Gaming the Bezos-NFL Silent Auction

There is an anxiety in NFL circles that Jeff Bezos has been keeping quiet before decisively pouncing on the Commanders at the last minute.
There is an anxiety in NFL circles that Jeff Bezos has been keeping quiet before decisively pouncing on the Commanders at the last minute. Photo: Cooper Neill/Getty Images
Theodore Schleifer
April 4, 2023

Over the last few months, the fog of confusion regarding the true intentions of Jeff Bezos toward his latest paramour, the Washington Commanders, has only gotten more foggy, more confusing, and more contradictory—complexified, in Bezos nomenclature. Bezos hired elite bankers, and yet they sat out the first round of bids. There were hysterical reports that he might sell The Washington Post in order to buy the team, but of course those were never true. Then there was the well-worn talking point that the current owner, Dan Snyder, would rather sell to the devil than the guy whose paper kicked up the reportage that compromised his credibility … only to be contradicted by leaks that Snyder was, actually, totally cool with him. Indeed, separating truth from fiction surrounding Bezos, a subject of tabloid fascination ever since those underbelt selfies, the Saudi strawman, and Lauren Sanchez entered the picture, has vexed just about everybody around the NFL, sources tell me, from other prospective owners to Bezos’s own friends.

Perhaps that’s just the way Jeff wants it. Almost as if encircling a coveted M&A target, like Zappos or OneMedical, Bezos has hovered over the entire sale process from the starting gun, but at the remove of a principal—refusing to make his intentions plain, preserving his optionality, and milking a will-he-or-won’t-he media circus that keeps everyone, including Snyder and other bidders, guessing.

The trouble for onlookers around the NFL is that strategic silence and total indifference look exactly the same on the surface. There is a foreboding anxiety in league circles that Bezos has been diligently keeping quiet before decisively pouncing on the Commanders at the last minute. If Bezos does want to make a bid, however, his time is running out. Two other billionaires, Apollo co-founder Josh Harris and Canadian real estate developer Steve Apostolopous, last week submitted fully-financed $6 billion bids, alongside their investment groups, for a process that could wrap up by this month’s NFL draft. For the moment, Harris is seen as the frontrunner. But what if Bezos finally gets off the pot? “I think there’s a ton of dog whistling here for Bezos to come in,” said one person close to the talks.

The Dog Whistle

In recent years, Bezos has repeatedly expressed to friends his interest in buying some NFL franchise, I’m told. Bezos, despite being a Trekkie, played a little football growing up, “barely clearing the league weight limit” according to biographer Brad Stone, and as an adult he’s always considered it his favorite sport. He has only gotten more invested in the sport since linking up with Sanchez, and Bezos has his own personal friendship with her ex-husband, Tony Gonzalez, a Hall of Fame tight end who broadcasts Amazon’s Thursday night game. But, lamentably, there just aren’t that many teams for sale.

Bezos’s interest became more than just theoretical when an embattled Snyder came under pressure to sell the Commanders. In early 2021, around the time that he stepped down as C.E.O. of Amazon, Bezos dispatched Paul Dauber, his right hand in all his personal business affairs, to poke around the team. When league pressure on Snyder reached a crescendo, in late 2022, Snyder announced in a brief statement that he had hired Bank of America, with Elliott McCabe, Yasir Shah and Jim Nash, to “consider possible transactions.” The opportunity was now there. Bezos, at this point a regular on the Washington restaurant scene, and with a party mansion in Kalorama, rocketed to the top of the prospective shortlist. 

His interest was not merely an idle fancy—he was absolutely intrigued, I’m told. Bezos could have done this himself, but in a sign of his commitment, he decided to hire a team at Allen & Co.—Steve Greenberg, Terry Morris and Mike Melnitzky—to explore an offer. The Allen sports team lacks extensive buy-side experience, as several peers noted, but are known for their discretion. Bezos and Allen were granted a nondisclosure agreement to peruse the team’s financials (although Bezos, unlike other NDA’d prospective buyers, didn’t tour the facilities). According to a person briefed on the conversation, Bezos also spoke directly with Snyder sometime around the holidays.

The Snyder-Bezos relationship has been scrutinized ad nauseum, and for good reason. The two know each other in a Washington kind of way, but lack a real substantive relationship, I’m told. And Snyder is known to hold grudges. When Bezos’s newspaper first exposed the Commanders’ troubling workplace culture in its pages, a few years back, Snyder was incensed. Bezos, of course, was not directing the coverage as the Post’s owner, but egos are fragile among the billionaire set. A similar beef allegedly reared its head when Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver refused to countenance an offer for the team from an investor group that included Bob Iger. In that case, Sarver lost his grip on the franchise after ESPN reported allegations of racism and impropriety within his organization.

