Sunday October 1, 2023

The New Billionaire’s Club: Incoming Owners Helping Reshape NFL

  • Josh Harris’ record purchase of the Commanders is bringing new hope to Washington.
  • The Denver Broncos are looking to regain prominence under the Walton-Penner group.
Brent Skeen-USA TODAY Sports
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The Sunday afternoon slate of NFL Week 2 games will conclude with a seemingly inconsequential matchup between the Washington Commanders and Denver Broncos — but both franchises have provided plenty of real drama off the field.

Neither team is projected to have a winning record in 2023 by most sportsbooks, but fans of both franchises have renewed hope this fall thanks to new ownership and promises of returns to past glory — and the big business that inevitably accompanies it.

Josh Harris and Rob Walton are the newest members of the NFL’s 32-person billionaires club with their record-setting team purchases over the past 15 months. 

Last summer, the Walton-Penner family group paid $4.65 billion for the Broncos, at the time the most ever for a North American sports team — before Harris’ group shattered that record with the $6.05 billion purchase of the Commanders this past offseason.

While both teams would love to make a surprise playoff appearance this year, the long-term goals are clearly focused on using their new owners’ fortunes to regain NFL prominence and take full advantage of their key markets.

Winning In Washington

Most Commanders supporters will likely tell you they’re simply happy to have a team owner not named Dan Snyder.

“There is a new energy,” Amazon NFL analyst Ryan Fitzpatrick, who spent the final season of his 17-year career in Washington, D.C., told Front Office Sports.

The optimism was evident during the Commanders’ home opener last week against the Arizona Cardinals as a sellout crowd at FedExField witnessed the first regular-season win of the Harris era. Former Washington stars Champ Bailey, Robert Griffin III, and Joe Theismann were in attendance, as well as NBA stars Joel Embiid — who plays for Harris’ Philadelphia 76ers — and D.C. native Kevin Durant.

Coming into this season, total ticket sales were already up 52% from 2022, and the team brought on the kind of new sponsors that were lacking under Snyder.

Looking ahead, Harris projects to increase local revenue from $173 million last season to $359 million by the end of the decade, according to a prospectus obtained by FOS that Harris shared with investors. Once a new stadium is built, Harris projects nearly $500 million in annual local revenue — with a goal of being a top-five-producing NFL club.

When it comes to running an organization, private equity types like Harris are very analytical and data-based, according to Mark Skertic, managing director at K2 Integrity, a global risk advisory firm that works with PE firms and sports leagues.

While that may not trickle down to player development, Skertic suspects Harris’ ownership group will make their imprint on the Commanders’ front office. “They’re gonna have an impact on how that works,” he told FOS.

The Commanders’ other big step is figuring out a long-term stadium plan. With Harris now at the helm, officials in D.C., Virginia, and Maryland all want to lure the Commanders with a new stadium. “We’re very early, very early,” Harris told FOS. “We’re beginning to create a real estate organization and just beginning to think about it. I think we made a lot of progress.”

The well-documented dire state of FedEx Field has hurt the team’s fortunes off the field — the nation’s capital won’t host a FIFA World Cup match in 2026 due to the stadium’s condition, and it’s one of seven NFL stadiums not yet included in Taylor Swift’s blockbuster Eras Tour.

Mile High Confidence

The Broncos come into the Commanders matchup looking for their first win under prized head coach Sean Payton — who could could earn $100 million over the next five years as the new Broncos ownership group spares no expense in its quest for NFL supremacy. 

Walton has a net worth north of $70 billion — by far the highest in the NFL.

Last season, with the Broncos out of playoff contention, ownership paid $400,000 to replace the field at Mile High for the final game of the season. This offseason, the Broncos completed $100 million worth of renovations to their stadium — including a 72-foot-tall, 225-foot-wide video board above the south end zone. 

But while money can buy a Super Bowl-winning coach and the latest venue upgrades, it won’t be of much assistance for tricky situations in the salary-capped NFL — like getting out of quarterback Russell Wilson’s contract if he continues to struggle again this season. If the Broncos decide to move on, the contract would still include a dead cap hit of $85 million after the 2023 season, according to Spotrac.

For now, the Payton era will be the defining factor of Walton’s early tenure owning the Broncos, no matter the cost.

The New-Age NFL

The entry of Harris, who comes from a background in private equity, and Walton, an heir to the Walmart family fortune, has fundamentally raised the profile and clout of NFL owners.

“There aren’t too many individuals that can afford $4 (billion) to $6 billion franchises,” Michael Goldberg, a sports financing specialist for financial services company DBRS Morningstar, told FOS.

That has inevitably led to more big-money owners coming into the league, like David Tepper, who surpassed a net worth of more than $11 billion through his career as a hedge fund manager before purchasing the Carolina Panthers for $2.25 billion in 2018.

Just this week, the NFL created a new committee that will study “all aspects of ownership policy,” including rules related to liquidity requirements for purchasing teams and opening up investments currently limited to individuals. That means private equity firms and other investment funds could one day buy stakes in teams, as in other pro leagues.

But even with the new blood, Goldberg doesn’t think fans should be worried about the motives of the wealthy individuals running their teams, citing the new owners’ desire to increase their team’s value by building a winner “rather than just buying the franchise to make an investment return.”

Harris and the Walton group both outwardly appear to be invested in their new franchises for the long haul — “the deal was hard” to complete, Harris told FOS. Now, the harder work is underway for both teams in the most popular league in North America — and on Sunday, one will take a small step forward toward redemption.

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