Four scant victories from getting his hands on the Stanley Cup, Avalanche owner Stan Kroenke flashed a smile worth a million bucks. But by plunking down a cool $4.65 billion, Rob Walton trumped Kroenke, grabbing the really big prize in Denver sports.
Let a friendly Walmart family feud begin. Let’s keep score in championship trophies.
The richest family in the USA now is the royal family of sports in our dusty old cowtown. It’s Rob vs. Stan, two hale and ambitious septuagenarians in a hurry to make big scores and leave huge marks while they still can.
As the son of Sam Walton, Rob was born into the Walmart empire. As the son-in-law of Bud Walton, Stan married into a family that has made billions by selling everything from tube socks to beer-flavored jelly beans.
But if you know anything about the Walton family’s work ethic, both Rob and Stan worked hard for their money. So let’s spread out the blanket at the Walmart family picnic at the foot of the Rocky Mountains and engage in some healthy one-upmanship between billionaires.
After the Avalanche staged a jaw-dropping comeback to beat Edmonton 6-5 in overtime and advance to the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 2001, a delighted team owner stuck out his right hand to warmly greet me outside the Colorado dressing room, then happily offered to help write my column.
“On a rainy night in Canada,” Kroenke declared late Monday, as he walked out of the arena, “it didn’t look good for the Avalanche. Then, everything changed…”
Well, a few ticks shy of 24 hours later, on a Tuesday night in Colorado, everything changed for the Broncos. A new era of NFL football began, ending the clumsy errors and ugly bickering among heirs of the late Pat Bowlen.
Walton, as well as his daughter and son-in-law, shattered the record for the most expensive purchase of a US sports franchise, agreeing to buy the crown jewel of Denver sports for $4.65 billion.
In a statement, Rob declared his family was inspired “to steward this great organization in a vibrant community full of opportunity and passionate fans. Having lived and worked in Colorado, we’ve always admired the Broncos.”
Know a sweet way Rob could show how much he cares? Reach into his wallet to build the Broncos a new stadium without any significant taxpayer assistance.
My dream is a closed-roof facility with walls of glass to capture the Colorado sunshine, preferably located closer to downtown than the airport.
This sprawling Walmart sports empire, which now reaches from Los Angeles to London, wasn’t built in a day. This moment, where Stan and Rob now hold the hopes and dreams of the Broncos, Avs, Nuggets, Rapids and Mammoth in their hands, was born from decades of sweat equity and more than a little Walmart family one-upmanship.
Way back in the 1970s, I stood holding a reporter’s notebook alongside a young basketball coach named Bill Laurie in a Missouri high school gym. He was paying forward the love of the game that had taken Laurie all the way to the Final Four as a guard for Memphis State. As we chatted, I noticed a scruffy older man wearing overalls in the corner of my eye, waiting patiently for our post-game interview to end.
Did the coach know him?
“Yes, that’s my father-in-law,” Laurie replied matter-of-factly, nodding in the direction of Bud Walton. “We’re headed to the airport and going to catch a flight to Las Vegas for the weekend.”
Not too many years later, Laurie departed the coaching ranks to tend to his investments. I didn’t hear from him again until 1999, when the former prep coach came oh-so-very close to buying the Avs, Nuggets and their new arena for $400 million, before the deal unraveled and Laurie moved on to purchase the St. Louis Blues.
What happened next? Back in those days, Stan Kroenke lived in a big house down the same road where Laurie’s horse farm was located in Columbia, Mo. Kroenke stepped in the void and acquired Denver sports franchises that his-brother-in-law had coveted.
Over the course of more than 40 years, I’ve learned this much about how almost anyone related to Sam and Bud Walton, by birth or marriage, competition views: Don’t brag. Run hard. Win big.
In Denver, it’s now game on.
You can bet Rob didn’t buy the Broncos at age 77 to sit back and munch popcorn. Pending expected league approval, his NFL team will travel to Los Angeles on Christmas day and play the defending Super Bowl champions in a sports palace built by Kroenke.
The Avs are ready to hoist the Cup, and the sport Stan grew up loving is basketball, so you know how much a Nuggets championship would mean to him.
This city is big enough for the competitive spirit of both Stan and Rob to run wild.
If both billionaires are forced to build bigger trophy cases, we all win.