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Denver Broncos ownership clouded by intrafamily drama

By Terry Frei

The family of the late Pat Bowlen put up what could unquestionably be called a united public front during the Denver Broncos owner’s induction last month to the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio.

A large contingent of Bowlen family members were in attendance as the deeply influential owner of the National Football League team was one of eight inductees this year and received what was widely seen as a long overdue enshrinement, held just six weeks after Bowlen died following a long battle with Alzheimer’s disease.

Beth Bowlen Wallace, 48 and Bowlen’s daughter with his first wife Sally Parker, appeared at press events in Canton together with the 29-year-old Brittany Bowlen, daughter of Pat and his second wife, Annabel Bowlen. Both women, two of Bowlen’s seven children from his pair of marriages, emphasized they were united in paying tribute to their departed father. The larger gathered family then even engaged in a group hug onstage as they unveiled Bowlen’s Hall of Fame bust.

Steve “Greek” Antonopulos, the Broncos’ long-time trainer and a Bowlen friend, delivered the video presentation of Bowlen for his induction, avoiding the potential embarrassment of a public squabble over which family member would introduce Bowlen.

But the Bowlen family seemingly has been fighting over almost everything else, clouding the future of the iconic franchise that has three Super Bowl titles, eight conference championships, and has long stood as one of the key pillars of the entire NFL.

The Pat D. Bowlen Trust, a three-person structure established in 2014 to run the Broncos on an interim basis, has made it clear that none of the Bowlen children have a birthright to the team and must earn the privilege of succeeding their father. But that structure in turn has created an ugly series of competing bids and legal challenges for control of the team, a scenario very far from the firm sense of control and drive under which Bowlen ran the team for three decades.

But to understand the current infighting of the Bowlen survivors, one must first understand Bowlen himself.

The family of late Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen unveil his bust during his enshrinement to the Pro Football Hall of Fame at Tom Benson Hall Of Fame Stadium on August 3, 2019 in Canton, Ohio (Joe Robbins/Getty Images)

Force of Nature

The NFL during from the mid-1960s right up to the arrival of Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones in the late 1980s was full of outsized characters among its team ownership ranks.

But even amid that crowded, colorful backdrop, Pat Bowlen stood out. 

Early in his tenure as Broncos owner, he often showed up to the team’s training camp in Greeley, Colorado, on his bicycle. Dripping with sweat, Bowlen would quickly be spotted by fans who would nudge each other and note: “Hey, there’s the owner.”

But Bowlen hadn’t merely ridden around the block. Rather, he had been on the bike for more than 65 miles, pedaling all the way from the Denver area to the south.

That was Bowlen from the start when he acquired the team in March 1984 at the young age of 40 along with two brothers and a sister in a $70m (€63m) deal. Bold and vibrant, Bowlen was a competitive triathlete, runner, and active canoe surfer who would quickly go on to transform not only the Broncos but the league overall. 

In addition, Bowlen, the Wisconsin-born and Canada-reared son of a successful oil wildcatter who made his own fortune in not only oil but real estate, mining, and law, quickly won fans over by announcing at his introductory news conference: “Winning is everything. It’s more important than money.”

He would make good on that pledge, posting just five losing seasons in his 30 before relinquishing day-to-day control of the franchise in early 2014. At the time of his death, only the New England Patriots posted a better winning percentage during the Bowlen era. But even more than keeping the Broncos as a perennial contender, and finally a back-to-back Super Bowl winner following the 1997 and 1998 seasons, Bowlen was revered for a relentless can-do attitude.

When Bowlen arrived to the Broncos, he inherited a local sellout streak already 14 years old. But he maintained it, even with increased seating in a new stadium. And now without him, it’s still going with the Broncos playing at capacity for more than 400 straight games dating to 1970. The streak represents the longest run of sellouts in a single city in NFL history.

