BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The Denver Broncos’ Bowlen Era comes to an end Tuesday.
Long live, Sam Walton’s legacy.
One of the most drawn out, hostile and complex ownership transitions in the history of sports is expected to be finalized Tuesday in a league vote here at a Mall of America hotel.
Sam Walton was the founder and day-to-day-never-took-a-day-off operator of Walmart discount stores. Sam’s oldest son, Rob, was the attorney who took Walmart public in 1970 and the stock brought great wealth to all members of the Walton family.
Rob Walton, 77, Sam’s granddaughter Carrie Walton-Penner and her husband Greg Penner are the lead partners in the Broncos’ new ownership group, which bought the team through auction two months ago for the North American all-sports record price of $4.65 billion.
Rob Walton is the controlling owner but it will be the Penners who will be in charge of day-to-day operations.
The lead partners have added three Black investors to their group – Starbucks chairwoman and investor Mellody Hobson, Stanford University Hoover Institute Director and former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Formula 1 racing champion Sir Lewis Hamilton – who followed NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's recommendation that all ownership groups going forward must have greater diversity. Even if it’s unclear whether Hobson, Rice or Hamilton will have voting rights in the Broncos’ new ownership partnership, it’s a start.
“You’d see the headlines and it’s exciting to see that so many people want to be a part of this organization to help move this thing going forward,’’ said Broncos’ edge rusher Bradley Chubb in an interview with 9NEWS. “The Walton-Penner family are going to do that. And then all the people they started adding like Condoleezza Rice and Lewis Hamilton, you see all the names, it’s great that people want to be part of this. To have us in the locker room, we know they want to be a part of that and turn this thing around.”
Although Cincinnati’s Mike Brown and the Raiders’ Mark Davis can be contrarians when it comes to voting on league matters, even they approved the previous ownership transaction in 2018 when David Tepper’s $2.2 billion purchase of the Carolina Panthers from Jerry Richardson was unanimously approved.
Thus, it would be extremely surprising if the Walton-Penner group didn’t also receive a 32-0 vote from the league owners Tuesday. One vote is sure to come from Stan Kroenke, owner of the Super Bowl-champion Los Angeles Rams and a Walton relative by marriage.
"I have an adult, life-long admiration for the Walton family. They’ll lift the NFL," said Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to 9NEWS.
"I’m very excited about it. I know the Waltons well. I knew the father (Sam). They’ll do well," Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank said Tuesday.
Even if our nation’s inflation has caused the Walmart stock to slide in recent months, like just about any other publicly-traded business, Rob Walton’s net worth was recently listed at $59.7 billion by Forbes, which will make him the NFL’s richest owner by far.
Given the Broncos’ losing slump on five consecutive years, the ownership transition is generally viewed as a positive development. During Pat Bowlen’s reign from 1984, when he bought Denver’s NFL franchise from Edgar Kaiser Jr., until 2011, when early cognitive signs that eventually led to Alzheimer’s caused him to step away from day-to-day control, the Broncos had as many Super Bowl appearances (5) as losing seasons (5).
Joe Ellis became team president in 2011 when John Elway was hired to take over has head of football operations. The Ellis-Elway regime started with five AFC West Division titles in five years, with two Super Bowl appearances and the Super Bowl 50 championship. Since then, though, the Broncos have missed the playoffs six consecutive years with losing records the past five.
In comes Walton and the Penners. It wasn’t easy getting here.
Complications stemmed from Bowlen becoming stricken with Alzheimer’s with his official mental incapacitation declared in December 2013 and announced the following July. His trust stated a desire for one of his children to succeed him as the Broncos’ controlling owner, but what followed were two litigation cases from family members.
One daughter from his first marriage, Beth Bowlen Wallace, and another daughter from his second marriage to Annabel, Brittany Bowlen, each stated a desire to run the team.
The family feud left the three trustees of Bowlen’s estate – Ellis, general counsel Rich Slivka and attorney Mary Kelly – believing their best course of action was to put the team up for sale. Many were interested and in the end there were four bidding finalists – groups led by Walton-Penner, Josh Harris, Jose E. Feliciano and Mat Ishbia with Byron Allen a viable candidate until the end.
No one was going to outbid Rob Walton. Ellis will address the NFL owners at the meeting Tuesday. He will then cede his positions as team CEO and president.
Elway was replaced as general manager by George Paton in 2021 with Nathaniel Hackett hired as the new head coach in January and Russell Wilson acquired as the new star quarterback in March.
In terms of a football franchise’s three most valuable employees – GM, head coach and quarterback – the Broncos appear to be in good shape as Walton-Penner take control.
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