Ishbia Beaten Out in Bronco’s Ownership Bid by Walmart Billionaire

Mat Ishbia’s bid to become part-owner of the Denver Broncos got sacked by the deep pockets of Rob Walton, an heir to the legendary Walmart fortune. But that doesn’t mean the hard-charging – and sometimes controversial – Chief Executive at United Wholesale Mortgage is out of the game.

“I do love sports and … one day in the future would I want to own a sports team? I would say yes,” Ishbia told Crain’s Detroit Business last year

Not a surprising stance for a CEO who’s built his brand around his status as a walk-on member of Michigan State University’s 2000 championship basketball team. But his big-dollar backing of men’s MSU athletics may actually hinder Ishbia’s hopes of entering the exclusive club of professional team owners.

It’s just one of the many controversies that continue dogging Ishbia’s career.

From appearing in lewd emails sent to a competing executive to legal battles over his anti-competitive policies, Ishbia stands out in the mortgage industry as a lightning rod for conflict and scandal.

Last year he was slammed for making big-dollar payouts to all 133 MSU men’s basketball and football players while UWM employees complained about a cutthroat working environment. Complaints included allegations of HR reps leaking private conversations to employee managers. 

Ishbia’s company just paid out $2.7 million to settle an employee lawsuit alleging overtime abuse. The company denies any wrongdoing.

And because Ishbia’s millions are only going to male MSU athletes, there have been rumblings that UWM could potentially face a Title IX lawsuit

“In 2021, this sort of blatant sexism is unacceptable,” Michigan state Rep. Laurie Pohutsky said at the time. “All athletes, regardless of their gender, should have the same opportunities and be invested in.”

A federal educational sex discrimination suit, particularly one related to sports, could potentially cast a shadow over Ishbia’s attempt to buy a pro sports franchise. Leagues like the NFL, NBA, and the U.S. Soccer Federation have been under scrutiny over their level of support for women athletes. 

Ben Fischer, a professional football analyst for Sports Business Journal, said owner scandals usually have minimal impact on a team’s day-to-day operations, “unless the baggage starts to cost the owner so much money that his/her net worth is depleted to the point where it affects his/her ability to fund necessary expenses.” 

Fischer noted that “at least in the modern era, teams are all cash-flow positive on their own – most very substantially – so a situation in which ‘baggage’ from other businesses would hurt the team itself is difficult (though not impossible) to imagine.”

Fischer cited the case of Edward DeBartolo, who was forced to cede control of the San Francisco 49ers after a corruption controversy involving the governor of Louisiana. He also noted the case of former Carolina Panthers owner Jerry Richardson, who “was facing a big investigation on sexual harassment when he agreed to sell.”

Nobody is questioning Ishbia’s financial standing as a potential pro sports team owner. His estimated wealth of between $5.5 billion and $11 billion is more than sufficient, particularly if he teams up with a fellow billionaire or two.

And pro sports are no stranger to explosive personalities: Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones, for instance, reportedly vowed to NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell that he would “come after [Goodell] with everything I have” after a controversial suspension decision, while Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban has regularly generated headlines for controversial behavior, including calling the Denver Nuggets “thugs.”

Fischer warns if there are any additional skeletons in Ishbia’s closet, they may come out if he takes another stab at buying an NFL franchise. 

“The NFL does extraordinary background checks/vetting on all bidders, and the sale would have to be approved by other NFL owners,” Fischer said. “So if they found something disqualifying or highly problematic, they could make it known to the Trust that he could not gain approval, thereby making him not qualified to bid.”