NFT). It has been reported that former Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has made a sizeable investment in Candy Digital. However, a source close to Manning said he is not attached to one particular ownership candidate and wouldn’t be until after the purchase is consummated.

Former Broncos quarterback John Elway is also hoping to join the winning ownership group and serve in an advisory-type role.

Sportico reported Thursday that Earvin “Magic” Johnson has joined Harris’ group. Which is a bit surprising because Johnson is a minority investor in a consortium that owns the Dodgers where Boehly is the second-biggest investor to Mark Walter. Johnson has said he invested $50 million in the Dodgers, which would be 2.3% of the $2.15 billion purchase price back in 2012.

While Johnson's investment may be more sizzle than steak financially, his affiliation with the Harris group could be a significant indication the NFL is strongly considering Harris’ bid. The NFL has made it clear both publicly and privately it wants minority representation with the Broncos’ ownership group.

Harris grew up in Chevy Chase, Md. and is a graduate of the University of Pennsylvania, specifically its Wharton School. Harris later received his MBA from the Harvard Business School and soon thereafter hooked up with Black to help form Apollo.

Harris and his wife Marjorie and their five children reportedly moved from New York City to Miami during the pandemic in 2020.

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In 2019, Josh and Marjorie gave a $10 million gift to Penn’s Wharton School to establish an alternative investments program. Marjorie Harris also chairs the Sixers Youth Foundation, which creates various opportunities for Philadelphia’s youth. Harris Philanthropies, also started by Josh and Marjorie, is a charitable foundation that helps underserved youth in high-need communities through sports and education.

While Walton’s reported $70 billion net worth appears to make him the favorite to wind up with the Broncos, Harris and his partners and the Boehly group have much greater experience in winning sports franchise bids. The Harris and Boehly groups – and again, there are at least two other anonymous groups included in this advanced stage of this process -- is strong enough to make this a competitive bidding process. With Harris the first multibillionaire up.

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