Battling for the Denver Broncos, With Some Siblings in the Way

Battling for the Denver Broncos, With Some Siblings in the Way

December 12, 2018

CASTLE ROCK, Colo. — Beth Bowlen Wallace’s office is filled with reminders of her work the past decade.

There is a framed certificate recognizing her contribution to a local charity, a diploma from law school and footballs commemorating her time with the Denver Broncos, where she worked for several years. The keepsakes also represent her efforts to fulfill the criteria needed to succeed her father as controlling owner of the team.

In the summer of 2014, her father, Pat Bowlen, who has Alzheimer’s disease, turned over the reins of the team to three trustees, who set out benchmarks, some specific, some broad, for his seven children to meet before one could become its controlling owner.

Four years later, what originally looked like an orderly and sensible succession plan has turned into the latest intra-family battle over one of the N.F.L.’s premier franchises. A lawsuit has commenced, and the N.F.L. has been asked to arbitrate, a request that one of Pat Bowlen’s brothers, a former minority owner, called a delay tactic in a filing last weekend.

Bowlen Wallace, the second child from the first of Pat Bowlen’s two marriages, is at the center of this battle over who controls the Denver franchise, which has been valued at $2.6 billion.

Now 48, she has been the most vocal sibling about her desire to take over for her father. She said she has met the criteria, pointing to her philanthropic work, her experience as a manager at various businesses, her time as a director of special projects at the Broncos and her law degree, which she earned in 2016.

“I’m done checking off vague boxes, and my integrity and character in this community is unquestioned,” she said in an interview at the energy start-up she founded with her husband. “Of course, I have ambitions to work for the organization and be the next controlling owner because that’s what he stated he wanted one of his children to do,” she continued, referring to her father.

But the trustees, including Joe Ellis, the team’s chief executive, have blocked her path to ownership, saying she is not ready to take over.

Pat Bowlen “did not designate Beth as a trustee or appoint her to a leadership position, nor did he instruct the trustees to specifically mentor her,” they said in a statement in May. “He made it clear that his children were not automatically entitled to a role with the team and that they would have to earn that opportunity through their accomplishments, qualifications and character.”

Complicating matters, Brittany Bowlen, about 20 years younger than Bowlen Wallace and a daughter of Pat Bowlen’s second wife, has also said she wants to run the club someday. She has earned an M.B.A. and worked at league headquarters and as a business analyst for the team, though because of her young age, she is not ready to take control of the team, which means the trustees can continue their control of the Broncos for the foreseeable future.

The Broncos would not make Brittany Bowlen available for comment, but at a charity event in October she told local reporters she has the ambition to eventually become the team’s controlling owner. “I’ll keep working toward those goals,” she said. “I’m not there yet, but I really believe I can get there.”

The trustees declined to discuss the case, including Bowlen Wallace’s claims, referring all questions to their lawyer, Dan Reilly. “Pat would be extremely disappointed to have his family affairs play out in the public,” Reilly said in a statement. “The claims made by Ms. Wallace are simply not true, and the facts will come out in the appropriate forum.”

Despite her public spat with the trustees, Bowlen Wallace does not carry herself like a rebel. She is at once elegant and seemingly tough. She speaks softly yet deliberately. While she knows she is fighting an uphill battle, she does not come off as bitter. An intense listener and avid storyteller, she seems comfortable in her own skin, which has a healthy glow, presumably from the time she spends riding horses.

The current standoff is the culmination of years of tension between the trustees and Bowlen Wallace. She graduated from the University of Colorado and spent two years in law school at the University of Denver before returning to Hawaii, where she grew up. She moved back to Denver in 2009 partly to be closer to her father, who was then showing signs of memory loss. In 2011, her father told her to speak with Ellis about finding a job at the Broncos.

“He said, ‘When are you starting work?’” Bowlen Wallace recalled. “‘You go talk to Joe and find out where your office is going to be.’”

Bowlen Wallace said she met Ellis a handful of times over several months to discuss Pat Bowlen’s health, the league and her potential role at the club. Ellis was vague about what she might do, she said, because she represented a threat.

“I think he was feeling out what impact I was going to have on the team, and how that might impact him,” she said.

Eventually, Ellis offered her the job of director of special projects. In that role, she helped create a plaza outside the team’s stadium that includes a statue of her father and honors the Broncos in the franchise’s Ring of Fame. Several employees on the project, she said, told her “that they were instructed not to engage with me professionally.”

Feeling alienated in the team’s offices, Bowlen Wallace then tried to promote the Broncos by working with nonprofit groups, joining seven boards. Her growing role in the community apparently was also a threat, she said.

