Current Trends - Denver Broncos Ownership & Pat Bowlen's Trust - Episode 28
Hey there, Legal Tea Listeners –This is your host, Jenny Rozelle. Welcome back for another episode of Legal Tea! Today’s topic is a current trend … something going on in current time, that is pertinent to my world. This episode is for all you sports fans – especially professional football fans! Today’s topic is on the Denver Broncos – and specifically, something that has been hitting the headlines, somewhat quietly, recently regarding the team, the ownership, and the future of the Broncos.
Before we dive into what is REALLY going on (the juicy stuff), I first need to introduce you to a gentleman by the name of Pat Bowlen. According to Pat Bowlen’s Wikipedia page, Pat was the “Principal Owner” of the Denver Broncos from 1984 to 2019. So, his name is primarily affiliated with the Denver Broncos football team. Pat was a mere 40 years old when he acquired ownership of the team. In fact, according to the New York Times, after Pat purchased the Broncos, he “walked the sideline before games in a cowboy hat and fur coats, signatures that made him a quasi-celebrity.” Sounds like a cool guy!
In 2009, Pat really started to withdraw himself from the spotlight and there were rumors that he did so because he was starting to experience shot-term memory loss. Then, in 2010, Pat stopped making any significant decisions as it related to the Broncos. Finally, in 2014, Pat was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease, which ultimately led to Pat allowing the Broncos’ President, Joe Ellis, to step into the driver’s seat and make decisions relating to the Broncos. Unfortunately, on June 13, 2019, Pat passed away at the age of 75 years old.
Personally-speaking (about Pat) … According to the New York Times, Pat had married a lady by the name of Sally Edwards Parker in 1968. Sally and Pat had two daughters, namely Aime Klemmer and Beth Wallace. Pat and Sally ended up divorcing a few years later in 1973. Then, in1980, Pat married again, a lady by the name of Annabel Bowlen, and he and Annabel had five additional children: Patrick III, Johnny, Brittany, Annabel, and Christiana. At the time of Pat’s passing, his wife, Annabel, and all of his children survived him.
So the whooooole thing we are talking about today is in regards to the ownership of the Broncos because, as according to a Sports Illustrated article written by Chad Jensen, after Pat’s passing, there is no “living owner to lead the club” so the “Broncos have been managed by the Pat Bowlen Trust.” According to the same article, Pat’s express wish, as provided in the Trust document, was that the Broncos’ ownership and operation remain in the family. Though, as the author, Chad Jensen, perfectly states: “…It was Bowlen’s wish … that the Broncos remain in the family to be operated by his children, with the objective, ostensibly, to have one, through a painstaking process of qualification, take the ownership lead as the lead-man or lead-woman.”
Unfortunately, that is where we take a big ol’ sharp left turn … and where we start moving in not-a-good direction. The kiddos can’t agree – they can’t agree on “one” being the lead-man/lead-woman.
The individuals running the Trust are CEO Joe Ellis (who we talked about a second ago); VP and General Counsel, Rick Slivka; and lawyer, Mary Kelly. At some point, according to Chad Jensen’s article, they selected Brittany Bowlen, one of the children of Pat that he shared with his second wife, as who would be the lead-woman. However, Pat’s two daughters from his first marriage, Aime and Beth, are not happy about this – in fact, they have initiated litigation claiming that the Trust was executed while Pat was, perhaps, of unsound mind – and therefore, the Trust should be dissolved.
In Chad Jensen’s piece, which was released on June 30, 2021, he shared that it seemed that the sides (the Trust representatives versus Aime/Beth’s side) seem to be “on the cusp of a settlement.” Though, while this is all going on, another Sports Illustrated piece (this piece by Keith Cummings), shared that Joe Ellis, the CEO, has stated he does NOT plan to renew his contract in 2022 – so while the ownership of the Broncos remains unclear, as does the executive leadership… To add to the drama, too, Keith’s piece goes on to say, “Ellis’ statement could be deemed as a failure to offer Brittany a ringing endorsement of her potential ownership credentials.” (Remember, Brittany is who the Trust supposedly selected as their lead-woman…)
According to a Sports Illustrated piece by Bob Morris, the lawsuit did indeed end up getting dismissed … sometime the week of July 12th, 2021. It further shared that the Motion to Dismiss was ACTUALLY filed by Aime and Beth, which oddly is who initiated the lawsuit, and the Court, according to Bob’s piece, “held that the amended Trust documents are enforceable.”
