If you were hoping the NFL would stick to its promise of trying to bolster diversity in its ownership group, I’ve got some bad news. The winning bid for the Denver Broncos was placed by Rob Walton, the oldest of the Walton children and part of the Walmart dynasty.
The $4.5 billion bid is almost guaranteed to be accepted by the league, signed off on by owners, and ensures another old, white, male billionaire joins the ranks of team ownership. The undercurrent of this, outside of the NFL, is that the Walton family now has an almost unparalleled stranglehold on Denver sports. While it’s not uncommon for one owner to have several teams in the same market, it is wholly bizarre to have a family dominate like the Waltons have in Colorado.
Stan Kroenke married into the family through Ann Walton and built a sports empire fueled by Walton money. Rob is a direct heir to the family fortune himself. Between the three of them the Waltons and Kroenkes are set to control almost everything in the state of Colorado when it comes to pro sports.
Should the sale of the Broncos to Rob be finalized here is what the professional sports landscape in the state now looks like:
- Colorado Avalanche (NHL): Owned by Ann Walton Kroenke
- Denver Broncos (NFL): Owned by Rob Walton
- Colorado Mammoth (NLL): Owned by Stan Kroenke
- Denver Nuggets (NBA): Owned by Ann Walton Kroenke
- Colorado Rapids (MLS): Owned by Stan Kroenke
One family, five teams. The only remaining pro sports franchise in the state not owned by part of the Walton family are the Colorado Rockies, but don’t worry — there’s speculation there too. As recently as 2021 the Denver Post floated the idea of the Rockies being sold, and on the list of potential owners is … you guessed it, Stan Kroenke.
Across the state’s sporting landscape nobody thought to have a chat and say “maybe it’s not great to give one family this much power in a major market?” That’s before we get to how weird it is to have Rob Walton own the Broncos while his cousin’s husband owns the Rams. The truth is that nobody cares. Sports teams being sold are billionaires trading chips to other billionaires so they can take their money and do other billionaire things.
The real question is why nobody across the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS and MLL thought to protect fans from a scenario where the Walton family could choose to drastically raise ticket prices, or leverage their hold on sports in the area to damage fans — and there wouldn’t be any reasonable competition in the market. No alternative to promote competition. And before you think this would never happen, consider the shared DNA of the people involved here.
It’s important to discuss this, because fans deserve to know who their owners are and understand their motivations. We deify billionaires as capitalist geniuses in America without caring about the ethics at play.
When I was first trying to become a writer, typing away on nights and weekends, my day job was working for a mid-level apparel company. Our primary seller: socks. My role was a business-to-business (B2B) account specialist, dealing with smaller regional department stores and mom-and-pop shoe stores. A huge part of my job was delivering bad news, and it was largely because of Walmart.
I remember one of our most popular sellers at the time was white athletic ankle socks that sold in a six pack. These would cost the company roughly $2.49 a unit, landed from China. That’s the total cost to us, including freight. We’d sell to a small retailer for $3.69, with a MSRP of $5.99. As you can guess, Walmart paid less for these socks — volume does that in all business. Walmart got the same pack for $2.99 from us. That volume comes with a cost: The business relationship is completely one-sided.
The buyer from Walmart told the account specialist who handled them that that they wouldn’t pay $2.99 anymore for the socks. In addition, they wanted our company to make a seven pair band for them. Where they went from paying $2.99 for six pairs, now they wanted to pay $2.74 for sevens pairs. I don’t know the exact figure, but I was told that even at scale it would mean clearing about a nickel on every band sold to Walmart. Obviously that’s a ludicrously small margin no business should ever agree to, but in the world of apparel you couldn’t make Walmart mad. The risk of getting pulled was too great, even at five cents profit a unit. Getting back in to Walmart after being pulled was near-impossible, and the company was convinced that having the product in their stores was a mindshare win to boost marketing.
Layoffs happened because of this move. In an effort to stop the bleeding we had to make up the colossal shortfall somewhere. It’s here I enter the fray again. I was instructed to call all my clients and tell them costs were rising on everything — as much as 30 percent in some cases. They were to pay for Walmart’s greed.
I was explicitly told not to mention Walmart, to play dumb if anyone asked about their cost, and should anyone push for an explanation, tell them “cost of manufacturing had increased,” which I knew was a lie. The larger stores were fine with it. They were accustomed to price movement and didn’t really care. To the small shoe stores this was a big deal. Socks had a great profit margin for them and didn’t go out of style and create dead stock like shoes did, so they were extremely upset.
After a week of making these calls I was reprimanded for not towing the company line. I refused to lie to the small stores that pressed me and came up with my own answer to skirt around the issue “business conditions have changed.” Two weeks later the company generated an excuse to fire me, saying my “focus was divided” and that “I seemed distracted” because I shared with my manager months earlier that I was a sports blogger on nights and weekends. I later found out it’s because a few of my clients intuited correctly about my “business conditions have changed” line and asked why Walmart was able to charge the same cost for their seven pair pack that they did with six pairs if cost of goods were increasing. There was no answer.
So, just as Walmart was able to push around a multi-million apparel company and screw over the little guy by proxy, so too is the family behind this corporation now in charge of sports in Denver. I’m not saying the same practices will take place in Denver, and honestly I don’t know what the Walton and Kroenke link to the company is these days anyway — but the opportunity is there. We deserve to know the business practices of those who buy our teams, and who wield this much power.
There is absolutely nothing good that can come from having every single team in a city owned by one family. Consolidation like this only ends up hurting the little guy, and in this relationship, the fans are the little guy.