Sports

Update: Rob Walton Reportedly to Become New Owner of the Denver Broncos

S. Robson "Rob" Walton's official Walmart portrait.
S. Robson "Rob" Walton's official Walmart portrait. walmart.com
Update: Forbes is reporting that Rob Walton is expected to become the new owner of the Denver Broncos, thanks to a bid of approximately $4.5 billion — by far the most ever for an NFL franchise. Confirmation of Walton's victory is expected as soon as this month. Learn more about Walton in the following profile:

Originally published April 14: On April 15, initial bids to buy the Denver Broncos are expected to be submitted; the team officially went on the block February 1 after months of speculation. And the current leader in the clubhouse is S. Robson "Rob" Walton, the 77-year-old heir to the Walmart fortune, whose opening salvo will reportedly be in excess of $4 billion.

He can afford it. As of today, April 14, Forbes estimated Walton's net worth at $70.4 billion. According to the magazine, he's the nineteenth-richest billionaire on the planet, and in the thirteenth slot on the Forbes 400 list.

That Walton planned a bid was first reported by the New York Post's Josh Kosman, who cited "sources close to the situation" regarding the $4 billion-plus offer. That price would be the highest ever paid for a professional sports team...by a lot. As points of comparison, Kosman cites the $2.2 billion that hedge-fund moneybags David Tepper forked over for the Carolina Panthers in 2018 and the $2.3 billion that Chinese e-commerce success story Joe Tsai dished out to take possession of the Brooklyn Nets the following year.

As for the Broncos, Kosman's sources say that the franchise overseers won't even consider a bid under $4 billion. Experts predict the final price tag will be in the $4.5-to-$5 billion range.

Not that Walton will have the field to himself. Robert F. Smith, America's richest Black billionaire, is thought to be the favored candidate by the NFL, which is currently a whites-only cabal when it comes to team ownership — a bad look given the horrible publicity the league garnered over its treatment of former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick and an ongoing lawsuit filed by ex-Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores, whose racial-bias claims have a Denver connection. In the document, Flores, who's also Black, accuses team executives John Elway and Joe Ellis of being hung over when they conducted a sham interview with him in 2019 shortly before hiring the very Caucasian Vic Fangio to coach the squad; Elway and the team deny the claims.

Smith, a Denver native, does bring some baggage as well as big bucks, including recent issues with the IRS and concerns regarding his FlyFisher Group, which has been buying properties in Five Points, reportedly to help the historic Black area. But critics say these investments, which were overseen by Matthew Burkett, Smith's longtime business partner, have hurt rather than helped the neighborhood.

Other potential Broncos bidders include an investment group headed by California-based Alec Gores, owner of a private equity firm, Floridian Dean Metropoulos, whose properties include Hostess Brands, and Michigan's Mat Ishbia, president of the wholesale mortgage lender UMW Holdings; plus Behdad Eghbali and Jose Feliciano, co-founders of Clearlake Capital Group (joined by Kwanza Jones, Feliciano's wife); and Apollo Global Management's Josh Harris.

As for Walton, eldest son of late Walmart chairman Sam Walton, his main connection to the Mile High City is through another billionaire, Denver Nuggets and Colorado Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke. Bolstering the perception that the global billionaire's club is roughly as inbred as the British royal family, Walton's cousin Ann is married to Kroenke, whose portfolio of sports franchises also includes the Super Bowl-winning Los Angeles Rams, the Colorado Rapids, the Colorado Mammoth, Arsenal F.C. and Arsenal W.F.C.

Walton was born in Tulsa, Oklahoma, attended the College of Wooster (where he's currently a trustee), earned a bachelor's degree from the University of Arkansas, and received a doctorate from Columbia Law School. He subsequently hooked on with the law firm that represented Walmart before being named the company's vice president in 1978. Four years later, he became vice-chairman, and on April 7, 1992, two days after his father's death, he was asked to chair the mega-firm's board of directors. He continued in this role until 2015, when he handed over Walmart's chairmanship to Greg Penner, his son-in-law, and retired.
click to enlarge
Rob Walton shaking hands with Greg Penner, Walmart chairman and his son-in-law.
Despite no longer having a formal role with the company, a Rob Walton bio remains on the Walmart website. The page features a photo of him shaking hands with Penner and points out that he's also "involved with a number of nonprofit and educational organizations, including Conservation International, where he serves as chairman of the executive committee."

It's a hardly a surprise that the item portrays Walton as a do-gooder, given Walmart's regular challenges regarding public perception. The company he oversees has long been a target of criticism for its treatment of workers, among many other things; John Dicker's 2005 book The United States of Wal-Mart is a fine primer on the operation's alleged misdeeds. Walton wasn't entirely able to avoid being dragged into battle: In June 2014, for example, Phoenix New Times, a sibling of Westword's, reported on a demonstration at his home in the aptly named community of Paradise Valley regarding "claims of low wages, erratic scheduling and retaliation against employees" who dared to raise their voices; among other things, participants called for "a minimum pay of $25,000 per year for full-time work to provide for their families."

As recently as last year, Walton was still taking heat for Walmart wages, as seen in a tweet from Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders that tweaked him about his fondness for pricey automobiles: "If Rob Walton, a key owner of Walmart, can afford an estimated $226 million for an antique car collection that includes 12 Ferraris, 6 Porsches, 2 Maseratis and a 1963 Corvette Grand Sport Roadster, you know what? Walmart can afford to pay at least $15/hour to all of its workers."

Even the lowest-paid Broncos make many times that amount, of course. The NFL minimum salary is expected to be $705,000 in 2022.

Given Walton's age and the fact that he's been retired for seven years, there's plenty of doubt that he'd be interested in serving as a hands-on owner of the Broncos — leading to speculation that Penner, who's 52, would be much more involved. And while Walton faces competition for the team, he should be able to outspend any of his likely rivals.
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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts