Jobs are won and lost on a regular basis in the NFL, and it's commonplace to see turnover within a team. What is uncommon is what the Denver Broncos did recently: replacing the people holding arguably the most important and impactful titles in all of professional football -- owner, general manager, head coach and quarterback -- in a relatively short amount of time.
Now, one of the most storied franchises in the history of the NFL is heading into the 2022 season as, essentially, a brand-new organization.
The sale of the Denver Broncos from the Pat Bowlen Trust to the Walton-Penner family ownership group became official after a unanimous vote by NFL owners on Tuesday in a special league meeting in Minneapolis.
The Walton-Penner group secured the team when it went to auction with a $4.65 billion offer in June -- that's more than double the purchase price of the Carolina Panthers ($2.275 billion) when David Tepper bought that team in 2018.
"We are grateful for the support and trust of the National Football League and the 31 other teams with today's vote. We couldn't be more excited to join the Denver Broncos," Rob Walton said in a statement Tuesday on behalf of the Walton-Penner family ownership group. "It's a responsibility and privilege to serve as stewards of such an iconic franchise. We have tremendous respect for what Pat Bowlen has meant to the Broncos and look forward to building on this organization's championship legacy."
At a press conference after the owners' vote on Tuesday, Walton, joined by his daughter, Carrie Walton Penner, and son-in-law, Greg Penner, noted that the Broncos were the one sports franchise they were interested in purchasing -- and that their interest in buying the team dates back 10 years.
The new ownership group -- described to me by a source familiar with the sales process as extremely detail-oriented in every aspect of what they do -- extends beyond the Walton family, listed by Forbes in December of 2020 as the wealthiest in America. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, chairwoman of Starbucks and co-CEO of Ariel Investments Mellody Hobson and seven-time Formula One champion Sir Lewis Hamilton all will bring unique perspectives to the group.
Hobson's inclusion in the group when the sale was first announced was notable because she is, as The Athletic reported at the time, "believed to be the first Black woman to be publicly identified as part of an original ownership group purchasing an NFL team." (Rice and Hamilton, who are also Black, were announced as being part of the group later.)
"What a tremendous accomplishment and what a gift to be able to do what she's going to do," said Broncos quarterback Russell Wilson, who is Black, of Hobson in June, before Rice and Lewis were announced as being part of the ownership group. "She's the first Black woman to do this. This is a big deal. This is history. I think it's gone over people's heads a little bit. It's news. It's a tremendous representation for minorities, but Blacks in particular. I think the growth within the NFL and what they are trying to do -- the Waltons, too."
And now this new ownership group will oversee an organization that was largely revamped before the sale. In January of 2021, the Broncos hired a first-time general manager in George Paton. Then, in a two-month span this offseason, Denver hired an innovative and energetic rookie head coach in Nathaniel Hackett and traded for Wilson, a star quarterback.
Every year, the Denver Broncos hold an annual Media BBQ the day before the start of training camp, to kick off each season and mark a new beginning, so to speak. That was perhaps more true this year than ever before.
As former All-Pro safety Justin Simmons, who has been a part of one winning season in six years with the team, said that late-July afternoon, "It feels like it's all new."
"Obviously, with coach Hackett and new ownership, it's just new," Simmons said of the massive changes at the top of the organization. "There is just so much buzz and excitement -- it's really exciting. I know I have gotten up here every year and talked about how excited I am for the season and how I really feel confident and comfortable with the group that we have going in, but this year is just a little different than years prior. I'm really excited for the year."
Simmons isn't alone in his excitement. Broncos fans have been itching for the team to become a regular playoff presence again coming off five straight losing seasons. That's the same number of losing seasons the team had total under the late Pat Bowlen and his trust between 1984 and 2015.
Paton, who replaced Broncos legend John Elway as the team's highest-level personnel executive, has shown the ability to quickly infuse talent on this roster. Hackett, known for his energy and offensive mind, helped Aaron Rodgers win back-to-back MVPs in Green Bay, which brings a lot of optimism. But the real shiny new piece is the signal-caller. The Broncos are known for having Hall of Fame quarterback play. Before being enshrined in Canton, Elway and Peyton Manning both brought championships to Denver.
So, when the Wilson trade went down, presumably ending the madness of Denver's recent quarterback shuffle (11 different quarterbacks have started for Denver since Manning's retirement in 2015), there were staff members that literally went jumping down the halls of the team's headquarters in Englewood, per a team source. Paton and Hackett might be the ones that deserve the credit for getting Wilson to Denver, but it's Wilson himself who has instantly changed the culture.
