Was the fantasy of significant Black ownership in the NFL extinguished this morning? That depends on which reporting is accurate.
Forbes reported early Monday that a sale of the Denver Broncos franchise to billionaire Walmart heir was all but a done deal, at a price tag of $4.5 billion. That would value the team at the highest number ever paid not just in the NFL, but for any team in the history of American sports.
But not so fast. The Athletic later reported that a source said four competing groups are still in the running and are expected to submit a second round of bids for the team later today. If you’ve been in the housing market lately, think of it as a bidding war for the only house available in an already expensive neighborhood, with the owners calling for “highest and best” offers.
Why’s that matter? Because the NFL—currently being sued over allegations of racism in how it hires head coaches and constantly criticized for a lack of diversity in teams’ front offices—had recently indicated that it wanted to see nonwhite equity participation in bids for teams when they went up for sale. At its owners meetings back in March, the league issued a vague statement that said that when teams are sold in the future, “The membership will regard it as a positive and meaningful factor if the group includes diverse individuals who would have a significant equity stake in and involvement with the club, including serving as the controlling owner of the club.”
The league’s statement didn’t specifically mention the Broncos, but no other NFL team is currently up for sale, so it’s hard to imagine they weren’t signaling to any group putting together a bid.
“The membership,” if you’re wondering, is all the current NFL owners, who get to vote on who gets to join their club. Obviously, those owners want any team sale to bring in the biggest windfall possible, not only to help out one of their own as they exit but because a high-dollar sale resets market values for the 31 other teams.
But NFL owners set their own criteria for approving sales and as their March statement shows, those don’t always have to be about money. They can prioritize connections to sponsors, inroads with broadcast partners, political plugs who can help get new stadiums built, or, in this case, increasing diversity as reasons to favor one bid over another.
If the league is serious about changing the racial makeup in ownership —31 out of 32 controlling stakes in NFL teams are held by white individuals or families; most are men—then the Broncos’ sale presented the best opportunity in history. Three Black suitors were rumored to be bidding: media entrepreneur Byron Allen, billionaire financier Robert Smith and NBA Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson, who already has a stake in Major League Baseball’s Los Angeles Dodgers and is reportedly part of a Broncos bid led by Philadelphia 76ers owner Josh Harris.
If the Athletic is right, at least the Harris-Johnson bid might still be in play. If the Forbes is right, then the NFL’s ownership status quo, at least by race and gender, stays the same.
The latter situation would beg the question of exactly how committed the NFL is to changing that status quo beyond issuing statements. That question would be largely rhetorical, since the answer would clearly have been “not much”.