BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — The Broncos arrived at this lake-dotted locale one year ago this week as a franchise mired in uncertainty.
As they began a pair of joint training camp practices with the Minnesota Vikings, they were in the midst of a starting quarterback competition with no long-term answer at the position in sight. An under-fire coaching staff was beginning its third and, ultimately, final season of a losing tenure. The team’s new general manager was drawing early praise for his work in the NFL Draft, but he was still only seven months into the job. And the biggest question about the franchise — would it soon be sold and to whom? — hung above it all in the muggy, summer air.
What a difference a year makes.
On Tuesday, at a special meeting of NFL owners inside an airport area hotel, the record-breaking sale of the Broncos to the Walton-Penner ownership group was officially approved. For the first time in 38 years, the Broncos have new ownership, completing a whirlwind offseason in which the organization hired a new coach in Nathaniel Hackett, traded for franchise quarterback Russell Wilson and reset expectations after more than half a decade of postseason absences.
“Putting a winning team on the field is our No. 1 priority,” new controlling owner Rob Walton said, moments after the rest of the league’s owners unanimously approved the sale of the team. “We can’t wait to get to Denver, join our new colleagues and get to work.”
Walton is joined in the ownership group by his daughter, Carrie Walton Penner; his son-in-law, Greg Penner; Mellody Hobson, the current Starbucks chairwoman; and limited partners Condoleeza Rice, the former US Secretary of State and Sir Lewis Hamilton, the seven-time Formula One champion. They collectively purchased the team for $4.65 billion, more than doubling the previous high for the sale of an NFL franchise, which came when hedge-fund billionaire David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers for $2.28 billion.
NFL commissioner Roger Goodell, who officially introduced the Walton-Penner group to the media shortly after the vote was made official, said during his Super Bowl press conference in February that the league had made it clear that diversity “is something we would seek to have” within the team’s new ownership group, and outgoing CEO Joe Ellis long noted that it was a priority for the trust as well. Three of the six known members of the new ownership group are Black. Three are women.
“As we started thinking about partners, we wanted to get people with tremendous capacity,” Walton said. “We think that diversity is important. We think diverse organizations are more successful organizations. We’re looking forward to working with them.”
The vote officially ends the tenure of the late Hall of Fame owner Pat Bowlen and the trust that ran the team in his name for the last decade. Bowlen, who passed away in 2019 due to complications of Alzheimer’s disease that had forced him to officially relinquish day-to-day control of the organization six years earlier, bought former owner Edgar Kaiser’s shares of the franchise in 1984, along with his siblings, for $78 million. The Broncos won three Super Bowls during his tenure and that of the trust, which was led by Ellis, and through the end of the 2015 season, Denver had compiled more Super Bowl appearances than losing seasons under that group’s direction.
“We have enormous respect for Pat Bowlen and what he meant to both the Broncos and the NFL,” Penner said. “We also appreciate Joe Ellis’ guidance through this process and are grateful he’s agreed to stay on and serve as an adviser for the coming season.”
Joe Ellis, the Broncos’ outgoing CEO will remain on this season as an adviser, released a statement reflecting on his nearly three decades with the franchise: pic.twitter.com/ZthowKHlO2
— Nick Kosmider (@NickKosmider) August 9, 2022
By the time the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, questions were already circulating about the team’s transition plan. Bowlen had expressed a desire for one of his seven children to ultimately take his place as the team’s controlling owner, but he also gave the trust — Ellis; team counsel Rich Slivka; and attorney Mary Kelly — the final authority to determine the franchise’s future. In May of 2018, Beth Bowlen Wallace, one of Bowlen’s daughters from his first marriage with Sally Parker, announced her intention to take over as her father’s controlling owner, but the trust quickly announced that they would decline to name Bowlen Wallace as her father’s successor . Five months later, Brittany Bowlen, one of Bowlen’s five children with his second wife, Annabel Bowlen, announced her own desire to run the franchise.
What followed from there were a series of lawsuits and public spats between the trust and members of Bowlen’s family, all of which ultimately made it clear that a path to installing one of Bowlen’s children as the team’s controlling owner contained too many obstacles to navigate. On Feb. 1, the trust announced that the team would officially be put up for sale to outside bidders.
A flurry of interest followed. Chances to join the NFL’s ownership fraternity don’t pop up often, and Denver’s status as a winning organization with a large geographic footprint made it all the more alluring. Ellis said during the March league meeting in Florida that a number of legitimate, highly interested suitors had already started lining up to be a part of the auction process. The Walton-Penner group ultimately outbid competitive offers from groups led by Josh Harris, Jose E. Feliciano, and Mat Ishbia.
Walton, 77, had not previously owned a pro sports franchise. Upon reaching a sales agreement with the trust on June 8, he said his family felt a personal connection that fueled their desire to pursue the Broncos. During brief remarks on Tuesday, Walton delved further into why the opportunity made sense for his family, and Penner noted that he and his father-in-law had “informal” conversations about possibly one day buying the team as far back as a decade ago .
“The Broncos are the one sports franchise that we would have considered buying,” said Walton, who instantly became the NFL’s richest owner with a net worth estimated around $60 billion. “Greg, as he mentioned, started conversations about it 10 years ago. Then, the team announced it was for sale earlier this year, and we got in the middle of it first thing. We have connections there. Greg and Carrie live in Colorado. I’ve been going to Colorado — I have a home there — for a long, long time. We’re really excited. It’s a terrific team (and a) terrific fan base.”
Big questions lay ahead, beginning with whether they will seek to build a new stadium or choose instead to make major renovations to the current downtown Denver venue, Empower Field at Mile High, a discussion Penner said was “premature” at this early stage of the group’s tenure. The Walton-Penner group will surely have its own ideas about how to run the business side of the operation, and it will be intriguing to see how involved Penner and Walton Penner, who will be the day-to-day faces of the organization, plan to be on the football side, where an eventual massive contract extension for Wilson is among the big-picture priorities.
Changes to the franchise in various forms will be coming. The past calendar year for the Broncos showed just how quickly those changes can happen.
“We know our fans’ expectations are high,” Penner said, “and we embrace that.”
(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)