NFL approves sale of Broncos, making Rob Walton league's wealthiest owner

The Denver Broncos officially have new owners.

The NFL’s ownership group voted unanimously Tuesday in Minneapolis to approve the sale of the franchise to Walmart heir Robert Walton and his family, the final step in a years-long process for the Patrick D. Bowlen Trust that included litigation, family drama and an auction sale that formally began earlier this year.

Walton, 77, takes over along with his daughter, Carrie Walton-Penner, son-in-law, Greg Penner and a small set of known limited shareholders. The son of Walmart founder Sam Walton, Rob Walton immediately becomes the wealthiest owner in the NFL by nearly a factor of four thanks to his estimated personal net worth of around $60 billion, according to Forbes.

Penner, 52, is Walmart’s chairman and is expected to take a major role in leading the day-to-day operations of the franchise under the title of CEO or something similar. Current Broncos CEO Joe Ellis, who served as a trustee for the Bowlen Trust and helped navigate the sales process, has already announced he plans to step down once the transition is complete, though Penner said Tuesday that Ellis would stay on as an advisor through the 2022 season. Brittany Bowlen, one of late former owner Pat Bowlen's children, also recently confirmed she’s leaving her role as the franchise’s senior vice president of strategic initiatives.

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Denver Broncos fans celebrate during the second half against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.
Denver Broncos fans celebrate during the second half against the Dallas Cowboys at AT&T Stadium.

How we got here

The franchise was formally put up for sale on Feb. 1 after years of legal wrangling and fighting for control of the franchise among the late Pat Bowlen’s children and brother. Once the last legal hurdles were cleared, the Bowlen Trust initiated an auction process.

Bowlen purchased the team for around $78 million in 1984 and owned it until his death in 2019, though he ceded control of the team to Ellis in 2014 amid his battle with Alzheimer's disease.

The Walton-Penner family’s presence in the race immediately made them a perceived favorite given Walton’s immense wealth. The family’s record bid was quickly accepted, with the announcement on a sales agreement being reached coming roughly 24 hours after the franchise’s deadline for second-round bids in June.

"The Broncos are the one sports franchise that we would have considered buying," Walton said during a news conference Tuesday. "Greg acutely started conversations some 10 years ago about it. When the team actually announced it was for sale early this year, we got in the middle of it first thing."

The NFL’s finance committee reviewed and approved the Walton-Penner family’s bid in late July and the final step came Tuesday with a vote of the league’s full ownership group.

Limited shareholders

So far, there are three known limited shareholders outside of the Walton-Penner family. They are former United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, champion Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton and Ariel Investments co-CEO and Starbucks chairwoman Mellody Hobson.

Rice has a long history in football, having served on the College Football Playoff selection committee from 2013-16. She spent much of her childhood in Denver and holds undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Denver University. She crossed over in teaching and working at Stanford with Penner and Walton-Penner.

Hamilton is the only Black driver on the F1 circuit currently and has won seven world championships since 2008. He is English but has a home in Colorado that he has told media outlets in the past he spends some of each offseason at.

Hobson has a long list of business accomplishments, including becoming the first Black chairwoman of a S&P 500 company.

Four questions going forward

Will the Walton-Penner group build a new stadium?

Empower Field is going to need several hundred million in renovations in the coming years. Walton is related by marriage to Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who put $5 billion of his own money into building SoFi Stadium in part so he could develop a real estate empire around it and build a 365-days-per-year cash flow machine.

How quickly might the Broncos’ new ownership group decide whether it wants to renovate or rebuild? And if the answer is rebuild, is that stadium downtown? East of the city? To the Southeast near the current training complex?

"It's premature to start talking about a new stadium," Penner said at the news conference. "I'll say that Empower Field at Mile High is a world-class facility. ... We've got a good partnership with the Metropolitan Football Stadium District and fortunately have almost 10 years left on our lease, so we'll evaluate all of our options and really dig in and understand the situation before making a decision."

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When will the team extend quarterback Russell Wilson’s contract?

There isn’t a ton of urgency behind this one because everybody involved believes the only question is indeed “when” rather than “if.”

Wilson is under contract through 2023 and has a manageable $24 million salary cap hit this year. Any extension is not likely to happen during the regular season, so a short window will remain open for the next few weeks. Guaranteed money in a contract – and Wilson will get a lot of it, considering the guarantees made recently to Deshaun Watson, Kyler Murray and others – must be put into escrow when a deal is signed. If it doesn’t happen in the next few weeks, then likely next offseason.

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How will the organization be structured?

Penner will be heavily involved and then, after that, not much is known yet about how the family will go about setting up its organizational chart.

Will the limited shareholders have any active role in the day-to-day? What impact can three high-profile Black shareholders have on not only the Broncos, but also the NFL? And what is the size of their stakes in the franchise?

Will there be any additional limited shareholders?

There are two Hall of Fame quarterbacks whose names get brought up frequently on this topic in Peyton Manning and John Elway.

Manning’s situation is particularly interesting because of his expanding media empire at Omaha Productions and his role on the "ManningCast" during ESPN’s "Monday Night Football" broadcasts. The NFL did not respond to a USA TODAY Sports question about whether Manning could be involved with league broadcast partners and also own a share of the franchise.

Wealthiest NFL owners

Walton goes right to the top of the list of the wealthiest NFL owners, which perhaps is not surprising considering Forbes has him ranked as the 20th wealthiest person on the planet.

The new NFL pecking order, according to Forbes’ real-time billionaires list:

1.       Rob Walton, Denver Broncos, $59.8 billion

2.       Dave Tepper, Carolina Panthers, $16.7 billion

3.       Jerry Jones, Dallas Cowboys, $11.6 billion

4.       Stan Kroenke, Los Angeles Rams, $10.7 billion

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Broncos' sale approved, Rob Walton becomes wealthiest NFL owner