Jeff Duncan: Saints fans can learn a lot from the sale of the Denver Broncos

Jeff Duncan: Saints fans can learn a lot from the sale of the Denver Broncos

Owning an NFL team is good work if you can get it.

On Tuesday, the estate of former Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen agreed to sell the team to the Walton-Penner ownership group for a whopping $4.65 billion.

Bowlen bought the team for $78 million in 1984. Nearly four decades later, his heirs sold it for almost 60 times that much.

Once rubber-stamped by NFL owners and the league’s finance committee, the transaction will be the priciest team sale in North American sports history, surpassing the $3.3 billion sale of the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets in 2019 and the $2.3 billion sale of the Carolina Panthers in 2018.

The deal is a case study for anyone who might be interested in how the Saints’ sale eventually might go down.

Gayle Benson, 75, is in good health and has no plans to sell the Saints or Pelicans anytime soon. But we know from the succession plan laid out last fall that Benson eventually will need to sell the teams because she has no heirs. The Saints were identified by CBS Sports as one of five NFL teams most likely to be sold next.

The Saints franchise has increased in value by an average of 11% annually over the past decade, according to Forbes, and is currently valued at $2.85 billion. If Benson keeps the team for another decade, then the team could command as much as $6 billion in the auction ring, considering the escalating values of NFL teams. Benson’s plan to use the proceeds from the sale of the teams to fund local charities and organizations will be a multibillion-dollar windfall for the people of New Orleans.

The sale of the Saints should go decidedly smoother than the one executed in Denver, where the lack of a succession plan led to family infighting and multiple lawsuits over control of the team.

The league moved relatively quickly to close the deal once the Broncos officially went up for sale Feb. 1. It took the league less than five months to whittle the field of candidates to four finalists and conduct the sales auction.

The successful bidders in Denver, a group led by Walmart heir Rob Walton, blew away the competition with their massive offer. The other finalists almost certainly will be involved again the next time an NFL team is sold.

There are only so many people in this country rich enough to buy an NFL team, and league officials keep a short list of vetted, prospective owners. Under league rules, new majority owners must have a 30% stake in the team and can borrow only up to $1 billion to finance the purchase, a stipulation that eliminates many interested buyers.

The only Louisianan rich enough to own an NFL team right now is Benson. So, like the Broncos and Panthers, the next owner of the Saints almost certainly will be an out-of-town investor. And it might come from the list of losing bidders in the Broncos auction.

With that in mind, you might want to jot down these names because they’ll likely be on the list of potential Saints suitors when the day comes.

• Josh Harris, the co-founder of Apollo Global Management and owner of the Philadelphia 76ers and New Jersey Devils. Harris has a 5% stake in the Pittsburgh Steelers.

• Jose Feliciano and Behdad Eghbal, the co-founders of Clearlake Capital Group.

• Todd Boehly, the co-founder and CEO of Eldridge Industries, who recently led a group that included Clearlake Capital that bought Chelsea of the English Premier League. Boehly also has stakes in the Los Angeles Dodgers, Lakers and Sparks.

• Mat Ishbia, a former basketball player at Michigan State who now runs Pontiac, Mich.-based mortgage giant United Wholesale Mortgage Holdings Corp.

When we discussed the Saints’ succession plan last fall, team president Dennis Lauscha said he already was compiling a list of potential buyers. Rest assured, the aforementioned will be on it. And you can expect more candidates to join the ranks in the years to come.

There are only 32 NFL teams, and they rarely become available. There will be no shortage of interested buyers for the Saints when that day comes. 

As Benson has shrewdly pointed out over the years, the owners of the Saints are, in reality, simply stewards of the team for the city and state. And state officials, led by Gov. John Bel Edwards, have worked diligently to ensure that the Saints never leave New Orleans — regardless of who owns the team.

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