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Broncos ownership approved: Rob Walton, Penner family officially begin new era

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 largest 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.

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 U.S. 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.

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.

By the time the Broncos won Super Bowl 50, though, 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 — 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 begun 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, Walton said he felt a personal connection that fueled his desire to pursue the franchise.

“Having lived and worked in Colorado, we’ve always admired the Broncos,” he said. “Our enthusiasm has only grown as we’ve learned more about the team, staff and Broncos Country over the last few months.”

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. The Walton-Penner group will surely have its own ideas about how run the business side of the operation, and it will be intriguing to see how involved Greg Penner and Carrie 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.

Change to the franchise in various forms will be coming. The past calendar year for the Broncos showed just how quickly those changes can come.

(Photo: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today)

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