There have been wildly contradictory reports over whether this ostensible antagonism would actually cause Snyder to turn down a deal that makes him richer. I’ve been skeptical. “If you fucking tell me that Bezos puts in a bid that is $250 million more than anybody else and Dan won’t take it, you’re smoking dope,” said one person who knows Snyder well. “Dan will give Bezos a piggyback ride around the building on opening day next year for $250 million, okay?” Indeed, this may amount to sly dealmaking optionality of his own on Snyder’s end: a leaked stiff-arm calculated to amplify the premium of selling to a guy he hates.

Plus, another dealmaker argued to me that it’s in Snyder’s interest to publicly signal that Bezos is not in the running at all, regardless of whether it is true. “Early on in this process, when Bezos was rumored to be involved, every potential bidder I talked to [said]… ‘We’re certainly not going to do it if Jeff Bezos is involved,’” said one source. “We’re not going to waste money on lawyers and accountants and bandwidth and putting our diligence teams in there if all we are is a stalking horse for Jeff Bezos.”

“If Jeff Really Wants It, He Will Win It”

When it comes to the other 31 owners, the ones who are not Dan Snyder, the logic of letting Bezos into one of America’s most exclusive clubs is obvious. First and foremost is that Bezos, with a net worth of $127 billion, would pay top dollar and remake the term sheet. NFL owners buy and sell in an illiquid market: There are 32 teams, with a franchise available only every few years or so, and a frothy deal marks up the stock and reprices everyone else’s equity value for when they want to sell. One dealmaker told me that he had spoken with four NFL owners recently, and that all of them had voiced excitement about welcoming Bezos into the club. “They’re hoping every day that he comes in with a crazy number.”

Working against Bezos in the owner’s club, though, has been what to make of Amazon, where Bezos remains executive chairman and the company’s largest shareholder. Amazon broadcasts Thursday Night Football, and the company in some ways represents the future, if not the present, of the league. Some dealmakers I spoke to think this is resolved simply with a Bezos recusal from all questions related to media deals. Others point out that such a recusal would be prohibitive given how much team revenue is based on media rights. “They are potentially screwing with the TV rights,” said one banker talking with people involved in the deal. Amazon is “gonna be one of the major players in rights, so anything that compromises the integrity of that, or diminishes it, is worth a lot more and has a lot bigger detrimental impact” than selling the team for cheaper to Harris or Apostolopoulos.

There is one last related theory here. There’s a cultural caricature that the NFL owners form a cliquey fraternity where they count their money and laugh off various cultural issues as a waste of time. In reality, though, they are wildly wealthy and competitive men who are used to being the smartest and richest guys in the room. “[Bezos] is the only guy who makes every owner feel poorer,” said the banker. Not to mention someone who could outsmart them and double-dip via his company’s broadcast rights deal. Snyder presumably knows that there is a potential latent anxiety about Bezos just as much as he knows that he needs 24 of his peers to ratify a deal. If Bezos comes in at the last minute, preventing the owners and media from yammering over his bid for months, potentially imperiling it, that might be the only way to get the deal done after all.

That is why other prospective ownership groups remain on pins and needles, disturbed that Bezos is playing three dimensional chess in a highly irregular, highly idiosyncratic bake-off. Unlike Harris, Bezos easily can meet the requirement that the lead buyer own 30 percent of the team with no need for a fundraising consortium—Jay-Z, a Bezos pal, and Matthew McConaughey, a Snyder pal, are part of his exploratory bid for kicks. Neither Harris nor Apostolopoulos can defeat Bezos in a game of checkbook roulette. 

“If you’re the bankers and you’re running this process,” said one dealmaker, “it’s almost malpractice not to call him at the end.” After all, if Bezos truly wants the Commanders, he has the ability to plop down a big number and put an end to the auction. “If Jeff really wants it, he will win it,” said another. “I’m very confused. Because if I’m in Jeff’s position, and I really want this team, I put in a preemptive bid and I win.”

Bezos Game Theory

Unlike Harris, Bezos has the luxury of not needing to run a traditional M&A playbook or P.R. campaign. “He doesn’t have to play the game,” said one person who has played that very game on multiple sports bids, himself. The all-caps Charlie Gasparino leaks and counter-leaks have effectively frozen the field. A Bezos spokeswoman, Stephanie Jones, declined to comment for this piece.

The slow pace of talks, and the absence of additional alternatives, has fueled some speculation, now gaining traction in league circles, that after all this, Snyder might decide to not sell the team at all. The public and political pressure on the longtime owner has unquestionably eased from last fall, when he announced with two sentences that he was considering possible transactions without any firm commitments Leaked deadline after leaked deadline have slipped past with no deal. What if Snyder squirrels out of this one, and decides to sit on an asset that he knows will only appreciate in value as media deals get bigger and bigger? 

That would require Bezos to be patient, too—at least until his hometown Seahawks hit the block in a few years, or whenever Jody Allen, the sister of the late Paul Allen, decides to sell. After all, Harris lost out on the Broncos not even one year ago before sitting in the catbird seat this time around. It may be gibberish for a ferocious competitor like Bezos to hear this, but sometimes you’ve got to lose first to win later.