The Future Of The Broncos Ownership: Thinking Through The Latest Chapter

Yesterday, Beth Bowlen Wallace expressed a desire to become controlling owner of the Broncos. The Pat Bowlen Trust said, in many more words, “nope”. What is there to take away from this news, on an issue that will be critical in determining the long term fate of the Denver Broncos? Here’s what’s currently on my mind.


  1. This article is speculation on my part. I obviously claim no inside knowledge on the Broncos’ ownership; I am merely using a combination of publicly known facts alongside intuition coming from observing and studying the NFL for many years.
  2. Some of that speculation is of the legal variety. I’m not a lawyer, and if I have any mistakes about general or specific legal aspects related to this issue, please speak up with a correction if you have the ability to offer one.

With that said, let’s get to it.

The Pat Bowlen Trust may have more power than is commonly understood.

I’ve sensed a general common belief held among Broncos fans and NFL observers that the Pat Bowlen Trust is operating as a mere caretaker while Pat Bowlen himself is alive but unable to run the team due to being stricken with Alzheimer’s disease. Whenever Bowlen dies, one of his children would then rise as owner, and if that didn’t happen, the team would be sold.

But that belief may be mistaken. What could be closer to the truth is that the Trust itself is currently the effective controlling owner of the Broncos. It may have “full” (more on that in a minute) power to dictate both the present and future path of how the Broncos are owned and operated. Furthermore, the eventual benefactors of the trust–Bowlen’s children–may have no say at all on those matters.

That seems like the case given the rather strong words that both Bowlen Wallace and the Trust directed at each other on the question of becoming controlling owner. It may even be the case as to whether a Bowlen child even has a say in selling any possible interest in the team. It’s often been said that, given the Panthers’ recent sale for $2.2 billion, it’s cromulent to prefer receiving a nine figure sum in straight cash (homey) over running a football team (no matter how dreamy it sounds). But even that choice may not exist–it may be Trust’s alone to make. It may even be that way after Bowlen dies–this could be the case with the Buccaneers, a team that even after the death of Malcolm Glazer in 2014 is still in his family’s control with four children at the head of their front office.

Thus, there could be a good chance that the status quo of the Trust running the team could be longer that is thought. And there’s another important reason why that could be the case.

The NFL will have immense power over the future of the Broncos.

A point that seems to get missed in this discussion often is that not any rich jabroni can just walk in and buy an NFL team. The NFL itself–and by “NFL” I mean “its 32 owners”–must approve any change in ownership. And the NFL is essentially one of the world’s most prestigious country clubs. It’s a group consisting of some of America’s richest and most powerful businessfolk, or the sons and daughters of the same. It’s not going to let anyone in this club that does not meet their sensibilities and responsibilities.

This aspect may explain how Joe Ellis has become the de facto controlling owner of the Broncos. Ellis certainly fits the bill of being in a country club beyond even the level of Augusta National–he is part of the Bush family, after all. I find it unlikely that the NFL would have allowed Pat Bowlen to relinquish operations to Ellis if he did not meet what Bowlen’s peers look for.

This helps explain why Roger Goodell–and never forget, the commissioner is the representative of the 32 owners–has been remarkably positive about the status quo in Denver. (Contrast this with how negative he’s been about the Titans’ ownership situation.) Ellis is pretty clearly in the good graces of Bowlen’s peers, so it may not be unreasonable to infer that the NFL may give Ellis wide latitude to navigate the path of the Broncos.

But make no mistake, any decisions Ellis makes is going to be ultimately steered by the NFL, While Ellis and his fellow trustees may officially hold the final decision, he will heed the advice of the owners as to who will join their illustrious ranks.

Beth Bowlen Wallace may not be a serious candidate. Will any of her siblings be, and when will we know?

Given the above, where my mind is right now is seeing Bowlen Wallace’s efforts yesterday as lacking any real substance. If the NFL and Ellis viewed her more promisingly, we likely would have heard about it a while ago, instead of the confrontational press releases we got yesterday. Bowlen Wallace may be narrowly checking off the objective requirements as cited by Nicki Jhabvala back in January, but that does not account for the also cited subjective requirements that an exclusive group like the NFL will seek.

If not Beth Bowlen Wallace, then who? Mike Klis, who has well established connections to the Broncos’ front office, cites Brittany Bowlen as “[the] clear favorite to become Pat Bowlen’s successor.” She, too, has been meeting some of those objective criteria as well, but she’s only 28 and is just fresh off earning an MBA. Even Jed York was entering his 30s when he first emerged as CEO of the 49ers. Even if Ellis and the NFL may view Brittany Bowlen as a serious possibility, it may be several more years before that’s known for sure.

And if Ellis and the NFL are indeed waiting to collect more facts, we may be waiting quite a while to learn the answer to the question that’s posed. That might not be a bad thing at all–there’s little doubt that the Broncos have remained one of the premier NFL franchise since Ellis took over operations.

But perhaps that determination could also come at any time, sooner or later. And if that’s sooner, we could see a snap sell of the team like we recently saw with the Panthers. So stay prepared and aware of this situation, Broncos fans. It could take a massive turn at any moment.