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Walmart heir Rob Walton agrees to buy Denver Broncos for record $4.65 billion

The former and current Walmart chairmen will run the Denver Broncos as a family business.
Credit: AP Photo/David Zalubowski
Denver Broncos fans cheer as the AFC championship NFL football playoff game between the Broncos and the New England Patriots was about to start, Jan. 19, 2014, in Denver.

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — The Denver Broncos have entered into a sales agreement with Rob Walton, his daughter Carrie Walton-Penner and his son-in-law Greg Penner to make the Walmart family heirs the team's next owners.

A source tells 9NEWS the sales price went for a U.S.-sports-franchise-record $4.65 billion.

The previous sports franchise sales price record was $2.275 billion set in 2018 when David Tepper bought the Carolina Panthers.

Four years later, the Broncos more than doubled the previous sports record.

To win the Broncos' bid, the Walton-Penner group beat three other bidding groups that were led by Josh Harris, Jose E. Feliciano and Mat Ishbia. According to a source, the four bids came in between $4.35 billion and $4.55 billion with the Walton-Penner group at or near the high end.

However, a big factor in the Pat Bowlen estate trustees and their sales representatives picking the winner is the Walton group didn't need any partners to get to the $4.5 billion target area -- although there will be limited partners to better diversify their group. The other three bidders needed multiple investors to help them stretch to the $4.5 billion area.

When the Waltons agreed to bump their bid to $4.65 billion, the deal was made -- roughly 30 hours after the final bids were presented at 3 p.m. Monday.

“It was an honor to be part of the process,'' Ishbia told 9News on Wednesday morning. "The Broncos are a first-class organization from all the leaders of the organization I met to the people who ran the sale process to how they go about their business. I worked hard on this and was excited to be a part of it but Rob Walton and his family will do an outstanding job and I wish nothing but the best for them and the Denver Broncos.”

Rob Walton, who will turn 78 in October, will be the Broncos' controlling owner which means he is in for at least $1.395 billion for the NFL's minimum requirement 30 percent of the sales price at transaction.

Credit: AP Photo/Danny Johnston
Rob Walton speaks at the Walmart shareholders meeting in Fayetteville, Ark., June 5, 2015.

His son-in-law Greg Penner and daughter Carrie Walton-Penner are expected to be the top two day-to-day Broncos bosses. Greg and Carrie met while undergraduates at Georgetown University and they both received their Master's degrees at Stanford in the late-1990s.

While they once called Atherton, Calif. home, they are officially residences of Colorado with two homes in the state. And the plan is to live in the state going forward. There will be three generations of Waltons with an equity stake in the Broncos so this will be a Walton family-run business. 

“I have enjoyed getting to know Rob Walton, Carrie Walton Penner and Greg Penner throughout this process,'' Broncos CEO and president Joe Ellis said in a statement. "Learning more about their background and vision for the Denver Broncos, I am confident that their leadership and support will help this team achieve great things on and off the field.

“I sincerely appreciate the cooperation of our football leadership, executive team and staffs at both UCHealth Training Center and Empower Field at Mile High over the last few months and years. We also want to recognize the work of Allen & Company and Proskauer Rose, which have guided us through this process in a timely and efficient manner.

“While this purchase and sale agreement is pending approval from the NFL’s finance committee and league ownership, today marks a significant step on the path to an exciting new chapter in Broncos history.”

As Ellis stated, the sales agreement between Walton-Penner and the Broncos will now go to the NFL finance committee for review and expected approval. A special league meeting of owners is expected to be called in the next six weeks to two months. At that league meeting, 24 of 32 owners must give their consent for the Walton-Penner group to take control of the owners. One vote should come from Stan Kroenke, owner of the Los Angeles Rams, whose wife Ann is Rob Walton's cousin.

Also joining the Walton group is Mellody Hobson, who has an extensive experience as a corporate executive. She was one of only four investors listed in the winning bid, along with Rob Walton and the Penners.

Rob Walton and Greg Penner said in a joint statement: “We are thrilled to be selected to move forward with the purchase of the Denver Broncos! Carrie, Greg and I are inspired by the opportunity to steward this great organization in a vibrant community full of opportunity and passionate fans.

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

“We are excited to announce that Mellody Hobson, Co-CEO of Ariel Investments, has agreed to join our ownership group. Beyond her role at Ariel, Mellody is an influential leader in corporate and civic organizations across the nation.

“Mellody currently serves as Chair of the Board of Starbucks Corporation and is also a director of JPMorgan Chase. We know she will bring her strategic acumen and leadership perspective to our team.

“Thank you to Joe Ellis and the staff of the Broncos for the first-class manner in which they have conducted this sale process. In addition, we thank Hogan Lovells for their guidance and support in this effort.

Denver Broncos purchase won't come with tax bill for new owner

“We look forward to earning the confidence and support of the NFL as we take the next step in this process. When the necessary approval procedures are met, our family is excited to share more wi th Broncos fans, the organization and the community.”

So who gets the $4.65 billion before taxes and fees? John Bowlen, brother of the late owner Pat Bowlen, will receive 22 percent, or $1.023 billion. Pat's seven children from two marriages will split the other 78 percent, or 11.14 percent each. That leaves $518,010,000 for each child.