"Obviously, we had a big trade, and it was game-changing," Paton said of acquiring Wilson. "It was game-changing for our locker room, the day-to-day, and for our football team. Everything [QB Russell Wilson] brings here. We know what type of player he is."
If you're keeping score at home, the Broncos now have a GM known to wear out film into the wee hours of the night, a head coach with an ability to connect with players on a deep level and a quarterback that, before he himself likely lands in Canton, has suggested he expects to play 12 years in orange and blue. All three of these new pieces look like they could be locked in for some time under a new regime that is expected to steady a franchise that has been though eight years of ownership uncertainty.
Spending the first week of training camp with the Broncos at their facility, you could certainly feel that something was different. Change is often accompanied by an uneasy feeling about what's to come. And obviously there is a little bit of that. But also, there is a sense that a weight has been lifted off of everyone's collective shoulders within the organization.
The Broncos have been operating without an actual owner since Bowlen stepped down in July of 2014 due to his battle with Alzheimer's. (Bowlen passed away in 2019, the same year he was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.) The team was placed in the hands of a trust that has been under the operation of CEO and President Joe Ellis, counsel Rich Slivka and attorney Mary Kelly, with Ellis running the day-to-day operation of the team for the last eight years. The Broncos announced after the owners' vote on Tuesday that Ellis is stepping down from his position but has agreed to serve as an advisor to ownership for the 2022 season.
Ellis, as well as many others within the organization, deserve credit for guiding the organization under challenging circumstances, per league sources. Behind the scenes, Ellis and the trust labored to fulfill Bowlen's wishes to identify which of his children could serve as his successor by fulfilling the criteria the late owner laid out. Tension and very public lawsuits, including several between the Bowlen children, persisted. Brittany Bowlen was ultimately determined to be the only viable candidate to eventually run the team, but it became clear that a unanimous agreement among the siblings on her appointment was never going to happen.
The Broncos were officially put up for sale on Feb. 1, and numerous highly qualified suitors immediately became interested in buying the franchise. Bowlen did a remarkable job constructing the Broncos' brand on and off the field. He built a franchise that was known for winning, compiling seven Super Bowl appearances and three titles, an organization acknowledged for its work in the community and a mentality that he would do anything for his players if it helped them gain a competitive edge toward winning. Bowlen was rare in how he interacted with players, often times working out alongside them at the facility. Those relationships were important to Bowlen. They're important to Wilson, as well.
"Being able to talk to Mr. Walton himself and being able to talk to Greg and Carrie, it's an honor to be able to do that in the first place," Wilson said. "In today's age of football, that relationship between players and owners is so critical because we're playing for ourselves and our families, but we're also playing for them, too. We're playing for this whole city. To be able to have that bond and that kind of relationship -- you notice it a lot in basketball, particularly, with some of the ownership groups. There are some in football, too. That's been important."
The Walton-Penner group is taking over an organization with a region of the country to essentially call its own. Even with the recent struggles on the field, the Broncos own the NFL record sellout streak for a single city and have a season ticket waiting list that is larger than their stadium's capacity.
Greg Penner will be running the day-to-day operations of the franchise, according to a league source, but it is clear that there was a collective ideology on who they wanted to be a part of this group. A source familiar with the sales process told me it was put together with the thought of including individuals that have had a mentality focused on winning and success in everything they've done. Also, there was a desire to create a group of people with different experiences and backgrounds to bring differing opinions on issues.
"Not just myself and coach Hackett, but the entire organization is really excited for the ownership group," Paton said recently. "It's a dynamic ownership group. [They're] accomplished -- incredibly accomplished, intelligent, and thoughtful leadership. They're going to help with the culture here, and we just can't wait to get them here. I've had a few conversations with them, and one thing I know is they're all about winning. They want to win the right way. They're going to set a winning culture, and they will set the tone. They will add to what we've already started."
Denver heads into the 2022 season with a quarterback and an ownership group tied to one another for the foreseeable future. The possibility of building a new stadium in Denver will be something the new ownership group assesses in depth, per a league source. Wilson has had numerous conversations with the new ownership group, including talks about long-term plans within the organization.
"We've had some really good bonding moments just about life and success and visions and all the things that they wanted to do and how they wanted to impact the Broncos," Wilson said. "They're really, really about community which I'm super about. This team is ESPN Sports Humanitarian Team of the Year. This team is all about it. For them to come in and be about that too, that's exciting. But also, it's about winning. It's about being successful and giving us all the resources we need to make sure that we're successful and do whatever we need to do and just be great."
Right now, everyone looks like they are filling their new roles exactly as expected. But what's next for the organization hasn't been determined. How could it? It's all just so new.
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