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Woody Paige: Battle lines drawn as Bowlens argue over Broncos leadership

June 2, 2018 Updated: June 4, 2018 at 7:10 am
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Broncos owner Pat Bowlen is inducted into the Broncos Ring of Fame during halftime Sunday, Nov. 1, 2015, at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver. (The Gazette, Christian Murdock)

The contentious franchise-family affair Pat Bowlen never wanted and attempted to prevent has reared its ugly head.

The matter matters, and will become more provocative. But how will it affect the team?

Control of the future ownership and leadership of the Broncos, an NFL team valued at more than $2.5 billion and an incalculable Colorado asset, is at stake.

The harsh reality is that Bowlen, who was one of the most successful and powerful owners in sports, now is powerless to do anything about the sordid situation.

The former marathon and triathlon athlete is suffering from Alzheimer’s and his physical health is rapidly deteriorating. Others mostly talk about “Mr. B’’ in the past tense as he sits unaware in his Cherry Hills Village mansion.

Elizabeth “Beth’’ Bowlen Wallace, one of Pat’s seven children from two marriages, announced in a press release from a public relations agency three days ago that she desires, and is prepared, to become her father’s heir apparent.

Wallace’s intentions will have to be carried out in a hostile takeover, because the three members of the Bowlen Family Trust governing board offered an adversarial and antagonistic response that she is “not capable or qualified at this time’’ to become the Broncos’ controlling owner.

The Broncos’ belligerent battle began. Barrages have been exchanged.

Pat’s two younger brothers – Bill (a former minority owner) and John (who recently sold some of his minor ownership shares to the trust) – publicly support Wallace. Amie Bowlen Klemmer, Bowlen’s oldest daughter at 48, also declared she was in favor of her younger sister continuing the Bowlen Broncos legacy.

Franchise CEO Joe Ellis – one of the trustees, along with team general counsel Rich Slivka and Mary Kelly, a Denver attorney specializing in family law – issued his own statement opposing Wallace’s efforts.  John Elway, president of football operations, stated on social media that he backs Ellis, his boss, and “Pat put a lot of good people in place to follow his plan, and that's what they're doing.’’

Pat’s sister Marybeth (a former Broncos’ co-owner with her brothers and mother) has not become involved, and the other five children – Pat III, John Jr., Brittany, Annabel and Christiana have not spoken.

Sides have been chosen.

Basically, the 47-year-old Wallace would have to gain approval from a majority vote of the trustee trio, and have the NFL owners’ consent, to assume command.

That sanctioning will not happen ever.

The trustees are grooming the 28-year-old Brittany Bowlen to succeed Pat (and Joe) eventually.

But that significant change to the Broncos will not occur for at least five years.

The Broncos’ trustees don’t ever have to act, in fact.

League owners voted 31-0, with one abstention (the Titans, who have their own ownership mess), to allow family trusts to own franchises. The primary purpose was to escape the overwhelming inheritance tax consequences (as much as 40 percent of appreciation of a franchise’s valuation), but they also were resolving the Broncos’ family trust potential problem. The franchise won’t be sold to outside interests, or name a Bowlen successor, indefinitely.

Of the 32 NFL franchises, 18 have been passed through second and third generations of families, and two – the Titans and the Saints have experienced serious family ownership disputes recently. Most of the rest have transitioned somewhat smoothly from father to son, daughter, brother, in-laws, wives or former spouses.

The three other franchises in the AFC West with the Broncos – the Chiefs, Chargers and Raiders – have kept ownership all in the family. Alex Spanos still is listed as the Chargers’ owner, but he disclosed in 2008 he had dementia. Spanos is 94. Bowlen is 74.  Spanos’ sons oversee the Chargers; Dean Spanos is the top executive. When Chiefs owner Lamar Hunt died in 2006, his four children became equal partners, and they chose Clark Hunt as CEO. After the death of Al Davis, his wife Carol became the owner, and son Mark is the managing general partner.

Despite what some Colorado media neophytes wrongly claim, neither Beth Wallace nor Brittany Bowlen would become a rare controlling owner. Martha Firestone Ford, 93, has been majority owner of the Lions since the death of her husband. Virginia Halas McCaskey, eldest daughter of George Halas, owns the Bears. Gayle Benson survived lawsuits and trials to replace her late husband, Tom Benson, as Saints owner, and Amy Adams Strunk, one of the daughters of Bud Adams, ultimately became the controlling owner of the Titans. The Bills are co-owned by Kim and Terry Pegula, and Christina Weiss Lurie received a sizable share of the Eagles’ ownership in the divorce with Jeffrey Lurie.

Before Bowlen stepped down in July of 2015 because of his worsening Alzheimer’s, he and attorneys established the Bowlen Family Trust with equal divided ownership for the seven children, and he hoped that one would emerge in his own image to be CEO. A set of conditions – including advanced university degrees, senior executive positions in and out of football, integrity and leadership skills – were outlined to the two young men and the five daughters.  Two, Klemmer and Wallace, were from Bowlen’s first marriage to Sally Parker.

