The NFL remains in many ways a family business. It's an incredibly lucrative business at that, with a stranglehold on the American sporting public and a growing international foothold, but a family business nonetheless.
When you think of the league you often think of families like the Rooneys and Browns and Maras. All ownership groups that date well back with the league to a much more quaint time when professional football was struggling to be more than a niche sport, with boxing, horseracing, baseball, and college athletics often generating more attention and appeal. Those families remain entrenched within the league, and probably always will, as generation after generation is raised in the economics of the game and taught the business so that they might one day take over.
It's something of the normal chain of command within the league, and for good reason. But there are exceptions due to lack of interest within families, growing fractions of discord about what to do with the franchise when a patriarch or matriarch passes away. Tax and financial implications can play a role as well, and, with so many of the longtime owners of NFL franchises passing away in a relatively short period of time, and many others at an advanced age, one can expect that we will hear more and more about succession plans in the months and years to come.
A generation of owners – many whom helped truly grow the game and take it from the sparring days with the AFL through the merger and into this era of unquestioned dominance – are passing, and, in many cases, their sons and daughters have spent much of their lives preparing to take over whenever that unfortunate day comes.
This is an issue no one paid much mind, for a long time, and for good reason, as owners remained at the helm for decade after decade. But, with the passing of Al Davis in October of 2011, and with his son, Mark taking over and given the tenuous situation in Oakland with the lack of a stadium plan and a lease that has been running year-to-year, it became more reasonable to look ahead at what might be in store for franchises as the inevitable change took place.
Since then, sadly, more giants of the game have passed.
In October, Bud Adams, one of those AFL pioneers, passed away, with the Titans remaining in his family (at least for now).
On March 9, William Clay Ford, longtime owner of the Lions, passed away, but that franchise will likely remain in the Ford family forevermore, numerous NFL sources contended, with a natural progression already in place.
On March 25, Bills owner Ralph Wilson passed away, and that team is up for sale and in the early stages of getting bidders in line.
And on May 28, Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer passed away, with his sons long groomed to take over the franchise and in fact overseeing its daily operations for quite some time.
Every scenario is a little bit different, but there is certainly a changing of the guard taking place, and time tells us that will only continue. The Bills won't be the only team up for sale, surely, in the next few years, but it also won't be easy for other billionaires to get their hands on NFL franchises, either, with most having a succession plan already in place, whether well known by outsiders or not.
But before we explore what might be to come for other franchises, let's reprise the situations of the past two-and-a-half years, and see where things stand.
Examining teams in flux
Oakland Raiders: In Oakland, Davis is clearly in charge, but the lack of a stadium option nearby, the slim odds that the Raiders are granted entry into the Los Angeles market as presently constituted, and Davis' lack of interest in joining the 49ers at their sparkling new facility in Santa Clara have penned the franchise in a corner.
Davis has offered up chunks of the franchise, seeking an influx of liquidity, but according to league sources, the lack of controlling interest in the club and the high price of those minority shares has led to a stagnant market. Davis's options appear limited, and the future of this franchise is nebulous given the uncertainty about a long-term home, leading some to wonder if at some point Davis may part with it.
Tennessee Titans: In Tennessee, following the passing of Adams, his family opted to retain the franchise as well, but the question there remains for how long? His son-in-law, Tommy Smith, is the acting owner now, while Adams' daughters are co-chairpersons and his grandson joined the team's board of directors. But there remain many who wonder if this team is eventually sold, particularly with the valuations of sports franchises on such a decided upswing. “I wouldn't count on that staying in the family as a long-term solution,” said one source very plugged into ownership machinations throughout the league. “I have some doubts as to what they end up doing long-term. They of course say they are definitely keeping it. And in the near- term, certainly they are not being packaged for sale. But long-term I have my doubts.”
Detroit Lions and Tampa Bay Buccaneers: The Bucs and the Lions have long-established succession plans with the families remaining intimately involved with those franchise. However, one league source did opine that if someone “threw Ballmer money at the Glazers,” – referring to the $2B that Steve Ballmer has offered to buy the Los Angeles Clippers – perhaps the Bucs could be bought, but noting that even that seemed like a longshot.
Buffalo Bills: The Bills continue their process of selling the team, with league sources indicated it remained unlikely any transaction would take place until the October owners meeting at the earliest.
