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Of the reported five bidders trying to buy the Denver Broncos, one stands head and shoulders above the rest–at least when it comes to purchasing power: Rob Walton.
The Broncos’ expected price tag of around $4 billion (Forbes valued the club at $3.75 billion last August) would be no sweat for Walton, the 77-year-old former chairman of Walmart and eldest son of company founder Sam Walton. Forbes estimates that Rob Walton is sitting on a fortune of $70.6 billion, roughly $57 billion of it in Walmart stock. His known opposition–groups led by billionaires Josh Harris (who is worth an estimated $5.6 billion) and, reportedly, Todd Boehly ($4.5 billion)—appears to be worth far less. There are two mystery bidders in the fold, according to a report from Sportico, but only 18 other individuals on the planet are richer than Walton, Forbes estimates, and two of them are his siblings, Jim ($71.9 billion) and Alice ($70.9 billion).
That puts Walton in a prime position to join the ranks of NFL ownership. Under the league’s rules, a majority owner must hold at least 30% of a team and the debt limit on a franchise cannot exceed $1 billion. The Pat Bowlen estate, which took control of the Broncos after his death in 2019, has a fiduciary obligation to sell to the highest qualified bidder. Harris and Boehly, who are also bidding on the multibillion-dollar sale of Chelsea FC, would need wealthy partners to contend for such an asset. Walton can just reach into his pockets.
“From just a cash perspective, I don’t see anybody outbidding [Walton], particularly if he really wants it,” says Edwin Draughan, a vice president at sports investment bank Park Lane.
If successful, Walton would become America’s second-richest sports team owner, trailing only former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (worth an estimated $92.3 billion), owner of the NBA’s Los Angeles Clippers. Walton would easily be the NFL’s richest owner—passing Carolina Panthers owner Dave Tepper, who is worth an estimated $16.7 billion—at a time where franchise values are skyrocketing. The average NFL team was worth nearly $3.5 billion in 2021, compared to $466 million in 2001. Relative to the league, the Broncos have lagged in appreciation over the last two decades, ranking in the bottom-third according to Forbes, but the team has still risen in value by nearly 600%, from $540 million to $3.75 billion by our count.
It doesn’t look to be slowing down, either. The NFL signed roughly $113 billion in new media rights deals last year and has seen consistent growth from its burgeoning venture capital arm, 32 Equity. After putting in $1 million at launch in 2013 and around $3 million more since, each team’s share is now worth more than $100 million and include investments in the likes of e-commerce platform Fanatics, data firm Genius Sports and massage gun manufacturer Hyperice. The NFL and Apple are also reportedly near a deal for the league’s Sunday Ticket package, which DirecTV previously licensed for $1.5 billion.
“I think it’s rather obvious that the NFL is king all around the world,” says Andy Appleby, chairman and CEO of General Sports & Entertainment, a sports management firm that handles team acquisitions.
Walton’s motivation for bidding on the Broncos is ultimately unclear, though he does have ties to the area. Walton owns several properties in Colorado and his cousin by marriage, Stan Kroenke, owns both the NBA’s Denver Nuggets and NHL’s Colorado Avalanche. The Walton Family Foundation, which focuses on education and river and ocean conservation, awarded almost $750 million in grants during 2020, including at least six greater than $1 million in the state of Colorado. A representative for Walton declined to comment.
Buying the Broncos could be a legacy move for his family, or simply a passion play for him–something to enjoy now that he isn’t involved in Walmart. Rob, the eldest son of Sam Walton, got a law degree from Columbia University and helped prepare Walmart’s 1970 IPO. He took over as chairman upon his father’s death in 1992 and retired in 2015, when he was replaced by his son-in-law, Greg Penner. The family still owns around half of the $573 billion (2021 revenue) retail behemoth.
The Waltons, who are America’s richest family, have generally shied from the limelight, quietly steering Walmart, launching low-key investment firms and running their 16-branch Arvest Bank in Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas and their home state of Arkansas. One of their few public endeavors: In 2011, Rob’s sister Alice opened the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in their hometown of Bentonville, featuring works from the likes of Andy Warhol, Norman Rockwell and Mark Rothko.
“There’s not that many people on earth that have $4 billion to spend on a sports team,” Appleby says. Walton, however, is rich enough to buy more than half the NFL’s teams–and still be a multibillionaire.