One of the last photographs of Pat Bowlen was snapped as he walked off the field of MetLife Stadium in New Jersey ahead of Super Bowl XLVIII on Feb. 2, 2014. His recently revamped Broncos had just completed the most prolific offensive season in NFL history, set a slew of team and individual records (most owned by quarterback Peyton Manning), earned the franchise’s seventh AFC Championship and were back on football’s biggest stage.
The Broncos would go on to get drubbed — badly — but when the camera flashed before the game, they were on top of the world. So Bowlen gave fans two thumbs up.
His Broncos were OK. They were set up well. They had leadership he trusted and a foundation he had built.
Few knew that would be the last time that Bowlen, the Broncos’ owner of now 34 seasons, would roam the sidelines as the face of a franchise that strived to “be No. 1 in everything.” Five months later, the Bowlen family announced that he had resigned control of the team as he battled Alzheimer’s and turned over day-to-day operations to team president Joe Ellis, who would dictate the immediate future of the club and, collectively with two other trustees, help decide it’s long-term future, too.
Fast forward to 2018 and the Broncos appear nothing like the team when Bowlen left it. Ebbs were expected, especially after losing a future Hall of Fame quarterback, but after two playoff-less seasons, the Broncos forge ahead without a stated frontrunner to succeed Bowlen, creating an outside perception that there are fissures at the top.
“We are in good shape,” Ellis insisted during the team’s recent season-end news conference. “I really think that the most important part of my job is to give (general manager) John (Elway) and all of the football staff — coaches, operations, everybody — the resources that they need for us to be successful. Sometimes it doesn’t always work out, but I really feel in the long run if we do that each and every year, we should be set up for success.”
Tabbing the next owner of a multi-billion-dollar franchise is hardly a simple task and many of the details of how the Broncos plan to do so have remained secret out of respect for the Bowlen family and because the team is under no obligation to disclose such information.
But roughly three years ago, a broad plan was penciled out to find the most capable among Bowlen’s seven children to succeed him as controlling owner and, if followed, whittles the list to two who are on track to be eligible to assume control.
Setting down the criteria
In October 2013, Bowlen formally filed with the league to step down as controlling owner, placing the ownership of the team in the hands of three trustees: Ellis, team counsel Rich Sliva and Denver attorney Mary Kelly. It is Ellis who is Controlling Owner Delegee/CEO and has full authority to make final decisions for the team.
Bowlen, who was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s nearly a decade ago, established a family trust years prior to eventually transfer ownership of the team to his seven children. Each child would receive equal stake in the franchise, but only one would make the final decisions for the club, be the sole voice for the team at league meetings and have the title of controlling owner.
It was Bowlen’s desire to keep the team within the family, but if the trustees ever deem it in the best interest of the team and the trust’s beneficiaries — Bowlen’s children — to sell, they have complete authority to do so.
In short, while Pat Bowlen is still owner of the team, the trustees have the power. And Ellis, the team’s top decision-maker for now, is also the top decision-maker for his eventual replacement in the Broncos’ seat at NFL meetings.
According to multiple NFL sources, the three trustees sent Bowlen’s children and wife Annabel a lengthy blueprint in February 2015 that included a list of requisites, in addition to a short list of responsibilities, for whomever will be the next controlling owner. The trustees informed Bowlen’s family that the bulleted items did not constitute a checklist and, if met, would not guarantee one would become controlling owner/CEO. The trustees would retain control, and any change in that structure would be at their discretion and require the approval of the league and 31 other NFL team owners.
That list includes multiple subjective items, such as leadership and integrity and sound judgment. But it also includes more specific requirements, such as bachelor’s degree, paired with an MBA, J.D. or other advanced business-related degree. It also mandates at least five years of senior management experience with the league, team or Stadium Management Company, the group that operates the Broncos’ soon-to-be-renamed stadium. It does not, however, specify which job titles are considered senior management.
Over the years, four of Bowlen’s children have worked with the team or the stadium. Only one — Patrick Dennis Bowlen III, 33, the eldest son and first child with Annabel — still has a job with either. He is a facilities coordinator for SMC.
John Michael Bowlen, almost 32, was previously a marketing employee who worked out of the stadium but was placed on indefinite leave after he was arrested on domestic violence charges in June 2015 and later parted with the team.