Save Money. Live Better. That's the motto of the Walmart discount franchise that has made members of the Walmart family billionaires many times over. And, if necessary, put up $4.65 billion to buy the Denver Broncos.

Rob Walton is the oldest son of the late Sam Walton, who founded the Walmart discount retail stores. Walmart’s slogan changed from “Always Low Prices. Always,” to “Save Money. Live Better,” in 2007.

To some extent, Rob Walton veered from his longtime company’s slogan to spend big on the Broncos.

>>Video below: Klis & Tell: Broncos announce sales agreement with Walton-Penner group

When Sam Walton died of cancer in 1992, his oldest son Rob took over as Walmart’s chairman and remained in the top post until 2015, when his son-in-law Greg Penner became Walmart’s chairman. Penner has long been married to his college sweetheart Carrie Walton, Rob’s daughter.

Rob Walton, 77, is also the uncle of Ann Walton, who married Stan Kroenke in 1974.

Kroenke currently owns the defending Super Bowl champion Los Angeles Rams, and with his son Josh Kroenke also owns the NHL Colorado Avalanche, the NBA Denver Nuggets and the Ball Arena where the Avs and Nuggets play their home games, and the Colorado Rapids.

To become familiar with Rob Walton’s background is to get a better understanding of why he would consider his going on the 78th year of life as good a time as any to take on a new venture of NFL ownership. This is a highly-educated Walton descendent, a lawyer who pilots his own private plane, hunts geese in Canada and pheasants in South Dakota, who once raced vintage sports cars. He is a former high school all-state and small-college football player who once called Colorado his permanent home.

He is a meticulous notetaker – Peyton Manning’s kind of guy – is said to have a photographic memory and, in keeping with the role often bestowed upon the oldest sibling, the point person in keeping communication open with his family and ginormous family business.

There is all that, and there is his attitude.

“I learned from my dad, change and experimentation are constants and important,’’ Rob Walton said in a superb Walton profile piece written by Andy Serwer for Fortune magazine in 2004. “You have to keep trying new things.”

One of the surest techniques in discovering what makes a person tick or unique is to ask about the parents. In Robson Walton’s case, the answer can fill 368 pages – which is what Sam Walton used to describe his life and Walmart success in his autobiography, “Sam Walton: Made in America.” Rob and his three siblings – John (who died in an ultralight aircraft crash in 2005), Jim and Alice – worked harder than most kids while growing up in Bentonville, Ark. They weren’t poor by any means but great wealth didn’t come until much later – dad's first Walmart store didn’t open until 1962, the year Rob turned 18.

In his autobiography, Sam told the story how he lost his first successful Ben Franklin variety store because of fine print in his lease arrangement. Sam said it was that point that he first encouraged 6-year-old Rob to become a lawyer. 

He did, but first Rob played football for College of Wooster in Ohio before transferring to the University of Arkansas, where he graduated in 1966 with an accounting degree. He then attended Columbia Law School in New York and after earning his Doctor of Jurisprudence started his professional career with a law firm in Tulsa, Okla., his birth home. When Rob was 26, his dad lured him back to his hometown of Bentonville, Ark., and the family Walmart business, where his legal expertise was used in consolodiating debt, taking dad's retail discount store business public and ever-expanding real-estate deals.

There was the one-year sabbatical for Ironman training in 1985. When Sam Walton died in 1992, Rob became Walmart’s chairman, a position he held for 23 years. As company chairman, he dealt with very public accusations that Walmart discriminates, is anti-union and pays insufficient wages. If the experience thickened his skin, he will need it if he becomes the new owner of the Broncos where every loss has blame directed somewhere, and the top is often the first target.

In 2015, when he was 71, Robson's Walmart chairman position was transferred to his son-in-law Penner. Like his father-in-law, Penner is also a noted triathlon athlete.

Kroenke was already a highly successful real estate developer when he married Ann Walton in 1974. He owned the NBA Nuggets, NHL Avalanche and MLS Rapids until his purchase of the NFL Rams forced him to turn over controlling ownership of the Nuggets, Avs and Rapids to his son Josh.

There are several Walton grandchildren living in Colorado and the Denver area. Per Walmart’s financial report from Oct. 31, there were 105 retail stores in Colorado – 70 supercenters, 4 discount stores, 14 neighborhood markets and 17 Sam’s Clubs -- that employed more than 31,000 workers. Including players and coaches, the Denver Broncos have about 375 employees.

Rob Walton’s net worth has been listed in the $60 billion to $70 billion range, depending on the financial media outlet. 

The Walton-Penner group has spoke to Peyton Manning about bringing in the former Broncos quarterback as either a minority investor or advisor, or possibly both.

Thus concludes the most remarkable offseason in Broncos' history. It started with the firing of head coach Vic Fangio and replacing him with Nathaniel Hackett, who was chosen following an exhaustive search that included 9 other candidates.

Then came the bombshell mega trade that brought star quarterback Russell Wilson from Seattle to Denver.

And now, the Broncos for the first time since early 1984 will have an owner that won't be named Pat Bowlen. Rob Walton has embarked on one more big adventure in his life.

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