When it comes to buying an NFL team, there’s only one real requirement. Having enough money to pay the agreed price to the prior owner.
There’s no test of football knowledge, no requirement of any experience whatsoever with the sport — or any sport. There’s no character assessment, no effort to assess whether the person is fit to run an NFL franchise, no guardrail on being too involved, and ultimately no way out for fans.
As 49ers CEO Jed York once said, you can’t fire an owner.
The Broncos, after years of having the team run by a three-person trust, now have an owner again. It’s primarily a three-person leadership group, with Rob Walton as the biggest name, and his daughter Carrie Walton-Penner and son-in-law Greg Penner poised to be more directly involved.
The challenge for Penner, who will be the CEO and (based on his comments from Thursday) the most involved in the team, the challenge is clear. He must strike the right balance between being present, but not meddling.
“Everybody is going to be involved,” Penner said of the ownership group that includes three minority partners. “Obviously, with six of us, someone has to be on point, so I will take that role. So you will be seeing, probably, most from me here. This is just an incredible group, so we are going to draw on all of them as we go through this. Rob and Carrie will probably be here with me a lot as well dealing with any big issues or questions or strategic decisions that we are making. Most of all, we are really looking forward to all having fun together with this. Obviously this is a business, but this is a sports franchise. We want to win and that’s our goal and part of that is having a lot of fun as a family and with this group while we do that.”
It’s very important for ownership to be in the building. When the owner is around, it keeps people on their toes. It serves as a reminder that this isn’t some investment property or trophy, but a priority and a passion.
But the passion can’t get to the point where Penner or any of the other owners believe, because they’ve been successful in other lines of work, that they can just roll up their sleeves and start making things better, despite having zero experience in or knowledge of the sport and the broader industry.
Penner said that he plans to hire a team president, which will keep ownership one step farther removed from the day-to-day grind. But sometimes the team president simply becomes the conduit for letting others know what ownership wants, without ownership ever having to specifically say so.
And they definitely will be around, able to make what they want known. “We live and work in Colorado,” Penner said. They also plan to delegate to the experts who run the show.
“We’re big believers in empowering people,” Penner said. “We love football. As [limited partner Condoleezza Rice] said, her dad was a coach. She knows football but we’re not going to be calling plays. We’re not going to be drafting players. We’re going to empower this team led by [General Manager] George Paton and [coach] Nathaniel Hackett to make those key decisions. Obviously, part of this fun is learning and understanding and all of that but we’re not going to be [making the football decisions]. They’re going to make the football decisions.”
Plenty of owners who say they don’t make football decisions still have a clear influence over the football decisions that are made. Those who work for multi-billionaires are smart enough to glean preferences from casual comments, and to act accordingly. That’s why the NFL absolutely should have punished Dolphins owner Stephen Ross for openly stating a belief that it’s better to have a higher draft position in 2020 than to win in 2019. That’s all an NFL owner needs to do to send an unmistakable message.
Time will tell whether it works. It hasn’t worked yet for Panthers owner David Tepper, who at times seems to be trying too hard to spend his way into NFL relevance. And he seems to be increasingly frustrated by the fact that it’s not going as well as he thought it would.
However it goes, Broncos fans will have no choice but to go with the flow. Win or lose, this ownership group will be going nowhere until it decides to do so. Because, as Commanders fans know all too well, you definitely can’t fire an owner.