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Pat Bowlen Trust Court Date Postponed; Broncos Ownership Running Out Clock

Brittany Bowlen, the current face of the Broncos.
Brittany Bowlen, the current face of the Broncos.
colorado.gov

While this pandemic-impacted NFL season looks very different on the field, fans are still eager to see what the Denver Broncos can do, and if the team can return to playoff contention — even without injured star Von Miller.

Off the field, the financial impact across the league will be substantial. Owing to reduced or eliminated attendance, there will be far less game-day revenue: Ticket, parking and concession revenues, along with everything else affected by fans being unable to attend (and spend money at) games, will be way down. The financial damage to the league could impact the 2021 season as well.

Still, the coronavirus pandemic has given an unanticipated boost to the current Broncos management teams in another way: Its members get to keep their jobs for at least another season.

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That wasn’t certain at the end of the last season: September 1 was supposed to be the day that Arapahoe County District Court would begin to hear testimony in the unresolved dispute over the estate of late team owner Pat Bowlen, who passed away in June 2019. A suit brought by Pat Bowlen’s two eldest daughters sought to challenge the validity of the Pat Bowlen Trust. At issue is whether the version that the team’s owner created in the early 2000s should be reinstated, or whether the revised version, reworked in 2009 — after Bowlen had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease but prior to it becoming public knowledge — would stand as valid.

One of the many ripple effects of this pandemic has been the postponement of thousands of court cases across the nation. So September 1 came and went, and the matter involving the Pat Bowlen Trust was postponed, with no future court date set.

When the case is finally heard, the outcome in court is likely to determine not if, but when the team is put up for sale. But a court hearing could be at least a year way — if one happens at all — and the status quo could remain in effect until the 2021 season has begun…or beyond.

The NFL could step in and force the issue sooner, but so far the league has remained on the sidelines, setting aside its longstanding policy that only those with a financial stake in the team can operate an NFL franchise. It has done so in an attempt to allow the trustees currently running the Broncos to identify one of the seven Bowlen offspring (and equal shareholders) as the future controlling owner.

But that’s not a simple task.

Pat Bowlen holds up the trophy after the Denver Broncos won the AFC Championship Game at Mile High Stadium in 1999.
Pat Bowlen holds up the trophy after the Denver Broncos won the AFC Championship Game at Mile High Stadium in 1999.
Vincent Laforet/Allsport/Getty Images

The dispute is between those currently in charge — the Denver Broncos trustees — and the two eldest Bowlen daughters. The Pat Bowlen Trust set up a three-person board to run the franchise when Bowlen’s health left him unable to do so. The group is led by Broncos CEO Joe Ellis and includes Vice President and General Counsel Rich Slivka and lawyer Mary Kelly, who is married to team attorney and spokesperson Dan Reilly. While none has a financial stake in the team, all will continue in their current roles and continue to collect paychecks while the case is postponed.

On the other side sit the two eldest Bowlen daughters, Amie Bowlen Klemmer and Beth Bowlen Wallace. They maintain that by the time the revised trust agreement was executed in 2009, Pat Bowlen was already suffering the effects of Alzheimer’s and not always capable of making sound decisions. They want the “pre-Alzheimer’s” 2002 version of the trust — the contents of which are not publicly known — reinstated. Sources say they have the stronger case in court, but will the case ever make it to court?

Bowlen had maintained in all his legal filings that one of his seven children could become controlling owner if there was unanimous consent among all seven as to which one should take on the role. Bowlen Wallace, 48, has publicly voiced a desire to do so, but she’s been rebuffed by the trustees. Instead, the trustees have continued to promote thirty-year-old Brittany Bowlen as the future controlling owner of the franchise. The position of Vice President of Strategic Initiatives was created for Brittany in order for her to gain front-office experience, and she was also made frontperson for the Broncos COVID-19 task force.

Brittany Bowlen recently appeared at a press conference for the first time in that new role alongside Governor Jared Polis, when they announced that 5,700 fans will be allowed to attend Denver’s second home game, set for September 27 against Tampa Bay and Tom Brady. It’s not a coincidence that a future Brittany ownership would likely mean that Ellis and company could continue to work for the franchise.

The two eldest Bowlen daughters are steadfast in their opposition to Brittany’s candidacy, while the trustees (and Brittany) are not going to okay Bowlen Wallace’s ownership bid. This means the unanimous consent needed among the siblings in order for one to control the team will never be achieved, despite the continued public promotion of Brittany by the trustees.

Conclusion? No Bowlen will ever again be the controlling owner of the Denver Broncos. And without a Bowlen in charge, the league will ultimately force a sale.

The trustees do have the power to sell the Broncos to someone of their choosing at any time, but have shown no signs of entertaining the idea of a sale, according to sources close to management.

Both the NFL and the trustees appear content to await a ruling, whenever the court case might be rescheduled. And no matter which side wins, the Bowlen siblings are unlikely to unite behind that winner. At that point, a sale would seem inevitable, and so would the departure of the current Broncos management.

So for now, continuing to run out the clock — with unanticipated help from the pandemic — could be the perfect game plan for Ellis and his team.

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