Fellow Denver pro sports team owner Stan Kroenke would later amass a massive local sports empire that would include the National Basketball Association’s Denver Nuggets, the National Hockey League’s Colorado Avalanche, Major League Soccer’s Colorado Rapids, and the Colorado Mammoth of the National Lacrosse League. Kroenke now also has the NFL’s Los Angeles Rams and the English Premier League’s Arsenal Football Club. 

But in Denver, Bowlen was, and even in death remains, the more beloved figure. Not because he was necessarily a warm and embracing personality, or that he was so affluent he could spend money on player payroll without regard to budget before the arrival of the NFL’s salary cap in 1994. In fact, that was part of it. And at times, the Broncos were indeed cash-challenged. But Bowlen kept saying, “Do it,” and kept fans close in mind.

“This is their team,” Bowlen said. “It’s not my team. I think if you manage your club well, the fans appreciate that. They have a stake in it, too.”

Bowlen was also a deeply powerful figure in league-wide matters, serving on 15 NFL committees, most notably the powerful broadcast committee and the management council executive committee. Bowlen was a key force in generating in record-setting TV deals that would reap the league billions of dollars, and former NBC Sports chief Dick Ebersol called Bowlen “the father of Sunday Night Football”, which is perennially the most-watched program in all of American prime-time television, regardless of genre. 

In his active years as Broncos owner, Bowlen was not warm and fuzzy. But neither was he, as was often been claimed, shy or aloof. Rather, he picked his spots with those he trusted and respected.

Even in dealings with the media, he was far more accessible than sometimes portrayed. Plus, he was thoughtful, offering insight and information only he could have delivered. But one had to pay attention, and had to get past the somewhat soft-spoken, matter-of-fact tone to realize just how unfiltered he was. 

A key part of Bowlen’s reputation, both locally in Denver and in league circles, was that he knew not only what to say, but when to say and to whom to say it to. He was a facilitator, but also could effectively call bluffs.

That same highly-focused, driven energy also translated to his dealings with players. Often working out at the Broncos’ practice facilities in the early mornings as players arrived, Bowlen would greet players by name as they joined the organization. But he was not just “one of the guys”, but instead the man clearly in charge who did not expect pandering.

Those attributes have stayed with John Elway as he rose in the organization from star quarterback to Super Bowl champion to iconic retiree to now the team’s president of football operations.

“He gave us everything we needed to be the best and compete for championship, and the focus was always on the football,” Elway said after Bowlen’s death. “That’s all you can ask for in an owner. Yet he did more…Whether things were going right or things right or things weren’t going right, he would always let you know what we needed to get better. He did a great job of applying pressure at the right times, but always trusted his football people to make the right decisions.”

Owner Pat Bowlen of the Denver Broncos with the Lombardi Trophy after the Super Bowl XXXII game at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego, California. The Denver Broncos defeated the Green Bay Packers 31-24 (Jamie Squire/Allspor)

The widespread reverence for the Bowlen way came quickly into focus following his death, when thousands of fans waited in a line several hours long at Broncos Stadium at Mile High to attend an open house the team set up in Bowlen’s honor. The team set up a series of displays of Bowlen-related memorabilia, including his legendary full-length fur coat and cowboy boots, and his office desk.

In that display, a Bowlen tribute video played on a continuous loop. And predictably generating the most fan applause was a replay of Bowlen holding up the Vince Lombardi Trophy after the Broncos in early 1998 finally won a Super Bowl title on their fifth try in the NFL’s championship game and exclaiming for Elway: “This one’s for John!”

Family Feud

That open house and tribute at the stadium represented a straightforward opportunity for fans to pay their respects and thank the Bowlen family for the patriarch’s contributions.

But next steps for the Broncos stand to be comparatively much more complicated, and in some ways recall messy familial fights over the years that also enveloped NFL franchise transitions in New Orleans, Miami, Washington, and Nashville.

When Bowlen – being increasingly ravaged by the Alzheimer’s – stepped away from day-to-day Broncos operations more than five years ago, he authorized the establishment of the three-person Pat D. Bowlen Trust to run the club. Joe Ellis, the teams’ longtime chief executive and president, serves as the Broncos’ de facto principal owner working through that trust, and he is joined by Denver attorney Mary Kelly and team executive vice-president and general counsel Rich Slivka. 

