Meet The Billionaire Owner Behind The Denver Nuggets’ First-Ever Trip To The NBA Finals

By Brett Knight

After the final buzzer sounded, officially ending the Denver Nuggets’ sweep of the Western Conference finals last week, Stan Kroenke walked onto the court in Los Angeles and wrapped his arm around his star center, Nikola Jokic. “We’ve got work to do,” the 75-year-old team owner told the Denver Post that night, “but this is a nice start.”

The Nuggets will now play for an NBA championship for the first time in their history, in a series against the Miami Heat that starts Thursday night. Another victory would extend a mind-boggling run of competitive success for Kroenke, who over the last 18 months has won titles with the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams, the NHL’s Colorado Avalanche and the National Lacrosse League’s Colorado Mammoth, with a shot at another lacrosse crown later this week. A win could also deliver a significant boost off the court for an owner who is worth an estimated $12.9 billion and already ranks as sports’ biggest mogul.

As chairman of Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, Kroenke oversees the world’s largest privately held sports empire, and the second-most-valuable overall, behind only John Malone’s publicly traded Liberty Media. In January, Forbes valued KSE’s collection of assets—six pro teams as well as an esports organization and a regional sports network—at $12.75 billion, up 21% from a year earlier.

If anything, that number underestimates the size of Kroenke’s domain. His English Premier League club, Arsenal FC, was valued at $2.05 billion at the time but is up to $2.26 billion on Forbes’ new list of the world’s most valuable soccer teams, published Wednesday. The Rams, the NFL’s third-most-valuable team, were valued at $6.2 billion in August but will surely appreciate as the market resets around the pending sale of the Washington Commanders for $6.05 billion, 8% higher than Forbes’ most recent valuation of the team. The Nuggets, valued at $1.93 billion in October, should similarly benefit from the recent sale of the Phoenix Suns, whose $4 billion price tag came in 48% higher than Forbes’ previous valuation.

Although the Nuggets don’t occupy the most prominent place on Kroenke’s balance sheet, landing at No. 22 on Forbes’ most recent list of the NBA’s most valuable teams, he has told the Denver Post that “basketball has a special place in my heart.” In 2000, when he bought the franchise, he said it was the fulfillment of a long-held dream to be involved in pro basketball.

That dream must have seemed far-fetched as Kroenke was growing up in Mora, Missouri, a tiny town 100 miles southeast of Kansas City. That was where he fell in love with the sport on a gravel court, eventually playing for his high school team. He later got a modest start in business when he transitioned from sweeping the floors at his father’s lumber company to keeping its books. Then, while attending the University of Missouri and working as a busboy at a nearby college’s dining hall, he used a $1,500 loan from his father to buy into a local clothing shop.

His trajectory changed after he met Ann Walton, the daughter of Walmart cofounder Bud Walton, on a ski trip to Colorado in 1971 and married her three years later. While Kroenke built his own fortune, first in real estate and then in sports, he received advice from Bud Walton and his legendary brother, Sam, and was introduced to a real estate developer who built strip malls that often featured Walmarts. Kroenke went to work for that company in 1975 and became a partner in 1979, until a bitter breakup in 1985 set off a nearly decade-long court battle in which Kroenke accused his partner of misrepresenting assets and was himself accused of shirking responsibilities.

After striking out on his own, Kroenke continued building shopping centers that often had Walmarts as tenants. As founder of the Kroenke Group and a cofounder of THF Realty, he now owns some 60 million square feet of real estate, as well as more than 1.5 million acres of ranches. Those assets, plus his majority stake in the privately held self-storage company StorageMart, represent $5 billion of his wealth, according to Forbes estimates.

He made his first push into pro sports in 1993, leading St. Louis’ bid for an NFL expansion team, but the reserved Kroenke couldn’t win over league executives, with the Sun Sentinel of Fort Lauderdale writing that he had “as much charisma as an undertaker.” (Widely known as “Silent Stan,” he rarely speaks to reporters, and his representatives did not respond to an interview request for this article.) Kroenke finally got his foot in the door in 1995 when he paid $60 million for a 30% stake in the Rams, helping owner Georgia Frontiere move the team from Los Angeles to St. Louis. He upped his stake to 40% in 1997, and eventually took 100% control in 2010 in a deal that valued the team at $750 million.

Although he had little connection to Colorado beyond a part-time home in Steamboat Springs, Kroenke seized on an opportunity to buy the Nuggets, the Avalanche and their home (now known as Ball Arena) in 2000 at a reported valuation of $485 million. “I love the NBA; that’s what eventually started me down this path,” he told the Denver Post at the time.

He then started buying shares in Arsenal in 2007, assuming a majority stake in 2011 and becoming the sole owner in 2018 while acquiring the club’s Emirates Stadium. He has also dipped his toe into esports with The Guard, the organization behind the Overwatch League’s Los Angeles Gladiators and the Call of Duty League’s Los Angeles Guerrillas.

Kroenke’s ride as a team owner has had some bumps, most notably after he moved the Rams back to Los Angeles in 2016. St. Louis argued in a lawsuit filed the next year that the process violated the NFL’s relocation guidelines and amounted to a breach of contract. Kroenke and the NFL eventually agreed to pay the city and its lawyers $790 million in a settlement reached in November 2021.

At Arsenal, the American Kroenke has never been all that popular among the team’s English fans, and the criticism reached a new level in 2021 when the club was at the center of a failed plan to form a “European Super League” featuring a dozen soccer powerhouses, prompting backlash that the effort would overcommercialize the sport and price out longtime ticket-holders. More recently, The Guard laid off nearly all of its staff in February.

Even the Nuggets have not been spared from controversy. A carriage dispute between cable company ComcastCMCSA -0.1% and Altitude Sports & Entertainment, the regional sports network owned by Kroenke Sports & Entertainment, has left most local fans unable to watch Nuggets and Avalanche games on the channel for nearly four years. (The two sides settled a lawsuit in March, but Altitude has still not returned to Comcast’s channel lineup.)

Brighter times may lie ahead, however, for fans and for the franchise. The Nuggets signed Jokic, their star big man, to a $270 million contract extension last summer, tying the two-time league MVP to Denver until 2028. A transcendent star like that, and the wins that come with him, can produce more national media exposure, attract advertisers and drive up ticket demand, as the Cleveland Cavaliers demonstrated once upon a time with LeBron James and the Golden State Warriors have done with Stephen Curry.

That would be great news for Kroenke, whose Nuggets lag behind the league leaders with both their local cable TV revenue and their gate revenue. The sports business research firm Team Marketing Report, for instance, pegged Denver’s average non-premium ticket price for the 2021-22 season at $63, barely a third of the New York Knicks’ $186 and the 19th-best mark in the NBA, behind smaller markets like Sacramento ($88), Milwaukee ($83) and San Antonio ($69).

Kroenke doesn’t have to look any further than his Avalanche to see how that might change. Within a month and a half of their title run last June, the Avalanche’s season-ticket allotment sold out. Ticket prices rose, too—by 42%, according to one Twitter user.

A similar spike with the Nuggets would be just one more win for an owner on the streak of a lifetime.

Via Forbes

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