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Woody Paige: Ownership uncertainty swirls for Broncos after Pat Bowlen

October 8, 2017 Updated: October 10, 2017 at 10:09 am
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FILE - In this Dec. 2, 2012 file photo, Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen watches as the Broncos warm up before an NFL football game against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Denver. Bowlen is giving up control of the team as he battles Alzheimer's disease. The team announced Wednesday, July 23, 2014 that the 70-year-old Bowlen will no longer be a part of the team's daily operations. (AP Photo/Jack Dempsey)

The Denver Broncos are more synonymous with Colorado than Buffalo Bill, Molly Brown and Zebulon Pike.

Bill, Brown and Pike found riches and fame, but not quite on a proportional scale with the Broncos.

Since an initial investment of $25,000 in late 1959, the Broncos' monetary worth has increased by approximately 2 billion, 599 million, and 975 thousand dollars (10,399,900 percent).

And except for three-year spans two decades apart, the football franchise has been family-owned and -operated for a half century.

It's all relative.

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But fissures have shaken the Broncos' ownership.

One member of Pat Bowlen's family, John, acknowledged he is selling his minority ownership. The majority is owned by the Bowlen Family Trust, and run by three trustees from outside the family who function as the owners. And at least two family members have explored the option of selling the team.

One reliable source close to the Bowlen family says that one of the children would prefer to sell the team. A source within the Broncos denied the claim, saying that the franchise's majority share could not be sold without the approval of the three trustees, and they wouldn't allow a sale, based on Pat Bowlen's wishes. And that the trustees haven't been told of other members of the family, beyond John Bowlen, interested in selling out.

The Broncos' ownership, especially since the Bowlen family purchased it in 1984, always has been complex and even convoluted. CEO Joe Ellis simply said weeks ago that the ownership is "complicated."

Will the team remain as the Bowlen Broncos for another 33 years, or for the short term? Does John Elway figure into future ownership scheme?

Does the proprietorship matter to the future of one of the NFL's most successful and valuable franchises?

Do the loyal season-ticket holders who have sold out the stadium for 389 consecutive games, the longest streak in the NFL, and the millions of fanatics in "Broncos Country" really care about the financial figures or the ownership?

"I think they only care about wins and losses, and Super Bowls," a Broncos' executive told me recently.

Pat Bowlen, 73, once told me he would "die with my boots on owning the Broncos."

He didn't plan to develop advanced Alzheimer's.

And he didn't have a family successor in place when he did.

Is Brittany Bowlen, the third oldest of his five daughters, the chosen one?

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The Broncos typically have been a kinfolks kind of business.

In 1959, when the American Football League was created to compete against the established National Football League, the Howsams of Colorado decided to join. Bob Howsam, president of Denver's minor-league baseball team, the Bears, his father, Lee, and brother, Earl, invested a $25,000 franchise fee be included in "The Foolish Club," the ignoble name given to the original eight AFL owners. They lured in a few other local financiers.

However, the franchise was pathetic, with its headquarters in a World War II Quonset hut, its team playing in uniforms purchased secondhand from a defunct bowl game, its players a bunch of misfits, oddities and NFL rejects, its "fans" only a few thousand paying $10 a ticket. The Howsams brought in limited partners and borrowed money.

With a $300,000 debt, because Bob Howsam had ordered building the "South Stands" at Bears Stadium and AFL revenues were minimum, the Howsam family sold to Cal Kunz, a former Marine Corps officer, and Gerald Phipps (the contractor owed money on the project), in 1961 for $250,000.

For three years the team scuffled and lost additional money. Kunz tentatively agreed to sell the franchise to a Chicago man, and interests in both Atlanta and Philadelphia offered $5 million-$6 million.

Phipps, son of a former Colorado senator, stepped up to keep the franchise from moving. He offered Kunz and the other partners $1.25 million, borrowed $1.5 million from a Denver bank and called his brother Allan in New Zealand to announce: "You and I own the football team.''

(One of the minority investors was Molly Brown's grandson.)

The Broncos still lost lots of money and most of their games, but a merger agreement between the NFL and the AFL made the Dusty Old Cowtown a "major-league city." Football caught on.

When the Broncos expanded their stadium, drew sellout crowds and, ultimately, reached their first Super Bowl in 1977, the franchise became respectable, respected and revenue-generated, the Phipps Bros. elected to get out of the business. At a lunch in a private downtown Denver club, Allan told me: "I'm a lawyer. Jerry is a builder. This thing got too big for us.''

The NFL had a buyer-in-waiting - Edgar Kaiser Jr., a Canadian who was a reluctant industrialist and member of a famous family. Grandfather Henry J. Kaiser was a legendary ship and automobile builder, and aluminum and steel corporate owner. "My grandfather made the business; my father didn't care about any of it, and almost ruined the business, and my job has been to remake the business and the family," Edgar told me on a trip we took to New York.

Kaiser had purchased the Broncos in 1981 from the Phipps brothers for $33 million.

