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NFL team ownership ‘a can’t-miss business venture’

Jim Cross

The recent sale of the Denver Broncos is unique for several reasons. It is a record $4.65 billion transaction. The former record sale was for the New York Mets in 2020 at a price of $2.4 billion. The National Football League unanimously approved the sale, welcoming the new owners into an exclusive club. Walmart heir Rob Walton, his daughter, Carrie Walton Penner, and her husband, Greg Penner, are the new majority owners.

The 77-year-old Walton’s estimated worth is $60 billion, which makes him the NFL’s wealthiest 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 the Chelsea soccer club, also this year. The three limited partners in the new ownership group are also a first as all three investors are Black. They are Formula One world champion Lewis Hamilton, Starbucks board chairwoman Mellody Hobson and former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The overall group has three women making the 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 this profit when he chose not to take an offer from Bowlen to become a minority owner during his playing days in 1998. Bowlen offered Elway a 10% piece of the team for the money that the team owed him ($21 million). Bowlen sweetened the deal by offering another 10% 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 gave up the right of first refusal to buy the rest of the team. Shed no tears for Elway as he earned $45.4 million during his playing career, then became general manager of the Broncos winning Super Bowl 50. He also sold his car dealerships in 1997 for $82.5 million in stock.

Those of us who follow sport have often wondered how lucrative ownership is. We are kept somewhat in the dark because NFL owners do not have to reveal their financials, with one exception. The Green Bay Packers are the only publicly owned NFL franchise and it does have to release annual financial figures. It is the only team whose fans can buy an ownership stake. The Packers have 539,000 shareholders. About 8,000 attended the team’s annual meeting this year, a cross between a dutiful accounting of the team, a pep rally and an inside joke. Each share, which cannot be traded and pays no dividend, is worth $300. At this year’s meeting, Mark Murphy, the team’s president, announced that $65 million was raised in a stock sale in the winter.

So, the Packers can give us a peek into the NFL ownership profits. 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) came from the Packers share of the league’s growing media and sponsorship contracts, which are divided among all 32 teams. The shared revenue grew 12.3% last year and now ensures that every team is guaranteed to turn a profit regardless of on-field performance because its biggest expense – player payroll – was capped at $188 million.

The future is continually bright as a 17th regular season game has been added, new revenue from sports gambling is pouring in and the 2021 renewal of broadcasting rights is worth more than $100 billion. It sure seems like a can’t-miss business venture. They don’t even need the ticket-price profits. They should let us in free.

Jim Cross is a retired Fort Lewis College professor and basketball coach.