The Denver Broncos are nowhere near Miami this weekend, having fallen short of making the NFL playoffs for the fourth consecutive season. Like almost everyone else in the country, they’ll be watching on television as the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers meet in Super Bowl LIV. But the Broncos still made an appearance — during NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's annual Super Bowl week press conference, when he briefly discussed the team's ownership situation.
“I don’t think [Pat Bowlen would] be happy about the public disputes that are going on,” Goodell told the media. “He established the trust to make sure there was an orderly transition of the franchise if something should happen to him. Unfortunately, that did, and Pat wanted to make sure the franchise was in good hands, in good management.”
The Broncos ownership issue has hung over the franchise like a black cloud since the passing of longtime owner Pat Bowlen last June. At issue is which of the seven Bowlen children/shareholders should/could emerge as the leader and become the team's permanent operating owner. The three-person Patrick Bowlen Trust that Goodell referred to is tasked – at least for now – with making that decision.
But there could be a break in those dark clouds around the time the team is starting the 2020 season, if not before. A court hearing scheduled for September 1 will decide if that trust, established in 2009 after Bowlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, is a valid decision-maker for the late owner, and therefore properly designated to continue to run the franchise, as it promotes the future leadership of 29-year-old Brittany Bowlen. The trust is also the entity that can sell the team if the three trustees decide that it’s in the best interest of the shareholders.
A lawsuit challenging the validity of the trust was filed last year by Bowlen’s two oldest daughters, Beth Bowlen-Wallace and Aime Bowlen-Klemmer. If they’re successful in proving that the late owner was unduly influenced when he gave control of the team to the trustees, the team’s ownership situation will become even more uncertain. And the NFL leadership is not eager for more disruption.
“Unity is something that I think as an organization in the NFL, you have one person who makes a decision on behalf of an ownership group,” Goodell continued. “That is a vital and principal point in our ownership policy, and that is what Pat understood. He wanted that, and we need to have that in the case of all franchises. So that, at some point in time, will have to develop in the context of the Broncos.”
Goodell’s message basically backed the current management arrangement, and confirmed what Broncos CEO Joe Ellis said immediately after the Broncos season ended in late December: The team needs a single operating owner, he told reporters, and if the seven Bowlen children can’t all get behind one candidate, then the team will likely need to be sold.
“It was kind of the same ol' same ol'" from the commissioner, says a source close to the team. “I guess I was
a little surprised and disappointed that he didn’t take…a different stance. If the truth would be known, they could probably put an end to all this.”
Dove Valley insiders predict that there will never be consensus in favor of Brittany becoming the controlling owner. Ellis's comments in late December basically acknowledged that, while hinting that the trust was not eager to see the matter decided in court. Many saw that as a masked warning to the involved parties that unless they get behind Brittany’s candidacy, the team will likely be sold.
“But that’s not true,” says the source. “If they want to stay in power, then yes, everyone has to get behind Brittany. But I don’t believe there is a court of law in the United States that will allow the team to be sold until the court action is completed.”
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As things stand now, though, the trust apparently has the authority to sell the team without the consent or involvement of the shareholders — all members of the Bowlen family. None of the trustees are allowed to have any financial stake in the franchise, and therefore will not profit from the sale.
Ellis's push for Brittany to become operating owner — eventually — is seen by many, including other members of the Bowlen family, as a self-serving attempt to remain in control of the team for the foreseeable future, since Brittany is several years away from being able to qualify to lead the franchise.
By contrast, if 47-year-old Bowlen-Wallace were chosen to become the operating owner, it’s likely that
Ellis would be out of a job and the current front office overhauled.
Those who are challenging the validity of the 2009 trust are confident it can be proven invalid. The trustees are "not standing on very solid ground, I’ll put it that way,” the source concludes.