(As an aside, the wealthiest man in Colorado, oil magnate Marvin Davis, wanted to buy the Broncos. But Davis had purchased the land where Highlands Ranch is now from the Phipps family and immediately sold it for a massive profit. The Phipps brothers were furious. They put a clause in the contract with Kaiser that he couldn't sell the team to Davis.)

Oddly enough, Kaiser knew nothing about football and put his right-hand man, an accountant, in charge of the team.

But Kaiser made a trade with Baltimore Colts' owner Robert Irsay for a rookie quarterback who had been drafted No. 1 overall (Elway). Kaiser pulled off the biggest steal-of-the-century in sports.

Meanwhile, his multinational companies were going broke, and the Broncos were in danger of bankruptcy in 1983.

Kaiser borrowed $10 million from Colorado businessman Robert Adams, then offered to sell him 39.2 percent to forgive the debt. Adams died soon after. His son, John Adams, had the option to complete the transaction and, with his attorney, purchased the minority ownership in early 1984.

At a March league meeting in 1984, the NFL announced that Kaiser was selling the team to Patrick Bowlen, a fellow Canadian who attended the same Catholic church in Alberta and once said to Kaiser after Mass: "If you consider getting out, call me. I want to get in."

Bowlen paid Kaiser $26 million in cash, assumed debts of $20-plus million and agreed to buy the minority partners out for another $20 million - a total of approximately $66 million, double what Kaiser had bought the franchise for three years earlier. (The number has since been reported erroneously as $87 million.)

Problem was, Bowlen didn't have the necessary capital. His younger brothers John and Bill, sister Marybeth and mother Arvella chose to take funds from Regent Resources Ltd., the oil corporation originated by Pat's father, former wildcatter Paul Bowlen, to purchase the football franchise.

Because of NFL rules, Pat got 30 percent to be majority owner, and the other 70 percent was split among family members.

In 1996-97, Bill and Marybeth asked to be bought out by Pat and John and their mother, listed at one time as the head of the various corporations formed by Pat Bowlen to actually own the Broncos.

The purchase price is unknown, but the franchise was valued in the late 1990s at $400 million, about six times what the Bowlens paid for it. When Arvella Bowlen died in 2006 after suffering with Alzheimer's, her shares were split between her sons. Pat owned 51 percent, John 49.

Because of Pat's intent to run a first-class organization (with new practice facilities and expenditures on high-priced free agents), the franchise had to borrow money at least twice.

In the Broncos' history, owners had borrowed money and/or sold minority shares a half dozen times.

Then, the TV boom hit the NFL and the Broncos, in major part because of the role Pat Bowlen had as head of the television contract committee. He worked out the new deal with ESPN for "Monday Night Football" and brought in NBC for "Sunday Night Football." Fox also became a rights holder with CBS. And the NFL became a multibillion-dollar business.

Denver metropolitan area voters in the six-country metro area approved a .01 sales tax increase in 1998 that would pay for three-quarters of the new stadium ($270 million), with Pat Bowlen agreeing to ante up the remaining $90 million.

The Broncos became a money machine and an annual Super Bowl contender (eight games, three victories eventually), and the franchise never would have to borrow money again. And it seemed as if Pat Bowlen, entering his third decade of team ownership as he was approaching 70 (Bowlen had bought the team at the age of 40), would be around for a long time.

Forbes Magazine's 2017 valuation of the Broncos is $2.6 billion, 11th highest in the league.

Pat Bowlen, a former walk-on football player at Oklahoma and an ex-lawyer, is a billionaire.

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The NFL has become a family business over an extended period. More than half the franchises have been, or will be, passed from one generation to the next. The other three AFC West franchises in Oakland, Kansas City and Los Angeles are overseen by offspring. The Chargers, owned by Alex Spanos (who acknowledged publicly in 2008 he was suffering from dementia), have six Spanos family members in the front office. The Chiefs' ownership is shared by four of Lamar Hunt's kids. The Raiders are owned by the wife and son of Al Davis. The Rooney family ownership of the Steelers is in its third generation, as is the Halas/McCaskey family in Chicago. Twenty-four of the 32 NFL teams have sons, daughters, wives involved in day-to-day executive positions.

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In 2009 I called Pat Bowlen for "a state of the franchise" conversation in the aftermath of the controversial trading of quarterback Jay Cutler after the hiring of kid coach Josh McDaniels.

"How are you doing, Pat?"

"Physically, I feel great," said the owner, who, for years, had a daily routine of rigorous workouts at Dove Valley and had competed in three Ironman competitions in Hawaii, where he had a second home.

"But I have short-term memory loss."

"Oh, we all do at our age." I'm two years younger than Bowlen.

"Except, I've forgotten our Super Bowl (victory) games," he said.

That was his first admission there was something wrong. Bowlen previously had indicated he worried about the disease, because his mother had suffered with Alzheimer's.

His condition slowly, then gradually, deteriorated over the following five years. Bowlen's decision to bring back Elway to control the operation, and to elevate Joe Ellis to club president, were gauges of how he was feeling mentally. The commitment to sign Peyton Manning to a $100 million contract was Bowlen's last active action as the owner. He rarely talked after games, or at the headquarters. And when Bowlen was honored at a major charity event as citizen of the year in 2014, he didn't speak, and was held up by two former Broncos. His health issues were a well-protected secret but generally known in the community.

