Rob Walton recently made a purchase, a splurge meant to facilitate a long-pursued interest.
He bought an electric bike.
Most Saturdays Walton takes a 75-mile ride. He’s one of several members of the Walton family who love cycling, and his e-bike purchase indicates that even at 77, he’s still looking to be in on the action. Now he’ll be able to keep up his weekly routine at a smoother pace.
His next (likely) purchase should get more attention.
The Denver Broncos have been touted as one of the most popular NFL franchises to hit the market in years, and the team’s Mountain West location is one of the reasons it’s expected to sell for roughly $4 billion, making it the most expensive sale in U.S. sports history. As valuations rise, a small number of billionaires can afford to buy such assets, and one of the names that has emerged in recent months is Walton’s. Walton and the family foundation declined to comment for this story, but Sportico spoke with insiders and bankers about the man who may well be on the verge of NFL ownership.
Statistically speaking, almost half of the U.S. population has shopped at Walmart—the world’s largest company by revenue, per the most recent annual Fortune 500 rankings—which was founded by Walton’s father, Sam, who passed in 1992. The Waltons own roughly 50% of Walmart stock, making them the nation’s wealthiest family with a collective fortune worth more than $200 billion, according to Forbes.
Walton, who is believed to own more than a 10% stake in the company, has previously stated that he isn’t like his father, personally or professionally; Walton is more adept at legal and accounting practices than in the retailing business. He was a partner at Tulsa law firm Conner and Winters in the 1960s before he joined Walmart, where his law background came in handy as he helped with the legal side of Walmart’s initial public offering in October of 1970.
The oldest son, Rob, took over as the company’s chairman after his father’s death but has remained relatively unknown despite his enormous wealth, estimated at north of $60 billion. That’s in keeping with the Walton approach, as the family tries to remain behind the scenes, rarely seeking fanfare for its achievements, which is a nod to Sam and his roots in small-town Arkansas.
Walton has been one of the richest people on the planet for most of his adult life and owns sprawling homes, lavish automobiles, expensive artwork—whatever money can buy. He retired in 2015, and before or since never showed interest in bidding on other NFL teams that hit the market. So why would he get involved with the NFL now?
Perhaps he’s intrigued by the cache of NFL success, which isn’t attainable through a checkbook. Maybe he wants a legacy that he can one day bequeath control of to his family members.
Apollo Global Management co-founder Josh Harris (who owns the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils) and Todd Boehly (who recently acquired Chelsea F.C.) are among those also bidding for the Broncos. But the franchise seems to be Walton’s to lose, thanks to his deep pockets, with some sports bankers saying that they would be hesitant to work on the sale for opposing bidders since he can easily outbid everyone else.
It’s reminiscent of the bidding process for the New York Mets, which were bought by hedge fund manager Steve Cohen, the now-richest owner in baseball, who was adamant about owning his childhood team.
Walton had a home in Aspen for years, although it’s not clear if he still does, and other Walton family members have recently purchased property in Colorado, perhaps in anticipation of the sale. A Walton ownership group might have other ties to the team, as there’s been plenty of chatter about whether the eventual buyers will include John Elway or Peyton Manning, both Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks with the Broncos, as part of the ownership group.
The Waltons themselves are more known for their involvement in northwest Arkansas, near Bentonville, where Walmart and Arvest Bank (owned by the Walton family) are based. The family has donated millions to the University of Arkansas’ athletics program, and the school’s 19,000-seat basketball arena is named after the late Bud Walton (brother of Sam Walton). The family also has played a major role in the local cycling scene, helping to turn the northwest area into a destination for mountain biking, with Walmart as lead sponsor for the UCI Cyclocross World Championships.
If Walton did buy the Broncos, he would instantly be associated with Colorado and become a more prominent figure in the media. It wouldn’t be the first time a billionaire significantly raised his profile after acquiring an NFL team. One is Flex-N-Gate founder Shad Khan, the owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, who had previous deep business relationships with Detroit Lions owner Bill Ford Jr.
Walton’s one known connection to the collective group of NFL owners is through his cousin, Ann, who’s married to Los Angeles Rams owner Stan Kroenke (also the owner of the NBA’s Denver Nuggets, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and the MLS’s Colorado Rapids).
One consideration during the Broncos’ sale process will the ownership succession plan, given the team is on the market after years of legal battles within the trust of the late Pat Bowlen. This shouldn’t be a problem for the Walton family. Walton’s son-in-law, Greg Penner, is expected to have a significant role in the Walton ownership group, if it indeed acquires the team. Penner, who replaced Walton as Walmart chairman in 2015, also serves as general partner and founder of the investment firm Madrone Capital Partners, which is also affiliated with the Walton family.
The Broncos’ sale process is expected to be complete before the start of the 2022 regular season, and Walton remains the favorite in that race. If anyone closes in, he has the means to boost his pedal power and he knows how to go the distance.