The trust’s challenge, beyond maintaining the club’s strong performance both on and off the field, was to eventually select a Bowlen successor either from the family, or to sell the team if no clan member was deemed qualified.

That means the stated position of the trustees is to make decisions and impose policy with Bowlen’s wishes in mind. The trust has several specific criteria to help govern the search for Bowlen’s successor, including an advanced academic degree if possible, five years of employment with the club or league, business and financial acumen, leadership experience, and a reputation for character, honesty, and integrity.

Within that specified structure, Ellis holds major sway in the current management of the club. Elway, conversely, leads the football operations. And given Elway’s iconic status in Denver and his successful prior run in the auto dealership business, he is widely expected to end up with a piece of the franchise, however the current saga ultimately continues.

For four relatively quiet years, the trust operated the team and all appeared normal, at least publicly. Internally, there was significant internal toxicity, accumulating for years, that Elway did much to quell after taking over. And with his steady leadership and the quarterback talents of star acquisition Peyton Manning, the Broncos then went on to win their third Super Bowl in early 2016. 

There, Elway hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy afterward and directly recalling Bowlen on the same coveted podium 18 years prior, famously exclaimed: “This one’s for Pat!”

Beth Bowlen Wallace then announced last year she was ready, willing and able to take over as principal owner. She holds a law degree, worked for the team as director of special projects for about three years, and has been a manager in other businesses.

Led by legendary quarterback Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos won their third Super Bowl following the 2015 season, the second year in which the team was run by a trust set up in owner Pat Bowlen’s name.

But her declaration didn’t get the backing of the trustees, who quickly said she was not “capable or qualified at this time.” In fact, she was let go from the Broncos in 2015, and the trustees said she was “fully informed as to why her employment with the team ended”.

Pat Bowlen “did not designate Beth as a trustee or appoint her to a leadership position, nor did he instruct the trustees to specifically mentor her”, the trustees continued.

Pat Bowlen’s brother, Bill, meanwhile, has staked his own related claim against the trustees, filing a civil suit to have the trust dissolved as he has thrown his support behind Bowlen Wallace. The trustees again curtly fired back that Bowlen Wallace “lacks the business experience and acumen, knowledge, leadership skills, integrity and character necessary to be the sole individual running an NFL franchise valued at over $2.5bn”.

Much of that debate around the trustees’ existence, however, has played out in probate court, where details are not typically a matter of public record. The case remains active, and all sides exist under a gag order.

But that rebuke of Bowlen Wallace has placed her much younger half-sister, Brittany Bowlen, as the current leading candidate for the who the trustees are seemingly grooming.

Brittany Bowlen, a Notre Dame University graduate with a master’s degree from Duke University, has worked two years in the NFL league office in New York. She is scheduled to join the Broncos front office later this year in a senior management role, likely around the holidays or NFL playoffs, after completing a stint with management consultancy McKinsey & Co. and getting married. She is currently in the midst of finalizing with Ellis the exact nature of her forthcoming team role.

At the same time, though, she is also battling against her young age and inevitable claims of relative inexperience. There are also local whispers as to whether the trustees are favoring the daughter of Bowlen’s widow, who is now battling her own Alzheimer’s diagnosis, and waiting for Brittany Bowlen, as opposed to the daughter of his ex-wife, Bowlen Wallace. 

As the Canton enshrinement approached, the Bowlen family repeatedly recalled Elway’s ‘This one for Pat!’ exclamation, even shouting it unison when receiving formal word of Bowlen’s election to the Hall of Fame.

But ultimately, the trustees’ stated job description means there will be a choice made for a new principal owner, a departure from the current unity, and once again, Bowlen’s family wrangling over his legacy.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell perhaps framed it best early this year when he said: “it’s sad when disputes like this occur. It’s not something I think Pat Bowlen, who I knew very well, would have wanted.”

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