With the lawsuit being dismissed, there’s speculation that the team may get sold – many think this because CEO Joe Ellis has not piped up and given any name as who may take over as the owner. However, Bob’s Sports Illustrated piece goes on to combat that speculation and explain that “just because Ellis didn’t mention Brittany does not mean the team is going to be sold.” So, just as in the beginning of all this craziness, there’s a lot of TBDs and unknowns … there was at the beginning and it’s still that way. Though, Bob’s piece shares that the future of the Broncos will “come down to what Pat’s children ultimately decide. … It’s possible, with Ellis intending to step down as CEO as soon as 2022, that the Bowlen children could choose to keep the team, then elect one of them as the CEO.”
Subsequent to these Sports Illustrated pieces, current CEO Joe Ellis provided an update of things at a press conference in August of 2021. He shared that the “Pat Bowlen Trust is aiming for a timely, responsible and orderly determination of ownership.” He further shared that a firm plan will be released in 2022, and at the very least prior to the commencement of the 2022 season. He concluded the press conference by stating that their current focus is on the 2021 season and hopefully being competitive for a Superbowl run. (Side note: As I write this, I did a quick Google search and I found a New York Times article that stated as of today, December 30th when I’m writing this episode, the Broncos have a less than 1% chance of making the playoffs, so yeah….)
In a more recent update with all this, the younger brother of Pat Bowlen, whose name is Bill Bowlen, did an interview with CBS in the fall – the CBS article was released on November 16, 2021, so the interview probably happened around that date. Anyway, while discussing what has transpired since Pat’s passing, Bill shared, “It didn’t have to happen this way, that’s what really gets me. It’s really sad that this has been able to tear a family apart the way it has, and that really hurts.” You know, I hear you, Bill. While my law firm doesn’t handle estate litigation (thankfully!), I do occasionally have a client share with me a “horror story” of something they’ve experienced.
In the interview, too, Bill shared (along with Bill’s daughter, Julie, who joined him for the interview) that they thought Pat started showing cognitive decline way back in 2006. He actually gave a few examples – one time when Pat wrote the eulogy for their mother’s passing. Bill said that the eulogy was strange, and that it was more about the Broncos rather than their mother. Another example was when he was trying to reach out to Pat, and after unsuccessfully trying, he reached out to the office to find out that Pat had changed his number just out of the blue – without any heads up to Bill.
Then finally as a last example, Bill said that back in 2010, the Broncos played in London and their father spoke to Pat – Bill said, “My dad walked back to me and said, ‘I don’t think he [talking about Pat] had any idea who I was. Something was not right.” What’s a little concerning about all this is these examples went back to 2006, and he updated his estate plan in 2009…
Bill, in the CBS interview, explained that before the Trustees of the Trust, sort of, selected Brittany as the lead-woman; Beth (she was a daughter of Pat from the first marriage—and she and her sister filed that lawsuit in 2019) wanted to be entertained as an option to be the Broncos’ owner. So, the Trustees, sort of, pitted Brittany and Beth against each other. Bill’s daughter, Julie, shared, “They have fractured this family possibly beyond repair.” Bill followed up with a comment of his own, “Pat would have been very upset, very upset … it didn’t have to happen this way. That’s what really gets me.”
So yeah … like so many Legal Tea episodes, we’re at a point where there’s still quite a bit of unknowns. Who knows – by this time next year, Broncos will have likely a new owner, but whether it be someone in the family (which sounds like what Pat wanted to have happen) or if the team gets sold … time will only tell. And just like 2021 flew by, I’m sure 2022 will start flying by and this will start hitting the headlines again soon, if what current CEO Joe Ellis stated is true – that all of this will likely be concluded before the start of the 2022 football season.
Alrighty, let’s wrap this “current trends/current events” episode up, shall we? Though, it has been fun talking about this one, that’s for sure!
Next week’s topic is on estate planning of the rich and the famous – on that episode, we’re going to talk about Heath Ledger and what happened estate-wise following his tragic, sad, and unexpected passing! Heath Ledger, if you’re failing to put a face to a name, was in several big name movies – he was the Joker in The Dark Knight; in Brokeback Mountain; 10 Things I Hate About You, The Patriot, A Knight’s Tale; etc. Lots of good ones. So yeah, we will talk about Heath and his estate next Tuesday, Legal Tea Listeners! Talk to you then and stay well!