“I was told by someone in the human resources department to drop Bowlen from my last name,” she said. “I clearly did not take that suggestion.”

The beginning of the end came in the summer of 2014, when her father said he was stepping away from the club. “There was some insecurity, but my dad was there, and as long as my dad was there, I was secure, because that’s what he wanted,” she said.

The next year, the trustees sent emails to all seven siblings with the criteria they would need to meet to become the controlling owner. (The Broncos also brief the siblings each year on the state of the team.) Sensing that an advanced degree would be on the list, Bowlen Wallace had re-enrolled in law school to complete her degree. When she contacted the trustees to let them know, she was asked to visit the office the next morning.

“It took them two minutes to say that my position had no value to the organization and it was being eliminated,” she said.

This has left Bowlen Wallace on the outside, looking for a chance to get back in. She said she has asked the trustees at least four times if there were any openings at the Broncos and has been told each time that nothing was available, even though positions at the team were created for some of her siblings.

Frustrated that the trustees have not shared with them the details of the trust, Bowlen Wallace and her older sister, Amie Bowlen Klemmer, submitted a proposal in April that Bowlen Wallace take over as controlling owner, and eventually hand over the team to her younger siblings. “There doesn’t have to be the ‘Hunger Games’” between the siblings, she said.

When the proposal was received coolly, Bowlen Wallace’s biggest ally, her uncle Bill Bowlen, went to court in October to demand that the trustees have an independent overseer. Bill Bowlen, who sold his shares in the team years ago, argues that trustees answer only to themselves and have an interest in taking as long as possible to choose a new controlling owner because they could lose their jobs in the process.

“They are their own boss and they can’t be fired,” Bill Bowlen said in a phone interview. “They have no skin in the game and yet they’re telling one of the beneficiaries to pound sand even though she is fully capable and qualified.”

Pat’s other brother, John Bowlen, who still owns a stake in the team, and Bowlen Klemmer have backed Bowlen Wallace’s bid to become controlling owner.

After Bill Bowlen filed his complaint, the trustees asked the judge to hold off on a decision while they ask the N.F.L. to settle the matter in arbitration. On Friday, Bill Bowlen accused the trustees of stalling.

Giovanni Ruscitti, his lawyer, said Colorado law prohibits trustees from abusing their power. He said the trustees’ attempt to get the N.F.L. to hear the case makes no sense because neither Bill Bowlen nor his nieces are an owner.

The league, which signed off on the succession plan years ago, declined to comment about the request for arbitration, or the dispute more broadly.

But in January, Commissioner Roger Goodell said the trustees “are in compliance with our rules; they have been very thoughtful; they have done a terrific job of leading that franchise over the last several years as Pat’s focused on his health issues.”

Bowlen Wallace and Bowlen Klemmer are not party to Bill Bowlen’s lawsuit. The trust includes a no-contest clause, which means that if they sue the trust, they will be excluded from it.

The N.F.L. is no stranger when it comes to familial fights over franchises. In 2014, Tom Benson, then the owner of the New Orleans Saints, disowned his daughter and her children, who then tried to have him declared mentally incompetent. He survived the legal challenge and his third wife, Gayle, took over the team after he died this year.

When Bud Adams died in 2013, the Tennessee Titans were given to his two daughters and his daughter-in-law and her two sons, without one party getting control. (His son, Kenneth, died in 1987.) The league pushed the Titans to have one permanent controlling owner. Ultimately, his daughter Amy Adams Strunk took over as controlling owner when her brother’s heirs backed her bid.

Perhaps the closest comparison is the case of Joe Robbie, the founding owner of the Miami Dolphins, who died in 1990. Robbie named three of his nine children as trustees to run the team, leading to a bitter dispute. When the siblings were hit with a $47 million estate tax bill, the team was sold to Wayne Huizenga.

The Broncos could be sold if the trustees decide that none of the children are capable of taking over. For now, though, the focus is on finding a suitable replacement for Pat Bowlen, who bought the team with his three siblings in 1984 and turned it into one of the league’s most successful franchises, with three Super Bowl wins in eight appearances. (The first appearance came before Pat Bowlen took over; the third title, came after he had stopped running the team.)

With the trustees refusing to engage, though, Bowlen Wallace said her only choice was to go public with her case.

“This is not about Beth, this is about Pat Bowlen and his legacy,” she said. “My dad communicated he wanted this team to stay in the family, to stay in Denver, and there is an opportunity for a Bowlen dynasty and I don’t want to see that opportunity missed.”

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