ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — On a sun-soaked day in July 2014, just as the Denver Broncos were set to open their third training camp with quarterback Peyton Manning, then-team president Joe Ellis made an announcement that led to the franchise being put up for sale.
Ellis let it be known that Broncos majority owner Pat Bowlen would no longer be part of the team’s operations due to Alzheimer’s disease. Bowlen had been a charismatic daily presence inside the team’s complex during a three-decade run of success that included more Super Bowl trips than losing seasons.
“It’s a day of tremendous sadness for the Bowlen family, all of our employees, people around the National Football League, and this region and this community,” Ellis said then. “Pat wants us to do two things. He wants us to win, he’s always wanted that and will continue to want that. Also he’s always wanted everybody here to do things the right way.”
A lot has happened in the eight years since that July announcement. After Bowlen died in 2019, there have been legal battles within his family over ownership. The team was officially put up for sale on Feb. 1 and Tuesday night the Broncos announced they entered a sale agreement with the Walton-Penner group for $4.65 billion, the largest team sale in the history of North American sports.
Sources confirmed this week that the group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton, a group led by Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils owner Josh Harris, a group led by Mat Ishbia and a group led by Jose Feliciano and Behdad Eghbali were invited to the second round of bidding with a deadline of 5 pm ET Monday.
How did we get to this point and what’s next? Here are the answers:
Why were the Broncos for sale?
Bowlen never declared a successor to his majority ownership among his children, and when he stepped away from day-to-day operations, he had his interest in the team (estimated to be about 78% at the time) placed in a trust overseen by Ellis, Broncos consultant Rich Slivka and Denver attorney Mary Kelly.
At one point, in 2015, the trustees sent Annabel — Bowlen’s widow — and the children a formal outline of what would be required to become principal owner. That outline included an advanced degree and five years of senior management experience with an NFL team or league office. Bowlen’s hope had been one of them would emerge as the principal owner and be installed by the team trustees. If no agreement could be reached about which child would be principal owner, the team would be sold.
The desire of Beth Bowlen Wallace, one of Bowlen’s daughters from his first marriage, to become controlling owner was rebuffed by the trustees. Brittany Bowlen, one of Bowlen’s daughters after his marriage to Annabel, had Ellis’ public support and a management position with the Broncos. But all seven of the children had to agree on the trustees’ selection of a principal owner, and once selected, the other six could not sell their interests in the team.
The result was a lawsuit filed by Beth Bowlen Wallace and Amie Klemmer — Bowlen’s two oldest daughters — that charged the trust was not valid because, the suit said, Bowlen did not understand what he was signing due to the progression of his Alzheimer’s disease .
The lawsuit was dismissed in 2021 before a trial was set to begin, amid reports that a settlement might have been reached behind the scenes. Neither side has since commented.
When did they officially go on sale?
In January, a final legal hurdle to a sale was cleared when a Denver judge ruled the heirs of former Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser Jr. could not buy back any portion of the franchise as part of a right of first refusal agreement.
A holdings group, representing Kaiser’s estate, had petitioned the court that it had a right of refusal for any sale of the franchise dating back to when Kaiser sold the team to Pat Bowlen in 1984. Kaiser died in 2012.
Denver District Judge Shelley I. Gilman ruled Kaiser’s heirs had no claim, and the right of first refusal included in the 1984 sales agreement between Kaiser and Bowlen was “no longer valid or enforceable in any respect.”
The franchise was put up for sale officially on Feb. 1.
In fall 2021, Forbes valued the Broncos at $3.75 billion; However, the Broncos far surpassed that with $4.65 billion sale announced Tuesday. The Carolina Panthers held the record for most paid for an NFL franchise before. David Tepper purchased the team for $2.275 billion in 2018.
The most ever paid for a North American sports franchise was $2.475 billion by Steven Cohen to purchase the New York Mets in 2020.
Last month, a group led by Todd Boehly, who has interests in the Los Angeles Dodgers and Los Angeles Lakers among his vast portfolio, purchased Chelsea in the English Premier League for more than $5 billion.
Bowlen and his siblings paid $78 million in 1984 for controlling interest in the Broncos. Bowlen later purchased the shares held by his sister and two brothers.
A second round of formal bids for the Broncos were placed Monday, and multiple sources said they believed four groups were involved.
The winning bid went to the Walton-Penner group — headed by Walmart heir Rob Walton, his daughter, Carrie Walton Penner and her husband, Greg Penner — which will also include Melody Hobson, co-CEO of Ariel Investments as well as chair of the board of the Starbucks Corp. and a director at JP Morgan Chase.
Walton’s net worth, estimated by Forbes at more than $59 billion, made him a favorite. Stan Kroenke, who owns the Los Angeles Rams as well as three of Denver’s other professional sports — the Colorado Avalanche, Denver Nuggets and Colorado Rapids — and a regional media network in Colorado, is married to Ann Walton, also a Walmart heir.
The trustees were bound by the original trust documents to take the largest verified bid. The NFL told interested parties that all of the bids must be fully financed or “capitalized” when submitted.
The trustees and team officials met with the prospective bidders. They toured the team’s facilities as well as Empower Field at Mile High and have been briefed on the team’s place in the community and region.
Ellis previously said a new owner who is “visible” in and around the team is important to the trustees.
“Today marks a significant step on the path to an exciting new chapter in Broncos history,” Ellis said in a statement after the announcement of the sale.
Broncos coach Nathaniel Hackett said earlier this week he had met “a solid amount” of the potential bidders and added: “After talking to everybody, I think that they all have an amazing passion and want to be a part of this league and they want to be a part of a team. I think that’s something that’s really beautiful.
What has to happen to close the deal?
Now that the Walton-Penner bid has been selected, the sale agreement is now subject to review by the NFL’s finance committee and then must be approved by a full vote of the NFL owners. Twenty-four yes votes are needed for the sale to be approved.
A special meeting could be called later this summer or the vote could come at a previously scheduled owners meeting after the start of the NFL’s regular season.
It is expected to take 60 to 90 days for the sale to be approved and the deal to be closed; no issues are expected, a source told ESPN’s Adam Schefter.