There is no shortage of interested buyers, including a Toronto-based group featuring Bon Jovi (as I reported and examined back in November), but for now I am told there is no clubhouse leader and the process is really only just beginning. The team, through its bankers, is finishing up the materials it will distribute to interested parties in a process that will unfold in phases, I'm told. As the interested parties are culled down, more information will be made available to them and ultimately at the time of bidding qualified parties could gain access to a data room containing highly confidential information.
None of this means the process will drag on, but it also means that any finality in this regard before the season starts is highly unlikely, according to sources.
Looking down the road
Carolina Panthers: The Panthers could be the next team to be available, depending on the health of owner Jerry Richardson, who made a strong recovery from heart issues and turns 78 next month. Richardson's sons are no longer a part of the team's future plans, and “[the team] will be sold,” said one source with knowledge of the situation, though obviously the timing is not known.
The team owns its stadium, so lease issues are not a concern, but, as part of a recent deal including public financing for refurbishments to that stadium, the club signed a commitment to stay at least 10 years in Carolina. I'm told the team is more than willing to sign longer such pacts in exchange for more deals with the local government to improve the facility, which would create a climate where even if the team is sold they are bound to that region for quite some time.
New Orleans Saints: Saints owner Tom Benson turns 87 one day after Richardson turns 78, and recently took a fall at an ownership meeting, where thankfully he was OK. But the future of his franchise has long been discussed, especially after he suspended his granddaughter, Rita, a few years back, and with her clashes with coach Sean Payton and general manager Mickey Loomis well known in league circles. However, I'm told regardless of such inter-familial dynamics, the Saints will not be going to the marketplace.
“It doesn't matter about his granddaughter, the team won't be sold,” said a source with knowledge of the situation. “They will stay within the family regardless of any issues related to Rita. That's all set up now.”
Cincinnati Bengals: Bengals owner Mike Brown, 78, was literally born into the game in one of football's great families, and his offspring have lived the same experience. In the event anything happens to him the Bengals will live on in his name, and the name of his father. His daughter Katie and son Paul are involved in the operation of the team in a very close manner and they embody the family-business model in Cincinnati.
Arizona Cardinals: Arizona is in the same situation, with Bill Bidwill turning 83 next month, his family, and sons Michael Bidwill and Bill, Jr. in particular, are already running the team, with their father the longest-serving owner in the league now.
Dallas Cowboys and San Diego Chargers: The Cowboys and Chargers have structured their franchises, as well, with the next generation already major decisions makers and a huge part of the football and business decisions they make.
Chicago Bears: The Bears do the same. Virginia Halas McCaskey, 91, is the eldest child of George Halas, and her family controls 80 percent of the team. Patrick Ryan and Andrew McKenna, executives of Aon Corp, own the rest, and while some have debated over the years what might happen to the Bears given the potential heirs, sources I've talked to believe if the franchise does leave the hands of the Halas/McCaskey family, it won't leave the current ownership group entirely.
“There is a decent shot it stays right in the family,” one well-connected ownership source said, “but if not it will go to the people who are already insiders: Pat Ryan and Andy McKenna. It would be almost impossible to be sold outside of either staying in the family or the current limited partners.”
Denver Broncos: Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, 70, has told reporters he has dealt with issues of memory loss and in recent years has ceded daily control of the franchise. A league source said Bowlen has, “coalesced ownership to his immediate family,” and no one questions he has put together an excellent management team to run the franchise for him. But, is it out of the question the team would be sold?
Many around the league believe executive John Elway, long like a son to Bowlen, could eventually be a part of a group that might take over the team, and while current Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has been most closely linked to eventually joining Jimmy Haslam's ownership group in Cleveland, perhaps it's not out of the question two Hall of Fame quarterbacks unite as part of a conglomerate to take over the Broncos in time as well.
As generations pass, the face of many franchise will change, we know that much. And expect in most cases that the new guard will look somewhat similar to the old guard.
With regards to the infographic in this story:
- Data via Forbes.com
- While ownership remains with the estates of the Titans, Bills and Buccaneers, we will use the original dates Bud Adams, Ralph Wilson and Malcolm Glazer assumed ownership of their respective franchises. Once new ownership, familial (see Lions and Raiders, for example) or otherwise, is established, we reset the counter.
- John Mara, 59, and Steve Tisch, 65, each own 50 percent of the Giants. We've included them jointly above and used their average age, 62.
- The Packers are a publicly traded, non-profit company owned by its shareholders. There is no majority owner. In fact, to prevent a majority ownership situation, the number of shares an individual can purchase is limited.