The recent sale of the Denver Broncos is unique for several reasons. This is a record $4.65 billion deal. The previous record sale was to the New York Mets in 2020 for $2.4 billion. The National Football League unanimously approved the sale, welcoming the new owners to an exclusive club. Walmart heir Rob Walton, his daughter Carrie Walton Penner and her husband Greg Penner are the new majority owners.
Walton, 77, is worth an estimated $60 billion, making him the NFL’s richest owner. The Walton-Penner Group paid the highest price in history for an American sports franchise. The record sale price for any sports franchise is $5.3 billion for Chelsea Football Club, also this year. The three limited partners in the new ownership group are also a first, as all three investors are black. These are the world champion in Formula 1 Lewis Hamilton, the chairman of the board of directors of Starbucks Melody Hobson and the former secretary of state of the United States Condoleezza Rice. The overall group has three women, making Broncos ownership the most diverse group in the NFL.
Former owner Pat Bowlen paid $78 million for the team in 1984. John Elway missed out on some of that profit when he chose not to accept an offer from Bowlen to become a minority owner during his playing days in 1998. Bowlen offered Elway a 10% stake from the team for the money the team owed him ($21 million). Bowlen sweetened the deal by offering another 10 percent of the team for $15 million. If Elway had accepted both offers, the recent sale would now be worth over $900 million, a 1,330% return.
Elway also waived his right of first refusal to buy out the rest of the team. Don’t cry for Elway as he earned $45.4 million during his playing career before becoming the general manager of the Broncos who won Super Bowl 50. He also sold his car dealership in 1997 for $82.5 million dollars in stock.
Those of us who follow sports have often wondered just how lucrative ownership is. We’re somewhat kept in the dark because NFL owners don’t have to disclose their financials, with one exception. The Green Bay Packers are the NFL’s only public franchise and must release annual financials. It is the only team whose fans can buy a share of ownership. The Packers have 539,000 shareholders. About 8,000 attended the team’s annual meeting this year, a mix of meticulous team accounting, cheerleading and inside jokes. Each non-tradable, non-dividend-paying share is worth $300. At this year’s meeting, Mark Murphy, the team’s president, announced that $65 million had been raised in a stock sale over the winter.
So, the Packers can give us a peek into the profits of NFL ownership. This year the picture is bright. The Packers generated a record $579 million in revenue last year. Not bad for a “small market” team. Nearly 60% of that revenue ($347.3 million) comes from the Packers’ share of the league’s growing media and sponsorship contracts, which are split among all 32 teams. Shared revenue grew 12.3% last year and now ensures that each team will make a profit regardless of how it performs on the field, as its biggest expense – player salaries – is capped at $188 million.
The future is always bright as a 17th regular season game was added, new sports gambling revenue is pouring in and the 2021 broadcast rights renewal is worth more than $100 billion. It sure looks like a business venture you can’t miss. They don’t even need the profits from the ticket price. They should let us in free.
Jim Cross is a retired Fort Lewis College professor and basketball coach.