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John Elway missed out on huge fortune in upcoming Denver Broncos sale for $4-plus billion

Matt Johnson

The Denver Broncos sale will go through this year with the NFL franchise expected to be sold for a record-setting $4-plus billion. While legendary quarterback John Elway wants to be a part of the ownership group, any outcome will prove a bit painful for the Broncos’ legend.

HBO’s series “Winning Time” highlighted a costly decision Hall of Fame guard Magic Johnson made in 1979. In his rookie season, Nike owner Phil Knight offered Johnson $100,000 in Nike stock and a $1 royalty for each of his shoes that sold. Johnson chose the safer bet at the time, Converse, a decision that cost him at least $1 billion today.

While there are plenty of stories like that in business, they are a rarity in sports for athletes. Unfortunately, Elway will soon find himself in the same company as another all-time great.

The Broncos’ sale is expected to go through later this year with bids already submitted. Initial estimates projected the final deal to push just over $4 billion. However, the field of candidates is now down to five and with Walmart heir Rob Walton ($70.4 billion net worth involved in the bidding, the final purchasing price could approach $5 billion.

While there’s a possibility Elway could have a very small part in one of the groups bidding for Denver’s NFL team, even the most favorable outcome will come with a ton of regret about a decision made in 1998.

John Elway turned down Denver Broncos ownership stake

NFL: Detroit Lions at Denver Broncos
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

According to ESPN, Pat Bowlen offered Elway a 10% stake in the Broncos for $15 million. Furthermore, the Hall of Fame quarterback could receive an additional 10% of stake in the franchise if he agreed to forego his remaining $21 million salary from his contract as a player with the promise of a role in the front office.

Bowlen, whose trustees are now selling the team after he passed away in 2019, threw in a sweetener. If Elway wanted to sell his ownership stake within five years, he’d receive $5 million over his purchase price with 8% interest a year added as an incentive. Bowlen’s proposal also would have provided Elway the right of first refusal to buy a larger ownership share.

Related: How NFL stipulation will impact Denver Broncos sale

Elway passed on the offer, sharing in 2004 that he declined the offer because he “didn’t see a place for himself as an executive of the team.”

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The 61-year-old ended his playing career in 1998, later returning to the organization as an executive. He served as general manager and executive vice president of football operations (2011-’20) before moving to president of football operations this past year.

While there is plenty of excitement over who will be the next Denver Broncos owner, the day the sale goes through will also be a bit painful for Elway. There might even be a worst-case scenario, experiencing the regret of losing hundreds of millions of dollars and potentially being removed from his current role by the new owner. It would be even more ironic if Peyton Manning is involved with the winning bid.