When longtime Denver Broncos owner Pat Bowlen stepped away from running the team in 2014, after going public with his battle with Alzheimer’s, he put what was meant to be an orderly family succession plan in place.
The plan sets out qualifications for his seven children, including evaluation of work experience and education, among other factors, before one of them is to be selected controlling owner by the board of three trustees: Joe Ellis, president and CEO of the Broncos, Rich Slivka, Pat’s lawyer for decades and the Broncos’ general counsel and Mary Kelly, another attorney.
Beth Bowlen Wallace, 48, one of Pat’s children from his first marriage, has publicly expressed her desire to fill that role. Her experience includes a law degree, various philanthropic endeavors and business ventures, including an energy startup co-founded with her husband. The trustees, however, issued a statement that Beth isn’t qualified for the position. Instead, it appears that they’re more keen on grooming Brittany Bowlen, one of Pat’s children from his current marriage, who holds a business degree and is a business analyst for the team, to one day take over. One of Pat’s brothers, Bill Bowlen, who previously sold his shares in the team, is calling foul.
Bill recently filed a court order seeking removal of the three trustees. According to Bill, the trustees are acting in their best interests and not in accordance with Pat’s succession plan, knowing well the “implementation of that plan essentially means the defendants will be working themselves out of a position with the Denver Broncos Football Club.” On its face, that argument seems to have merit to it, as waiting until Brittany, who is only 28, is qualified to take over would clearly buy them some time. The trustees responded by asking the judge to hold off on that decision while they ask the National Football League to arbitrate the matter. Last week, Bill promptly filed an objection to that request for delay.
Bad Blood or Bad Trustees?
Unlike many of the recent family disputes playing out in the media, it doesn’t seem that there’s any bad blood among the siblings in this case (publicly, at least). Nor was there any lack of planning, as Pat seems to have his trust and succession plan in order. The issue, rather, may be the allegedly self-serving trustees. Beth has previously made statements that she intends to eventually hand over control to one of her younger siblings if she’s selected as controlling owner. She also spoke out about how she feels that the trustees view her as a threat, recounting how she was told that her job of special projects for the Broncos was being eliminated because it had no value—a day after she let the trustees know she was returning to law school to complete her degree in furtherance of her goal of become controlling owner.
A Wall Street Journal article, however, brings to light some potential family conflict, citing Bill’s petition, in which he alleges that after Beth attended a league meeting in 2012, Annabel Bowlen, Pat’s current wife (who has also been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s), became “visibly upset” and that she wants one of her own children to take over the team.
What’s at Stake?
Beth isn’t a party to Bill’s lawsuit, as the trust contains a no-contest clause. It remains to be seen if the court will decide if there’s any merit to his allegations that the trustees are abusing their powers. Alternatively, if the trustees are found to be within their powers, and they eventually determine that none of the children fit the criteria required to take over, the Broncos could be sold despite Pat’s wishes for a family succession.