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Broncos Could Make History with NFL’s First Black Owner

  • Billionaire Robert F. Smith could bid on the NFL team if it hits the market.
  • The Denver native ranks among the country’s richest individuals.
Kevin R. Wexler/

If the Denver Broncos hit the open market, the sale of the team could make history beyond its purchase price. The deal could produce the first Black owner in the NFL’s 101-year history.

Billionaire investor Robert F. Smith has emerged as one of the possible bidders for the Broncos, sources told Front Office Sports.

With an estimated net worth of $6.7 billion, the 59-year-old entrepreneur ranks as the richest Black person in America, according to Forbes. The Broncos sale could fetch a record $4 billion or more, which would make it the richest team sale in U.S. sports history.

According to Woody Paige of The Denver Gazette, there are six groups seeking the Broncos, including two with Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks Peyton Manning and John Elway. ​​Brittany Bowlen, one of the daughters of late Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, also is reportedly readying a bid to purchase the team. 

Smith grew up in Denver. He founded Vista Equity Partners in 2000 and still serves as the company’s chairman and CEO. As of September, the private equity firm had $86 billion in assets under management. 

Smith did not return multiple messages seeking comment for this story.

The billionaire businessman and philanthropist doesn’t have the star power of other rumored Broncos bidders, including fellow billionaire and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.

But Smith puts his money where his mouth is. 

He made headlines pledging to pay off the student loan debts of nearly 400 students at Morehouse College during a 2019 commencement address. The promise ended up costing him $34 million. Morehouse co-valedictorian Jarvis Mays compared it to winning the lottery.

But Smith normally avoids the spotlight. His big business credentials would fit well within the closed fraternity of NFL owners, a group the late Art Modell famously described as “32 Republicans who vote socialist.”

Smith has made individual political donations totaling more than $920,000 since 2011, according to the Federal Election Commission’s database. Nearly all the money has gone to Democratic politicians and progressive-leaning political action committees. The largest, $500,000 in 2018, went to the Black Economic Alliance PAC that is currently pushing for the Senate to alter its filibuster rules to pass the Freedom to Vote Act and the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act. 

Outside of Bezos, Smith likely has more cash on hand than Elway, Manning, and Jay-Z, who has privately expressed an interest in owning an NFL team, put together. Smith will need to spend at least $1.2 billion if the team goes for $4 billion since the NFL requires principal owners to put up at least 30% of the purchase price in cash.

And, given his long history of making deals, Smith’s barrier toward coming up with the other billions of dollars needed through an investor group doesn’t seem to be an insurmountable hurdle. 

Smith’s history with federal authorities, however, could become a factor if his potential bid is among the finalists for the Broncos. Smith would need at least 75% (24 of 32) of NFL owners to approve his purchase. 

After a lengthy investigation, Smith entered into a non-prosecution agreement with the Department of Justice in October 2020 that spared him criminal charges over allegations that he did not report $200 million of income to the IRS and used bank accounts in the British Virgin Islands and Switzerland to conceal assets. 

Smith avoided indictment. But as part of the deal, he paid about $56 million in taxes and penalties stemming from his unreported income and $82 million in penalties for the concealment of his wealth in offshore accounts. 

“It is never too late to do the right thing,” David L. Anderson, then the U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of California, said in a statement when the agreement was announced. “It is never too late to tell the truth. Smith committed serious crimes, but he also agreed to cooperate. Smith’s agreement to cooperate has put him on a path away from indictment.”

A court ruling on Jan. 11 cleared the way for the Broncos to be sold after a prolonged legal battle. 

The Denver judge ruled that ROFR Holdings, a company that was part-owned by the estate of former Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser, didn’t have the right of first refusal, something that was part of a deal when Pat Bowlen purchased the team for  $78 million in 1984. 

Kaiser died in 2012 and Pat Bowlen passed in 2019 after a long bout with Alzhiemer’s. The judge ruled that agreement was no longer valid. Bowlen’s heirs also fought for years over who should control the team, which led to a lawsuit that was dismissed last July. 

“While our focus at this time is on our head coaching search, we plan to make an announcement regarding ownership shortly after that hire is completed,” Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis said in a statement last week.

The team could be sold via an auction since it’s controlled through the Patrick D. Bowlen Trust, according to KUSA-TV in Denver. The trustees have a fiduciary duty to take the highest bid possible, although the league’s owners would still need to approve the buyer.

While about 70% of the league’s players are Black, the NFL has faced criticism for years when it comes to the lack of diversity among its coaching and front office ranks.

That scrutiny increased this month after the firings of Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores and Houston Texans head coach David Culley. Mike Tomlin, the longtime head coach of the Pittsburgh Steelers, is currently the only Black coach in the NFL. 

There are currently six Black general managers in the league: Martin Mayhew (Washington), Andrew Berry (Cleveland), Terry Fontenot (Atlanta) Andrew Berry (Cleveland), Brad Holmes (Detroit) and Chris Grier (Miami). 

“The first thing I’ve always said about the lack of diversity is that the pipeline has got to be strong,” Holmes told last June. “So, when there’s a lack of Black GMs, which obviously there are, and obviously the numbers are not nearly good enough, the process isn’t good enough.”

The NFL has expanded the Rooney Rule, started in 2003 that mandated teams interview at least one minority candidate for a head coaching job, to include general manager and coordinator openings. 

While that has provided some opportunities, the racial and ethnic makeup of NFL ownership hasn’t changed. 

While the Broncos are just one of 32 franchises, having the first Black owner would mark a meaningful step for the league.

Jacksonville Jaguars’ owner Shahid Kahn, a Pakistani-American, is the only non-white majority owner currently. Kim Pegula, an Korean-American, is a co-owner of the Buffalo Bills. 

Black Entertainment Television founder Bob Johnson made history as the first Black person to own an NBA team in 2002. Johnson sold his majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets to NBA legend Michael Jordan in 2010.

Smith’s Vista Equity Partners has made 83 acquisitions since its founding, according to Crunchbase. The firm focuses its investments and acquisitions on software, information technology, the cloud and internet security. 

Smith has used a portion of his wealth on social justice causes, including through his Fund II Foundation. According to the charity’s website, the Fund II Foundation has donated almost $250 million to various non-profits, including the The United Negro College Fund, NPower and The Opportunity Network. 

In 2016, Smith donated $20 million to the National Museum of African American History that opened in Washington the same year.