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Inside the Fight for the Future of the Denver Broncos

Six months ago, Beth Bowlen Wallace made a declaration that threw one of the NFL’s proudest franchises into public tumult. She announced she was ready to take control of the Denver Broncos from the trust established by her father Pat Bowlen, who is incapacitated by Alzheimer’s.

The trust that Pat Bowlen handpicked to control the Broncos did not agree. The trust has signaled that it may eventually support another daughter, from a different marriage—Brittany Bowlen—to one day take the position of principal owner.

And with that, a family feud, which simmered privately for years, burst into public view, with the fate of a multibillion-dollar NFL franchise hanging in the balance. The trust is tasked with picking which of his children should become controlling owner—or selling the team if it believes it is in the family’s best interest.

But the task is complicated by an intense family drama.

On one side: The children from Pat Bowlen’s first marriage, including Beth Bowlen Wallace. They are buoyed by the support of their uncle, Bill Bowlen, who once owned a stake in the team and, in October, filed a petition in Colorado District Court seeking the trust’s removal and accusing it of failing to abide by Pat Bowlen’s succession plan and fiduciary malfeasance. Bowlen Wallace, meanwhile, says her father planned for her to eventually take over.

On the other side: The trust, comprised of Pat Bowlen’s confidantes, which is seen to favor Brittany Bowlen as a successor and says Bowlen Wallace’s plan circumvents her father’s wishes. The trust fired Bowlen Wallace from her position with the team in 2015 and has rejected her move to take over. Lawyers representing the trust say Bill Bowlen’s petition is filled with falsehoods and has no legal standing.

Broncos owner Pat Bowlen after Denver beat New England in the AFC Championship on Jan. 19, 2014.

Broncos owner Pat Bowlen after Denver beat New England in the AFC Championship on Jan. 19, 2014.


Photo:

Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Commissioner Roger Goodell has said the trust has done “a terrific job” of leading the Broncos and that it is in compliance with league rules. The league declined to comment further.

It’s a divisive turn for a franchise that was long an NFL model, enjoying success with little drama.

Pat Bowlen, 74 years old, and three siblings, including Bill, bought a majority stake in the Broncos in 1984, with Pat serving as controlling owner—NFL bylaws dictate that in any ownership group, only one person is designated as such. He has presided over one of the most successful tenures in league history, including three Super Bowl championships.

In late 2013, Bowlen was declared incapacitated as a result of advanced Alzheimer’s and then relinquished control of the team to Joe Ellis, a respected NFL executive who moved to the Broncos front office in 1998. The team’s future was placed in the hands of a three-person trust consisting of Ellis; Rich Slivka, Bowlen’s lawyer for decades and the Broncos general counsel; and Mary Kelly, another attorney.

Peyton Manning poses with Annabel Bowlen and other members of the Bowlen family before a Broncos game in 2016.

Peyton Manning poses with Annabel Bowlen and other members of the Bowlen family before a Broncos game in 2016.


Photo:

Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

There were few public signs of trouble. Children from both marriages sat together in the owners box during games. The team won the Super Bowl after the 2015 season. John Elway, the Hall of Fame quarterback who led the team to its first two titles, hoisted the Lombardi Trophy after winning the third as general manager and roared: “This one’s for Pat.”

But tensions mounted in private. Beth Bowlen Wallace, 48 years old, had begun working for the Broncos beginning in 2012 as “director of special projects.” She says her father wanted her to gain experience to replace him, and she began requesting that she be named controlling owner in the years after her father stepped aside.

Bill Bowlen’s petition alleges that Bowlen Wallace’s relationship with the trustees deteriorated. He says that Pat Bowlen’s second wife, Annabel, became “very upset” after Bowlen Wallace attended a league meeting in 2012 and that Annabel Bowlen wanted one of her own children to take over the team. Annabel Bowlen, her children and the team said in June, has been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, like her husband.

Beth Bowlen Wallace looks on during her father, Pat Bowlen's, Ring of Fame ceremony in 2015.

Beth Bowlen Wallace looks on during her father, Pat Bowlen’s, Ring of Fame ceremony in 2015.


Photo:

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

The team took the extraordinary step of firing the owner’s daughter in 2015. She and Bill Bowlen allege she was fired the day after she told the trustees she was admitted to law school. They allege that was an effort to keep her from meeting Pat Bowlen’s criteria for taking over control of the team, which includes working in football and holding an advanced degree.

In a statement after Bowlen Wallace publicly announced her desire to become controlling owner, the trust said that she was “fully informed as to why her employment with the team ended” in 2015. “[Pat Bowlen] made it clear that his children were not automatically entitled to a role with the team and that they would have to earn that opportunity through their accomplishments, qualifications and character,” the trust said in the statement.

Bill Bowlen, who sold his stake in the team around 2002, met with members of the NFL league office after Bowlen Wallace’s firing and warned: “You guys have got a problem. You may not think you have a problem because you’re listening to the other side, but you’ve got a problem.”

Bowlen Wallace went public this May, declaring herself ready to take over. The trust publicly responded, in a statement distributed by the team, saying that she was “not capable or qualified at this time.” They add in a court motion that Bowlen Wallace “lacks the business experience and acumen, knowledge, leadership skills, integrity, and character necessary to be the sole individual running an NFL franchise valued at over $2.5 billion.”

In October, Brittany Bowlen, 28, publicly announced her desire to become controlling owner. A former NFL league office employee and business analyst for the Broncos with a business degree, she is now a consultant for McKinsey & Co. During her time with the Broncos working on the finance team, she won the support of Broncos executives—including those not involved with the trust—with her business acumen and projects such as the Broncos bid to host the NFL draft, one person familiar with the team said.

In July, Ellis said Brittany Bowlen has taken “good steps” while noting she is not ready “yet.”

Brittany Bowlen, right, with Anabel Bowlen, left, before a game on Nov. 4, 2018.

Brittany Bowlen, right, with Anabel Bowlen, left, before a game on Nov. 4, 2018.


Photo:

Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Despite the acrimony, the parties tried to find a solution this fall by attempting to arrange a meeting with both sides, along with league officials. Those talks collapsed in October, and Bill Bowlen in short order filed his petition and says the trustees have “no accountability to anybody.” The trustees have responded asking the NFL to arbitrate.

Many expect the Pro Football Hall of Fame’s contributor committee to next year enshrine Pat Bowlen, one of the NFL’s winningest owners and a hugely influential figure during the league’s rapid financial boom. But as that landmark approaches, people close to him say the current drama goes sharply against what he and the Broncos represented for so long.

“He’d be mortified that this is now being bandied about in public,” one of the people familiar said.

Terrell Davis, center, stands with Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, left, and John Elway after winning the AFC Championship against the New York Jets in Jan. 1999.

Terrell Davis, center, stands with Broncos owner Pat Bowlen, left, and John Elway after winning the AFC Championship against the New York Jets in Jan. 1999.


Photo:

Brian Bahr/Allsport/Getty Images

Write to Andrew Beaton at andrew.beaton@wsj.com

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