Some longstanding owners have been unnerved by the influx of new money.
“There’s old owners who want to stay and are very concerned with franchise values getting out of control,” said Frank Hawkins, a former NFL executive who runs a consulting firm, “and others who are very interested in maximizing their value.”
Other top U.S. leagues have dealt with surging franchise values, which have put buying even part of a team out of reach for all but the ultrarich, by letting in institutional investors. Specialized private equity firms have set up funds to buy passive stakes in franchises in the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League.
For the NFL, allowing in such vehicles would help teams raise capital and give minority partners a way to cash out.
“To give an example, the cost of building and renovating stadiums continues to rise at a very fast rate,” said Hunt, the Chiefs owner, “and having the ability to access outside capital to help facilitate projects like that would be beneficial.”
Allowing more outside investors would shift the character of the league. Traditionally, limited partners have been friends of ownership, former players, local celebrities and others who see the investment as more than an alternative asset class for their portfolio. Private equity investors would add to the pressure to push revenues higher — and for teams to change hands at ever-higher prices.
For decades, the NFL required that a single person own at least 51% of each team. That was cut to 30% in 1985 after H.R. “Bum” Bright led a group that bought the Dallas Cowboys for $85 million. The NFL limits ownership groups to no more than 25 people.
Over the past 20 years, the league steadily pared the 30% requirement for principal owners who’ve held their teams at least 10 years and keep at least 30% in their family to 1% by 2022. That has allowed owners to pass their teams to family members while they are still living and lower estate tax bills.
“If an owner still wants control but wants to do some planning, they may transfer some interest into an irrevocable trust via a partnership or an LLC,” said Caroline McKay, a senior wealth strategist with CIBC Private Wealth. This reduces the size of the estate and helps lower the value of the underlying asset, since minority stakes tend to sell at a discount to controlling shares.
Life insurance policies can also allow owners to essentially prepay estate taxes for their heirs, but premiums can be onerous. In some cases, heirs may be able to take advantage of a carve-out that spreads payment of taxes on closely held, illiquid assets over 14 years.
No amount of planning can change the fact that families sometimes squabble, even as league rules demand unity. The NFL mandates that a single person represent each team to vote on significant league decisions including expansion, collective-bargaining agreements with players and rule changes.
“It’s especially challenging because of the high value of these teams and the fact that you can’t just do what you want,” said Leslie Klinger, a partner at Kopple, Klinger & Elbaz, a California law firm that specializes in estate planning. “You’ve got to follow the league rules.”
While the NFL has been flexible with teams confronting estate issues, there have been conflicts. In 2015, the league clashed with the Tennessee Titans over a plan created by founder Bud Adams that, according to reporting by Sports Illustrated, required his three children to reach consensus on major decisions surrounding the team.
The Titans declined to comment on whether this arrangement still stands.
When Virginia McCaskey dies, the Bears will have to redistribute her 20% stake and her voting power. Her surviving children will likely each get a stake worth hundreds of millions.
Every NFL team is required to have a succession plan on file with the league and affirm or amend it each year. The Bears’ plan, Ganis said, would place the team under the control of Virginia’s eighth-oldest child, George H. McCaskey, who currently serves as chairman.
“I believe that is the plan,” said Ganis. “As with all things like this, you don’t really know until it happens.”
Some family members are keen to sell, say people familiar with the matter. The family is considering options including offloading a minority stake to cover taxes or selling the team entirely, the people said.
The Bears declined to comment.
In 1990, Aon founder and insurance industry billionaire Patrick Ryan, who is 86, and a since-deceased partner bought roughly 20% of the Bears after two of the 13 Halas grandchildren — the only two who are not children of Virginia McCaskey — decided to sell. Ryan, Hawkins said, is a likely buyer if any of the McCaskey children sell. With a net worth of $8.3 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, he’s also a likely candidate to acquire the team if it leaves the family.
A spokesperson for Ryan said in an email that he never discusses board issues involving the Bears.
Another team facing potential succession hurdles is the Seattle Seahawks.
After the death of longtime owner and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen in 2018, control passed to Jody Allen, Paul’s sister and the executor of his estate. The family trust also owns the NBA’s Portland Trail Blazers. Paul’s wishes stipulated that both teams should be sold at some point.
Jody, 65, is reluctant to sell the teams and has enjoyed being an NFL owner, hampering any potential sale despite a number of possible bidders, said two people who have spoken with the Allen estate. A spokesperson for the estate said there is no current sales process or timeline set but, Paul’s wish for the team to be sold will be honored.
Last year, Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos weighed buying either the Seahawks or the Washington Commanders as part of a process led by the investment bank Allen & Co., said two people familiar with the matter. Bezos has since moved to Florida, making a Seahawks bid seem unlikely.
A spokesperson for Bezos declined to comment.
Gayle Benson, owner of the NFL’s New Orleans Saints and NBA’s New Orleans Pelicans, has said both teams will be sold when she dies, with the proceeds going to local charities. A number of fellow owners and advisers said Benson, 77, would consider a stake sale.
A spokesperson for the Saints and Benson said she hasn’t discussed selling a minority stake in the team and declined to provide any further comment.
The one longstanding exception to the NFL’s ownership rules is the Green Bay Packers, who’ve been run by a publicly owned nonprofit corporation for over a century. The Packers ownership, which has more than 500,000 shareholders, was grandfathered in when the league codified its current rules.
The team’s annual financial reports provide a glimpse into the state of the league. Last year, the Packers brought in more than $610 million in revenue, up 5% from the previous fiscal year. Nearly $375 million came from a 1/32nd share in national TV deals and other leaguewide revenue.
By the standards of sports leagues around the world, NFL teams come with remarkable stability. As opposed to European football, where wage bills are effectively unlimited and spiraling upward, labor costs are tightly controlled through a collective bargaining agreement that extends to 2030. Teams enjoy both regional monopolies and an equal share in increasingly large national TV deals.
The Super Bowl is the only event on the U.S. calendar that can gather more than 100 million Americans in front of their TVs at the same time — a testament to the league’s enduring mainstream appeal in a fractured media landscape. It all adds up to unrivaled demand from investors.