In the lengthy telephone interview Bowlen agreed to do with me in May, 2009 – which went viral nationally -- he made several important disclosures. But the two most critical were:  In answering a casual opening question about his health, Bowlen said he was in great physical condition, but he had “short-term memory loss.’’ I suggested that since both of us were about the same age, I shared his dilemma. He was completely serious, saying he couldn’t remember details of the Broncos’ two Super Bowl victories.

Unrelated, later in the conversation, I wondered if any of his kids were eager to one day be the Broncos owner.  He said that the matter hadn’t been discussed often, but “Brittany is the only one who seems to be interested, and I think she may be an attorney or in business or media or come to work for us, but she’s still very young (19) and at Notre Dame, and that whole ownership thing is a long way off.’’

Not anymore.

The jovial Pat III, the only Bowlen currently employed by the Broncos, doesn’t fulfill elements of the criteria and appears to be satisfied  with his position as stadium “facilities coordinator." John Jr., who was with the Broncos in the role of marketing parking lots, does have a MBA from the University of Denver, but he also has a history of legal, substance-abuse and girlfriend-abuse troubles, and he’s out of the ownership picture. Klemmer, married to a doctor in Honolulu, has never expressed any curiosity about working for the Broncos. Annabel “Little Bel’’ Bowlen seems more drawn to the fashion industry, and Christiana is in the early stages of college.

As The Gazette reported first months ago, the only two viable candidates were Beth and Brittany, and Brittany had become the Chosen One by the trustees.

She’s the one brought up by Bowlen nine years ago in his only statement on which child would be next.

Wallace got a late start in Colorado and with the Broncos.

She and Klemmer lived in Hawaii, where one of Pat Bowlen's homes, on the beach near Waikiki, is located. They both got married and had two kids each – Pat’s grandchildren.

Wallace owned a prosperous wedding and event planning company in the 1990s, then divorced and decided later to move to Colorado. She married John Wallace, and they originated an oil and gas company. Beth received her undergraduate degree from the University of Colorado. She joined the Broncos for almost four years as an executive in community involvement, event planning and heading the Broncos Ring of Fame Plaza at the stadium.

She left the Broncos, it was asserted, to earn a law degree at DU. However, the trustees claim in their statement that Wallace “is fully informed as to why her employment with the team ended in 2015.’’

That sounds like she was fired – for unknown reasons.

At DU, according to a fellow student, Wallace created her own faux franchise of the NFL, and had a group of eventual lawyers direct every aspect of the process. “It was incredible. She was the ‘franchise’ owner. She built a team from the ground up,’’ he told me.

Wallace says she has the required qualifications and the qualities, and the business acumen and experience, and she was mentored by “the best’’, her father, to be the Broncos’ CEO.

I had a conversation with Wallace’s spokesman Saturday evening and asked several questions, and he sent me a statement that includes: “We believe when the full story is known ... Beth will prevail and become controlling owner ..." 

The Broncos had no additional follow-up statements on Saturday.

However, this statement is accurate: Ellis and Wallace do not like each other. At all.

Nobody has brought up since Thursday’s shocking development that there also is a true disconnect, as might be suspected, between Bowlen’s former family and his second family. Pat’s second wife Annabel, who was an elementary teacher and a figure skater when they met in Canada, never has immersed herself in the Broncos’ operation, but certainly would prefer that one of her children someday would follow her husband. The younger Bowlen kids side with Brittany. Beth has the backing of her sibling and Pat’s two brothers.

Brittany was a gold medalist in her classification in figure skating, worked as an intern for NBC during the 2012 Olympics, worked in the junior rotation program at the NFL offices in New York after graduation, joined the Broncos as a business analyst for almost year (heading the project to bring the NFL draft to Denver, and the city has been listed as one of the finalists), then went to Duke to get her master’s in business administration, and works for a global consultant firm that has a branch office in Denver. She will rejoin the Broncos at some juncture to be trained in various departments as an executive, and eventual chief executive.

Pat would hate the current consternation and attention, but maybe he should have realized it was inevitable, and that the strongest aspirant would survive.

He didn’t permit his kids to be mentioned in the annual Broncos media guide, and closely guarded their privacy.

If he could, Bowlen would put an end to the in-fighting and the firestorm engulfing step-sisters, his brothers, the two daughters from his previous marriage, five children from his second marriage, the trustees, the team’s chief executive and the most legendary Bronco of them all.

The Bowlen Family & Friends is acting more like fictional TV characters – the Carringtons, who also were based in Denver. Litigation is a possibility.

Broncos fanatics must be confused, confounded and concerned about how this will affect the team. It won’t. The coaches, the players and everyone else at Dove Valley are riveted to their own jobs and the coming season, not the long-term ownership matter. They’re thinking about Case Keenum throwing a pass, not an impasse. Broncos Country would rather argue about the team’s offensive line than the offensive lines being exchanged between Joe Ellis and Beth Bowlen Wallace.

Pat Bowlen would say: “The only thing that matters is going 19-0 this season and winning another Super Bowl. Everybody, just shut up.’’

And he would know that nobody in the family is qualified – yet.

Editor's note: The work history of Brittany Bowlen has been updated in this story.

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