When news broke earlier this week about the sale of the NFL’s Denver Broncos, football fans weren’t surprised by the purchase – but eyebrows were raised over the price.
According to multiple reports, the Walton-Penner Group, led by Walmart heir Rob Walton, is expected pay $4.65 billion for the team – the most expensive sale for a sports organization in North American history.
The Denver Broncos, one of the premier teams in sports, has been owned by Pat Bowlen and his family since 1984, when he purchased them from fellow Canadian Edgar Kaiser, Jr. Mr. Bowlen, who passed away in 2019 of Alzheimer’s Disease at the age of 75, paid a mere $78 million for the storied franchise.
Professional sports have long been big business, and lately, an extremely lucrative one. Up until 2022, the most anyone or group had ever paid for a team was $2.4 billion for baseball’s New York Mets in 2019.
The pending union of Walmart’s Rob Walton and the Denver Broncos is a transaction undeniably motivated by good business, and perhaps even the fulfillment of a boyhood dream. It’s not unusual for fans to fantasize what it would be like to run and manage a professional sports team.
But what’s interesting is the religious road to the riches that’s making this move even possible. Neither Walton nor the Bowlen family are attempting to pose or assume a posture of religiosity for this deal. But if you dig a little deeper, you’ll soon discover it’s their family’s faith that’s brought them this far.
As most people know, Walmart was born Arkansas. Owner Sam Walton opened his first store in the town of Rogers in 1962. With a mission to “Help people save money so they could live better,” the company grew quickly, soon expanding throughout the United States. They now operate over 11,500 stores in 28 countries and host 260 million shoppers each week.
Sam Walton and wife, Helen, were longtime active members of First Presbyterian Church in Bentonville, Ark., where Sam taught Sunday School. Sam regularly recruited Christians to come work for his rising company both in the stores and in the corporate offices, often mining colleges like John Brown University. In an article in The New York Times Book Review written by Robert Frank, we learn:
At the heart of that strategy was the company’s emphasis on the Christian concept of “servant leadership.” In other parts of the retail sector, the servitude demanded of retail clerks was typically experienced as demeaning. But by repeatedly reminding employees that the Christian servant leader cherishes opportunities to provide cheerful service to others, Moreton argues, Wal-Mart transformed servitude from a negative job characteristic into a positive one.
In other words, Sam Walton recognized that Christians made for not only good citizens, but also excellent workers.
Jump ahead to the mid 1980s and you’ll find Broncos’ owner Edgar Kaiser Jr. in church, where he just happens to meet Pat Bowlen, the team’s future owner. Few knew that Kaiser was considering selling his majority ownership, partially motivated by a developing family dynamic.
“This is something that came up only in the last few months in conversations with my wife, Judy,” Kaiser told reporters. ”We came to the conclusion that at this time, our family was a greater priority and we wanted to spend more time at home.”
Kaiser’s prayers were answered, though he did work his way through a series of busines successes and failures, including a French-fry vending machine venture that ended in bankruptcy. He died in 2012 at the age of 69.
Denver Bronco fans came to appreciate and love Pat Bowlen, whose colorful antics (he liked to wear fur coats on the sidelines and once bragged about purchasing a chandelier owned by Mussolini) endeared him to the Mile High City fans. Three Super Bowl titles didn’t hurt either.
But now a little over 38 years later, a family whose fortune was built by a team of hardworking Christians is poised to buy a team from a family whose late patriarch first met his new team’s previous owner in church one Sunday.
As Christians, we don’t believe in luck – we acknowledge God’s sovereignty. But even as the world grows increasingly secular and woke (Walmart, included), it’s interesting to consider that Christianity and Christians have changed the world in ways big and small – even the future of a famous family and a football team in Denver.
Photo from SBNation.com