Here's where things stand in the Denver Broncos sale process

Key Points
  • The first bids are in for the Denver Broncos. Walmart heir Rob Walton is considered a strong contender to buy the NFL team.
  • The sale price could end up at $4 billion or more, which would be the biggest in NFL history.
  • Interested parties are "strong, very successful business people" that are "serious about buying the team," according to Marc Ganis, the CEO of consultancy SportsCorp, who is familiar with the process.
Cameron Fleming #73 of the Denver Broncos runs onto the field before a game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Empower Field at Mile High on January 8, 2022 in Denver, Colorado.
Dustin Bradford | Getty Images

The first bids are in for the Denver Broncos sale process, and vetting is under way. The NFL franchise could sell for $4 billion, which could be the most expensive transaction in the league's history.

Former Walmart chairman and Walton family heir Rob Walton, who is worth roughly $68 billion, is considered a strong contender to buy the team. NBA and NHL owners Josh Harris and David Blitzer, who both hold minority stakes in the Pittsburgh Steelers, are also interested, according to people familiar with the sale.

Even a decentralized autonomous organization, or DAO, consisting of crypto enthusiasts is interested and raising money to cover cost.

The sale would be big by any standard in sports. The Broncos are owned by the Pat Bowlen Trust and are valued at $3.7 billion, according to Forbes. That's ranked 10th in the NFL. If the team is sold at the projected $4 billion price tag, it will eclipse Alibaba co-founder Joe Tsai's $2.3 billion purchase of the NBA's Brooklyn Nets in 2019. Hedge fund manager David Tepper purchased the NFL's Carolina Panthers for $2.2 billion in 2018.

Elsewhere, Los Angeles Dodgers and Lakers co-owner Todd Boehly and British billionaire Jim Ratcliffe are competing for ownership of the English soccer club Chelsea FC. Last week, Boehly was approved to enter exclusive talks to buy the club from Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich, according to The Wall Street Journal. But INEOS, the chemical company for which Ratcliffe is the chairman, released a statement that said he's offering more than $5 billion for the club.

Sports bankers estimate the auction for the Broncos could fetch a new record for the NFL. Team valuations are often inflated and largely hypothetical — barring formal and public sales. Pundits use multiples of revenue and add in operating income, adjusted for revenue sharing, and any other assets tied to the club that could include real estate to arrive at a number.

The sale could end up hitting the mid-$4 billion range, noting the city of Denver's young demographics with its "tech, natural resources and tourism," said Marc Ganis, the CEO of consultant firm SportsCorp. "It's not a single-industry location which is something you look for when you buy a sports franchise."

While the bidders aren't publicly known, Ganis is familiar with the sale process and who's looking at buying the Broncos. He said interested parties are "strong, very successful business people" that are "serious about buying the team."

Inside the Broncos sale

The Broncos were officially placed on the market in February after years of legal disputes, including a family lawsuit in 2019. A month before the team went up for sale, a Denver judge ruled in favor of the Broncos and voided a right of first refusal issue with ROFR Holdings Ltd. – the company established by former team owner Edgar Kaiser. He sold a majority stake of the Broncos to Pat Bowlen in 1984 for a reported $78 million.

Under Bowlen's ownership, the Broncos made seven Super Bowls and won three championships. He died in 2019 and bequeathed his roughly 78% stake in the team to the Pat Bowlen Trust.

Javonte Williams #33 of the Denver Broncos carries the ball against the Cincinnati Bengals at Empower Field At Mile High on December 19, 2021 in Denver, Colorado.
Matthew Stockman | Getty Images

Ganis said the city offers a "location premium" as the area attracts wealthy individuals who like to ski. "Never underestimate the value of having a team in a location that's either a very quick flight or a place that you'd go to anyway," he said.

Should the Bowlen family secure $4 billion or more, it would likely increase values for other NFL teams. Denver-based NBCUniversal affiliate KUSA reported Bowlen's seven children would split 78% of the final price. That amounts to more than $400 million each.

Broncos Chief Executive Joe Ellis said the team hopes to have a new owner in place by the 2022 NFL season. At the NFL annual meetings in March, Ellis is quoted by the Denver Post as saying there's a "significant amount of interest from a number of very qualified bidders."

The Broncos and investment firm Allen and Company did not immediately return a CNBC request to discuss the transaction.

Rob Walton
Beth Hall | Bloomberg | Getty Images

What would Walton add?

Last month, the New York Post reported Walton would make a bid. Walton is linked to Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke, who married his cousin Ann Walton Kroenke. Ganis said Walton becoming an owner would be "major validation" for the NFL's business model.

"These are people that can buy anything they want and this is where they choose to put their money," said Ganis. "It's a validation that it's a good business for top business people to be in."

Though inflation is high, investors are still interested in purchasing sports franchises, said economist Judd Cramer. He called owning a pro team a "real asset" because, traditionally, clubs increase value annually.

And inflation increases the "the cost of having money not invested in real assets," said Cramer, who served in former President Barack Obama's administration.

Robert Smith, Vistas Equity Partners, Founder, Chairman & CEO
Adam Galica | CNBC

A Black NFL owner remains elusive

Vista Equity Partners CEO Robert F. Smith was speculated to be a bidder for the Broncos. He has a net worth of $8.9 billion, according to Bloomberg. But Smith, a Colorado native, is adamant that he's not interested.

In a statement to CNBC, Vista Partners said: "Robert's priorities right now are on the fight for voting rights and economic justice rather than being a Black owner of a team. He continues to be most focused on how he can best help underserved communities gain access to capital, healthcare, education, and the ballot box. Pursuing ownership of the Broncos is not on his radar."

The NFL is seeking a Black owner – that was made clear at this year's Super Bowl in Los Angeles. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell noted he's "personally involved" in attracting more minority candidates to NFL ownership as the league has never had a Black owner in its over 100-year history. Goodell noted the NFL met with media mogul Byron Allen about purchasing an NFL team. It's not clear where that stands, though.

The NFL's finance committee, which Kansas City Chiefs owner Clark Hunt leads, will decide on bringing a selected bidder up for a vote. A candidate needs at least 24 votes from 32 NFL team owners.

The NFL declined to comment.

Russell Wilson #3 of the Seattle Seahawks at the 2019 NFL Pro Bowl
Mark Brown | Getty Images Sport | Getty Images

What's a new owner getting?

A new ownership group could be walking into a playoff contender.

In March, the Broncos traded for Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson. Before that, Denver hired a new head coach in Nathaniel Hackett – the former offensive coordinator for the Green Bay Packers.

On the business front, the Broncos made over $400 million in annual revenue since 2017, according to Forbes. That's mainly due to the NFL's media revenue sharing. The NFL pays teams more than $300 million each, annually, from its national revenue.

And that figure should increase as the NFL agreed to a new $100 billion media rights deal in March 2021. Its Sunday Ticket media rights are on the market for more than $2 billion annually, and the NFL increased annual sponsorship money to $2 billion.

The new Broncos owner will need to invest in the team's playing site, though.

Empower Field at Mile High was built in 2001, cost $400 million, and holds around 76,000 people for NFL games. Ganis said the complex could use "significant upgrades" as it's not up to date when compared to with newer NFL stadiums.