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Broncos’ ownership fight heats up with new court petition from Pat Bowlen’s brother

Bill Bowlen filed a motion Thursday asking to remove the current trustees from power for failing to act in the best interest of his brother Pat.

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Denver Broncos Introduce Peyton Manning Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Denver Broncos have a problem — and this time it’s in the boardroom, not the locker room.

An already complicated situation with the ownership of the franchise just got more complicated Thursday night when William “Bill” Bowlen, one of Pat Bowlen’s three siblings who once owned a stake in the franchise, filed a motion in Arapahoe District Court to remove the current trustees operating the team.

The three trustees are Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis, Broncos general counsel Richard Slivka and Denver attorney Mary Kelly.

Pat Bowlen relinquished day-to-day operation of the Broncos four years ago after revealing he had Alzheimer’s disease. The three-person trust was established in 2014 to carry out Pat Bowlen’s wishes for future ownership of the team — which has always been to have the ownership go to one of his seven children.

The fight over that owner began to heat up this summer when two daughters — 28-year-old Brittany Bowlen from Pat’s current marriage to Annabel, and 47-year-old Beth Bowlen Wallace from Pat Bowlen’s first marriage to Sally Parker — both came forward as interested parties.

The Broncos — under the leadership of Ellis, Slivka and Kelly — have put their support behind Brittany and have continued to state that Beth has not met the criteria.

Bill Bowlen is arguing in his motion that the three trustees have failed to uphold Pat Bowlen’s wishes and act in his best interest or those of his family and the Broncos — including their choice for eventual owner.

“I am a huge fan of the Broncos, and have been for decades. Unfortunately, over the past 15 years, I’ve noticed that the operation of the Broncos has deteriorated, while my brother’s health has worsened,” Bill Bowlen said in a press release about his court motion.

Among his claims, Bill Bowlen — who has been in support of Beth Bowlen Wallace becoming the future owner of the team — asserts that the three trustees wrongfully terminated the older daughter’s position with the team three years ago in order to prevent her from meeting the criteria her father had set out for a potential successor.

What Bill Bowlen is claiming in his court filing

As evidence that the trust should be disbanded, Bill Bowlen claims that much of the decision-making surrounding team ownership has been done after Pat Bowlen was of sound mind to make such decisions.

Bill Bowlen asserts that his brother “began displaying signs of Alzheimer’s disease and incapacity in or around 2006” when he was “diagnosed by doctors at the Mayo Clinic in Arizona with early onset Alzheimer’s.”

From the petition:

“Around this time period, family members and others close to him began seeing significant signs of Alzheimer’s, including serious memory loss. This included forgetting the names of family members and friends, and forgetting significant decisions he had made on behalf of the [Broncos].”

Woody Paige, long-time Denver sports columnist, wrote in 2017 that he had conversations with Pat Bowlen about memory loss as early as 2009:

“Bowlen first revealed to me in a 2009 telephone interview that he was experiencing severe memory loss. ‘I have trouble remembering the two Super Bowls (the Broncos victories in 1997-98),’ he said to me. He was very concerned of the developing issues with Alzheimer’s because his mother had the disease before dying.

“The Broncos didn’t discuss publicly Bowlen’s health issue for years, although it was generally known in the organization and among media, his family and friends and throughout the NFL hierarchy. It was obvious in the early 2010s that Bowlen didn’t have the same strong physical-mental condition of years earlier when he competed in IronMan triathlons and headed the league’s powerful television acquisition committee.”

Bill Bowlen asserts in his petition that the revocation of the 2002 Trust in March of 2009 — and the establishment of the then-new revocable Patrick D. Bowlen Trust — was done two months before Pat Bowlen revealed his concerns of memory loss to Paige and therefore means Pat “likely did not have the required capacity to revoke the 2002 Trust or create the PDB Trust.”

The Broncos issued a statement on Thursday night through the legal counsel for the Pat Bowlen Trust in response to the petition. Dan Reilly, the legal counsel for the Trust, is also married to Kelly, one of the three trustees.

“Although we are currently reviewing this matter, we are aware that the counsel submitting this complaint on behalf of Bill Bowlen is the same one that has been representing Beth Bowlen Wallace. The trustees will continue to execute Pat Bowlen’s long-standing succession plan for the Denver Broncos in compliance with all NFL ownership policies.”

How we got here

Pat Bowlen — who bought the team from Edgar Kaiser in 1984 for $78 million — needed the help of his siblings to buy the team. According to the petition, Pat bought the shares of his sister Mary Elizabeth Jagger in 1998-99 and his brother Bill in 2002-03. His brother John maintained a minority ownership of 30-35 percent.

Earlier this year, the Broncos bought back an undisclosed portion of John’s stake in the team, which Forbes values at $2.65 billion.

Ownership of the Broncos is a complex web of various entities, but the official owner is PDB Sports, Ltd., a Colorado limited partnership. Controlling ownership of that entity is held by Bowlen Sports, Inc., an Arizona corporation owned by Pat and John Bowlen. Pat Bowlen’s ownership interest in Bowlen Sports, Inc., is held through the “Patrick D. Bowlen Trust,” which was formed in March 2009, according to the petition filed.