Bowlen already had established a family trust to eventually take over the Broncos ownership. And at training camp in 2014, it was announced Bowlen was ending his working role as CEO.

At his mansion in Cherry Hills Village, "Mr. B," as he is known by employees and friends, is enduring the full adverse effects of Alzheimer's.

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The trust is administered by Ellis, Broncos CEO and president, the team's general counsel, Rich Slivka, and Denver attorney Mary Kelly. According to NFL rules, they function as the club's owners. Bowlen instructed Ellis to oversee the daily business of the franchise, while Elway runs the football operation.

And the trust is to eventually identify and choose which of the seven children is to become the next owner.

Ellis once said: "It's is Mr. Bowlen's hope that one child will come along, earn the right to sit in his chair and run the team."

When I asked Bowlen years ago who would be his successor, his reply was: "I really don't know, but I would guess Brittany will at some point. She is the only one who has really expressed an interest in being the owner."

Bowlen has two daughters by his first marriage to Sally Parker - Amie Bowlen Klemmer, who lives in Hawaii and is married to a doctor, and Beth Bowlen Wallace, who last year earned her law degree at the University of Denver.

Klemmer never has shown any inclination to move to Denver and be involved with the Broncos. Wallace, married to a prominent Denver oil executive, served as director of special projects and events for the Broncos.

But she left the organization. One source said she no longer wanted to work with the franchise and preferred other projects in her life.

Pat and Annabel Bowlen have five children - Patrick Bowlen III, John Bowlen Jr., Brittany Bowlen, Annabel and Christianna.

Only one of the Bowlen children still is employed by the Broncos. Patrick is director of facilities and is seen regularly at games at the stadium.

"Johnny" Bowlen has been beset by multiple legal and personal issues and was suspended indefinitely by the team.

Neither is a prime candidate to ever become Broncos owner.

Brittany Bowlen was a national-class ice skater at Notre Dame and earned a degree, then entered the "junior management rotation" in the NFL home office. She returned a couple of years ago to work, and learn, with the Broncos, but resigned. She is at Duke in the prestigious MBA program. One Broncos source told me she intends to return to the Broncos.

Younger sister Annabel, named for her mother, attends the University of Colorado at Denver and is in the clothing and fashion business.

Teenager Christianna Bowlen recently graduated from a suburban Denver high school.

Speculation centers on Brittany, although Beth could be an outside possibility.

Some sources within the Broncos or close to the family will speak off the record or on deep background, but nobody wants a name linked to discussions about future ownership. Ellis did tell me weeks ago that the trustees protect and respect the privacy of the Bowlen family.

Two reliable sources told me that no decision on a successor likely is forthcoming for years, and the NFL is not pushing the Broncos on the matter, especially after league owners changed their bylaws to allow family trust ownership two years ago. A source close to the family said the family would not consider selling the Broncos given Pat Bowlen's wishes, and the trustees would not allow a sale to occur. Another source, however, said that the possibility of a sale has been investigated by at least two family members.

But, there has been a recent important announcement.

John Bowlen stated publicly that he is willing to sell his nonvoting, minority share of ownership. Bowlen, who lives in Canada, has owned as much as 49 percent and now "a bit less" than 40 percent (an estimated 35-38 percent) after selling stock to his brother. John Bowlen and his wife regularly attend home games, and John travels to some NFL owners meetings, including the latest one in March, "because there should be Bowlen representation." But he has no authority with the franchise.

"John hit the Powerball when he bought into the Broncos at the beginning," a source said.

However, for more than 30 years, John has been the CEO of Regent Resources, the company Bowlen's father founded. Yet, last November, Regent, as a result of declining oil prices worldwide, filed for bankruptcy. In December, an Alberta judge put the company in receivership, and most of its assets have been sold.

John, according to two sources, is experiencing health problems, too, and serious financial setbacks.

An NFL source says more than one person has expressed interest in buying the Broncos. And John Bowlen implied he has been approached about selling his minority stake. Based on the Forbes evaluation, Bowlen could receive more than $900 million.

But would the potential investor be intrigued about trying to get a majority share one day?

And would Elway, on three occasions offered minority ownership opportunities by Pat Bowlen, be an interested party with friends and associates? John is rich, but not billion-dollar rich.

"John would never work for the Broncos for someone other than Pat or the Bowlen family, unless he was a big part of the action," a source told me.

Three-to-five prominent people who live in Colorado could afford to buy the Broncos, and many more might want to own a piece of the franchise.

The John Bowlen declaration could lead to further rumblings, reports and rumors in regard to the family's future as owners of the Broncos.

This is not quite what Pat Bowlen wanted.

Could the Bowlen royal-like reign of 33 years with the Broncos end? Or, like the House of Windsor, will there be, in due course, a worthy heir to the throne?

The answers are worth more than $25,000 or $2.6 billion.

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