Then there’s Brittany Alexandra Bowlen, 28, one name that has come up often in the discussion of the next controlling owner. She worked full-time in the NFL’s junior rotational program in New York and was an analyst in the Broncos’ business department in 2015. Brittany completed an internship with McKinsey & Company consulting firm last year and is expected to accept a full-time position with the company after completing her MBA at Duke University this year.
Beth Bowlen Wallace, 47, another discussed candidate and Pat’s youngest of two children with his first wife, Sally Parker, has a law degree from the University of Denver, which she completed in 2016, and previously worked with the team as a director of special projects for more than three years, the highest position by title held by a Bowlen child. During her time with the Broncos, Wallace helped to conceptualize the Ring of Fame Plaza outside the team’s stadium and has maintained a regular presence in the community with non-profits and local organizations, including the Colorado Chapter of the Alzheimer’s Association.
Pat’s other children include Amie Bowlen Klemmer, 48, his oldest child with Parker who currently resides in Hawaii; and his two youngest, Annabel Victoria Bowlen, 25, and Christianna Elizabeth Bowlen, 20, both of whom reside in Colorado.
The ownership timetable
Since Bowlen stepped down, Ellis has remained adamant that the team will eventually be passed down to Bowlen’s children.
“You can look back in your archives and I can repeat what I said then,” Ellis said. “When a child is ready, one of the adult children will be in place.”
At last year’s Super Bowl, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell said the Broncos are still owned by Bowlen and that the succession plan and its execution have remained compliant with league ownership rules. Six months later, when Goodell visited the team’s Dove Valley training facility, his stance was the same.
“The Broncos are in compliance and they’re actually being very well-run,” he said. “Our membership is very happy with that and it’s consistent with the way Pat wanted it done. Pat outlined that exactly the way it’s operating.”
The exact timetable for a transfer of ownership has yet to be determined. Under the trust’s leadership, the Broncos have remained a profitable business and extended its regular-season home sellout streak to 373 games, despite it’s two trying seasons. Over the last half-decade, since Bowlen officially stepped down, the Broncos have ranked among the NFL’s top five in wins and have appeared in two Super Bowls.
But the league won’t wait forever, as evidenced by its mandates and sales of other teams in the past. Although the Broncos’ operating structure has been approved multiple times by the league, it must maintain compliance with a viable transition plan.
“The fundamental aspect of our policy is to make sure that we have an individual who has the ultimate authority over that franchise and can make those decisions, including league-level decisions as well as locally,” Goodell said.
Last October, Pat’s brother, John Bowlen, announced his intention to sell his non-voting minority interest (30-35 percent) in the franchise. The timing, in hindsight, wasn’t the greatest. John had at least one interested party at the time, but his ownership stake is still up for grabs. Plus, not only did the Broncos miss the playoffs this past season but the Carolina Panthers also created competition on the open market. Jerry Richardson, embroiled in allegations of workplace misconduct, said he will sell his team.
NFL teams have been revered as coveted and exclusive commodities, primarily because there’s only 32 of them. Forbes recently estimated that at least eight teams could be up for sale in the next few years, and the Broncos are named as one.
But the numbers and league rules make it easier to keep it within the family. In May 2015, the league voted to allow trust ownership of teams and to reduce the minimum required percentage an owner must control to 5 percent, down from 10 percent. If Pat Bowlen’s majority stake is transferred to his children and split evenly among them, as he desires, each would easily meet the minimum. But only one, selected by the trustees, will receive the title of controlling owner and have final say over team decisions.
For an outside individual or group, the purchase of at least 30 percent is required to be controlling owner, which, based on Forbes’ latest estimate of the Broncos’ worth ($2.6 billion), would cost approximately $780 million.
So, for now, the Broncos remain a Bowlen team, placed in a trust he created and operated by Ellis. The trustees have penciled out a plan to help guide them to a Bowlen heir, but glaring “ifs” remain — if that criteria will be followed, let alone met, and if that criteria is enough.
But perhaps no question looms larger than the simple one of whether a Bowlen child will indeed succeed his or her father and one day roam the field before another Super Bowl and give that thumb’s up of assurance that all is well.