The purpose of the PDB Trust was to establish a path for transferring ownership of the Broncos to one of his seven children — two with his first wife and five with current wife Annabel Bowlen.

Pat Bowlen formally filed with the NFL in 2013 to step down from his day-to-day duties as controlling owner because of the progression of Alzheimer’s.

Ellis took over as the controlling owner, serving as the team voice for the NFL and making the daily decisions Mr. B would have made if he were still in charge.

Why this is even more complicated

Among Pat Bowlen’s seven children, two have emerged as showing interest in team ownership - Beth Bowlen Wallace and Brittany Bowlen.

The daughters are from different marriages and the PDB Trust has indicated its favored choice is Brittany. who was a business analyst for the Broncos for about a year and recently earned an MBA from Duke University.

After Beth announced in May her interest of owning the team as well, the Broncos issued an official statement rejecting Beth Bowlen Wallace’s qualifications while also publicly “presenting” the two potential future owners in an unfair comparison — as reported by MHR’s Jess Place.

Ian St. Clair reported just after the announcement that this could get ugly, and it certainly seems to be going that way.

Nicki Jhabvala of The Athletic spoke to Beth Bowlen Wallace after her announcement of interest in owning the team.

“I know the fans have been anxious and asking quite a few questions about what’s happening with the succession plan of the Denver Broncos,” she told The Athletic. “I have completed the criteria laid out by the trustees, so I felt it was a good time to come out and express my interest and desire to be a part of the organization again.”

In response, the Pat D. Bowlen Trust gave The Athletic an official initial statement: “Beth Bowlen Wallace is not the only Bowlen child who is expressing interest in becoming controlling owner. The trustees have informed Beth of their determination that she is not capable or qualified at this time. We will continue to follow Pat Bowlen’s long-standing succession plan for the future ownership of the Denver Broncos.”

The Bowlen daughters

Why Beth Bowlen Wallace is not qualified is the crux of the complaints in Bill Bowlen’s petition.

The official process to find the most capable successor among Pat Bowlen’s seven children started in February 2015, just months after Mr. B’s condition had been made public.

The trustees at the time sent Pat Bowlen’s wife, Annabel, and his seven children a memo outlining criteria to be considered with requirements that included, among other things, an advanced degree such as an MBA or J.D. plus five years of “senior management experience” with the NFL, the Broncos or the Stadium Manage Company, which runs the team’s stadium in Denver.

The Trust also included a caveat that meeting the criteria would not guarantee appointment as controlling owner.

In Bill Bowlen’s petition, he states that the Trust’s claim that Beth Bowlen Wallace had not met the five-year requirement was essentially due to a wrongful termination of the position she had been appointed to in 2012.

Beth Bowlen Wallace had earned a bachelor’s degree from University of Colorado in 1994, and after moving to Hawaii with her husband, started an event planning company. She returned to Colorado in 2008 in part because of her father.

“A primary factor was certainly to come back and assess the situation with my father and his health, and to be as close to him as I could,” Beth Bowlen told The Athletic.

Beth Bowlen Wallace was hired in 2012 as the Broncos’ director of special projects. According to the court petition, this was a result of several months of discussion between Pat Bowlen, Joe Ellis and Beth Bowlen Wallace about how to get her into a management position within the organization.

In her role, Beth Bowlen Wallace was an integral part of developing the Ring of Fame Plaza on the steps of the stadium — a legacy her dad had created in 1984 to honor the players and employees. She was also part of the team’s involvement with the Alzheimer’s Association, Urban Youth Ministries and Colorado Uplift. Bill Bowlen claims in his petition that Annabel was “very upset” about this development because she wanted one of her children to be the successor.

In 2015, Beth Bowlen Wallace also entered the University of Denver’s Sturm College of Law program in order to meet the education criteria for becoming an owner. She completed that degree in 2016.

However, Bill Bowlen asserts in the court petition that within “18 hours” of notifying the PDB Trust that she was returning to law school to fulfill the criteria, the PDB Trust terminated her position at the Broncos:

“Ellis stated to Beth that her position had “no value” to the organization. This fact, when coupled with the [PDB Trust’s] combative behavior in 2012, strongly suggests that the [PDB Trust’s] termination of Beth’s position with the [Broncos] was but a pretext to prevent her from meeting the criteria established in the 2015 Criteria Memorandum and from becoming one step closer to being the controlling owner of the Denver Broncos.”

What this means now

A fight. Both daughters believe they are on the path to fulfill the requirements set forth by the Trust and the wishes of their father.

Brittany Bowlen reiterated her desire last week at a charitable event to one day become the controlling owner, despite being two years shy of the five-year requirement of working in the league offices or for the Broncos.

“I do have ambitions and goals to one day become controlling owner of the Denver Broncos,” she said. “I’ll keep working toward those goals. I’m not there yet, but I really believe I can get there.”

Beth Bowlen Wallace clearly made it known this spring she believes she deserves the title — and Bill Bowlen’s motion yesterday reiterates this desire.

So while the players are trying to get their season back on track on the field, the Broncos front office is trying to figure out what track the franchise is actually on.