The Denver Broncos ended their third straight losing season on a high note, beating the Oakland Raiders in dramatic fashion, 16-15, when a two-point conversion pass by the Raiders' Derek Carr was batted down by Shelby Harris with just :07 left on the clock. The win capped a 7-9 season.
By the time they kick off the 2020 NFL season, the Broncos could have a new owner…or at least a “for sale” sign on the front lawn at Dove Valley. An ongoing legal battle for control of the franchise and the estate of late owner Pat Bowlen, who passed away this past June, is precipitating the struggle and making a sale appear more and more likely.
On September 1, Arapahoe County Judge John Scipione is slated to decide whether Bowlen — who was reportedly diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2006 — was subject to undue influence when the 2009 version of the Patrick Bowlen Trust was executed; the fifty-plus-page document replaced one that Bowlen had approved in 2002.
The 2009 version put three trustees — Broncos CEO Joe Ellis and attorneys Mary Kelly and Rich Slivka — in charge of Pat Bowlen’s entire estate, including the Denver Broncos. It includes no oversight on their activities or decisions, no criteria for future ownership of the team, and no criteria or specifics on succession within the family, which includes Bowlen's seven children.
The trustees will sit on one side in the courtroom; Bowlen’s eldest two daughters, Aime Bowlen-Klemmer and Beth Bowlen-Wallace, will be on the other. They're charging that the 2009 version of the trust is not valid, and that the 2002 trust should be enforced. At this point, only the trustees know what that version contains.
But this fight might never see the inside of the courtroom. The two sides are scheduled to begin exchanging information as discovery starts in a few weeks, which could lead to the first steps in an out-of-court settlement, according to several insiders. And any settlement is likely to include an agreement to sell the Broncos.
The mood around Dove Valley was decidedly upbeat in the hours after the December 29 win over the Raiders. So for many, it came as a shock when Ellis chose the season-ending press conference on December 30 to acknowledge — for the first time — that the ongoing unrest surrounding the ownership situation could force the sale of the team, perhaps sooner rather than later (although the NFL has reportedly signed off on the current management arrangement, led by the trustees, staying in place until 2022).
For more than a year, Ellis, speaking as the voice of the organization, has been promoting the idea that 29-year-old Brittany Bowlen, the third-youngest of Bowlen's children, should be the designated controlling owner-in-training; she's been working at Dove Valley for the past month.
Yet at the press conference, Ellis said that if all the beneficiaries of Bowlen's estate (the team shareholders) do not agree to Brittany eventually becoming the controlling owner, the team might have to be sold in order to put a stop to the legal wrangling. Ellis also told reporters that he believes the late owner would have wanted to end internal strife.
“If Brittany is going to succeed her father, the rest of the family is essentially going to have to sign off on that,” Ellis acknowledged on 850 KOA radio. “That’s not necessarily a requirement, but…all the litigation…they’re going to have to be unified on that. We’ll have to see if that’s the case. I know that’s important to myself and the fellow trustees, and I know it’s important to the NFL.”
If Brittany or any of the Bowlen children were to be put in front of the league and nominated to become the next controlling owner, they would have to be approved by the other 31 NFL owners. Sources confirm that the league will settle for nothing less than a united front among the shareholders. And unanimous approval among the Bowlens of Brittany’s bid for control appears to have zero chance.
As reported last month in "Trust Issues: Who Will Win the Denver Broncos?" five of the current eight shareholders in the Broncos do not favor having Brittany in control. Chief among them are Aime Bowlen-Klemmer and Beth Bowlen-Wallace, who has long stated her interest in running the team. Also weighing in against Brittany are shareholders (and sons of Pat Bowlen) Johnny and Patrick Bowlen, and the late owner's brothers John (a 24 percent non-voting shareholder with his wife, Kerry) and Bill (who is no longer a shareholder, and whose legal complaint against the trust was dismissed last summer).
Only Brittany herself and her two younger sisters, Annabel and Christiana, are in favor of Brittany’s bid, sources say.
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Under the terms of the 2009 trust, the trustees have the authority to sell the team if they believe it is in the best interest of each of the shareholders. The shareholders do not have a say in who the buyer might be or what the ultimate sale price would be. Insiders place a likely price tag in the neighborhood of at least $3 billion.
With a court date looming, when Judge Scipione could determine whether the selling agent — the current trust — has the legal authority to do so, a mutually agreeable settlement could be on the horizon.
Along with the sale of the Denver Broncos.
Mark Knudson is a former Major League Baseball pitcher and veteran sports columnist/radio broadcaster in the Denver area. He currently writes a weekly column for WoodyPaige.com and co-hosts Klahr & Kompany on ESPN Radio Denver on Saturday mornings.