NFL Commissioner Goodell Weighs in Publicly on the Broncos' Ongoing Ownership Dispute
On December 30th, Denver Broncos President and CEO Joe Ellis held court with local media. It didn't take long for the question of Broncos' ownership to surface, at which point, Ellis voiced publicly for the first time a kind of ultimatum for Pat Bowlen's children; get behind Brittany Bowlen, or else risk the team being sold.
"We’ve told the beneficiaries that because if Brittany were to succeed and take over for her father, everybody else is going to have to sign off on that, most likely," Ellis said. "That may not be a requirement, but it’s going to be necessary, I think, moving forward from a trustee viewpoint. That’s why a sale remains a possibility, I think, given the circumstances we’re in.”
Currently, the Broncos are being controlled by the Pat Bowlen Trust, which includes three people carefully selected by the late owner. Ellis is one of the three. The other two members of the Bowlen Trust are Rich Slivka, the Broncos’ Executive VP and General Counsel, and Mary Kelly, a Denver attorney who worked with Pat for many years. The Trust has absolute authority to do execute Pat's wishes as they see fit, which would include the sale of the Broncos, if it came down to that.
Based on how the Trust perceives Pat's final wishes about how controlling interest of the Broncos should be passed on to one of his children, the trust has seemingly settled on the 30-year-old Brittany as the heir apparent. Unsurprisingly, not all of Brittany's siblings are in agreement that the power should go to her.
Without going through all of the legal drama, the Bowlen family disputes over Broncos ownership have resulted in five different lawsuits, the last of which was brought by Pat's two oldest daughters from his first marriage — Beth Bowlen-Wallace and Amy Klemmer — and is still ongoing and headed for trial. All of this sets the stage for the biggest news of the week.
In his annual press conference during Super Bowl week, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell was asked by Ryan O'Halloran of the Denver Post about the Bowlen family/Broncos ownership drama and in his answer, he addressed the possibility of league intervention.
“It starts with what Pat Bowlen’s wishes were,” Goodell said from Miami. "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. He understood the importance of the league policies, and he supported that. He was one of the best league men I knew, and I talked to him probably every day, both as commissioner in my earlier years and also as chief operating officer.
“He wants his franchise, the Denver Broncos, to continue to have that success, and that’s why he set up the trust the way he did. For us, we want to make sure that his wishes are followed. I don’t think he’d be happy about the public disputes that are going on. 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. That’s 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.”
What happens next for the Broncos in free agency and the draft? Don't miss out on any news and analysis! Take a second and sign up for our free newsletter and get breaking Broncos news delivered to your inbox daily!
As frustrating as this might all be to fans, Goodell is right; it all comes down to what Pat Bowlen's wishes were. We have to assume that when he signed over the control of the Broncos to the Trust after his battle with Alzheimer's disease rendered him incapable of working anymore, that the Trust is executing his wishes.
Unfortunately, not all of the Bowlen family believe the Trust is following Pat's plan. That may be true. We can't know for sure.
But the NFL has allowed this owner-in-absentia situation to go on for five-and-a-half years now with no end in sight. Although the Broncos won Super Bowl 50 two years after Bowlen turned over power to the Trust, the depredations of the last four years have to be at least partially attributed to the lack of leadership from the owner's box. Ellis might be CEO but he's not the owner, even though he's wielded his power like he is one.
As Goodell alluded, the NFL does have an ownership policy and at some point, if an amicable resolution doesn't come to fruition within the Bowlen family and the Trust, the league could eventually step in and force the sale of the Broncos. That's basically what Ellis' threat entailed but for now, while there's still time, Pat's two oldest daughters are intent on pursuing this issue vs. the Trust in court.
It's unlikely that the Bowlen family will ever get behind one candidate, including Brittany, to serve as controlling owner, unless the courts step in and break up the Trust. The longer this goes on the more likely it seems that the Broncos will eventually be sold.