Being the master of the last-minute comeback, John Elway—not surprisingly—felt lost with so much time on his hands. It was March 2001, and the former Denver Broncos quarterback was idling in a retirement that, since he had sold the majority of his auto dealership empire for a reported $82.5 million, was as boring as it was well-funded. His online sporting goods venture with Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky, MVP.com, had flopped. (The website was sold in January 2001, and the company has since dissolved.) A possible return to the Broncos, in a front-office position, didn't happen after he and owner Pat Bowlen agreed there would be little for Elway to do, and the future Hall of Famer had no interest in being a figurehead.
So he slept late, played golf and, unlike in his final two seasons, 1997 and '98, which ended with Super Bowl victories, he worried. "I didn't really know what to do. I was searching for something, and that was pretty tough," says Elway, who will turn 42 next week. "I wanted to try different things in the business world. The Internet play was a good idea at the wrong time—and then I wasn't sure what was next."
What providence, then, that Elway had an office that was located between the headquarters of Stan Kroenke—the majority owner of the Denver Nuggets, the Colorado Avalanche and their home, the Pepsi Center—and the Denver airport. On his way out of town one day in March 2001, Kroenke dropped by Elway's office to put out a feeler: Kroenke wanted to add an Arena Football League (AFL) team to his portfolio and wanted Elway involved as a part owner and to handle the franchise's day-to-day operations. Soon afterward, Elway's free time disappeared.
"It's been a long 15 months getting to this point, but I'm excited because I'll have a chance to learn how to put a team together," says Elway, who bought 33% of the unnamed expansion club, which will begin play in 2003. "In terms of competition and being held accountable, golf wasn't cutting it. With this, I can have a hands-on role in the business and also stay close to football. I can compete without having to play. I had always watched the Arena League when I was in my hotel rooms over the years. I always thought it was exciting."
That would describe AFL commissioner C. David Baker's reaction to Elway's involvement. "This league is perfect for someone like John, someone who wants to learn the day-to-day business of running a team," says Baker, whose league now has franchises in eight of the top 10 U.S. markets and will have roughly 70 games broadcast by NBC beginning in February 2003. "John's going to learn how to hire a coach, how to make payroll, how to take a team into the community."
Elway's training is under way. He visited the league's New York City offices on June 10 for a daylong orientation that covered everything from marketing and promotion to salary-cap management. Elway discovered there's more to owning a franchise than signing checks. "I thought I knew most of it, but there's so much I'd never considered, especially on the p.r. side," Elway says. "Now I'm the guy who deals with things when a player pisses someone off. Now I'm the guy who has to worry about securing sponsorships. I didn't realize how much was involved."
Another thing Elway has learned is that two-way players, sideline dasher boards and kicking nets aside, Arena football is basically the same as the outdoor game. He witnessed a 2001 game between the Arizona Rattlers and the Los Angeles Avengers. "The game was quick, and for the most part the guys are just as big and just as fast [as players in the NFL]," says Elway. "The courage to play the game is the same."
The AFL seems to have gotten the right man for the job. If nothing else, John Elway sure needed one.