Photo: Jack Depmsey (AP)

Since 2014, the Denver Broncos have been operated by a three-person trust, set up after longtime owner Pat Bowlen was forced to step down from his post due to advancing Alzheimer’s disease. The trust was responsible for running the team, as well as deciding which of Bowlen’s seven children from two marriages would eventually take over the team and serve as controlling owner. Predictably, this King Lear situation has become very messy as various Bowlenspawn have begun to stake their claims over the Broncos and their $2.6 billion valuation.

The Wall Street Journal and New York Times each published accounts about the fight for control of the team this week, and together they illuminate the particulars of the intrafamily squabble that’s been messy as hell for months. The Broncos trust is composed of Pat Bowlen’s confidantes and led by Joe Ellis, a former league office exec who has been with the Broncos for 20 years. According to the Journal, the trust favors handing off control of the team to Brittany Bowlen, the 28-year-old daughter of Pat Bowlen and his current wife Annabel.

In October Brittany publicly announced her desire to eventually take over as owner, a move that Bowlen himself reportedly wanted. Brittany worked for the team and the league’s business departments, before leaving last year to work for McKinsey & Company, a big-time consulting firm. She fulfills all the experience benchmarks set forth by the trust—working in football, holding an advanced degree—though she’s still too young in the eyes of the trust to take over right now. From the Journal:

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

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In the other corner, we have Beth Bowlen Wallace, Bowlen’s second-eldest daughter from his previous marriage to Sally Parker. Bowlen Wallace, 48, in May declared her intent to take over the franchise, which prompted the trust to release a feisty statement noting that 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.” Beth Bowlen Wallace also told the Journal that her father wanted her specifically to take over, a claim that Brittany has also made, but the difference is that other sources can confirm Pat Bowlen’s support of Brittany.

Beth first began working for the Broncos in 2011, as the director of special projects. She stayed with the team until 2015, when she was fired by the trust, allegedly after she told them she was going back to school to finish up her law degree (she graduated from law school in May 2016). She told the Times that the trust isolated her and went through every possible effort not to let her acquire any influence within the organization.

Several employees on the project, she said, told her “that they were instructed not to engage with me professionally.”

Feeling alienated in the team’s offices, Bowlen Wallace then tried to promote the Broncos by working with nonprofit groups, joining seven boards. Her growing role in the community apparently was also a threat, she said.

“I was told by someone in the human resources department to drop Bowlen from my last name,” she said. “I clearly did not take that suggestion.”

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Months after the trust fired back at Bowlen Wallace, days after talks between factions reportedly broke down, and only five days after Brittany Bowlen stated her intentions, Bowlen Wallace’s side struck back. Former minority owner Bill Bowlen, Pat’s brother, filed a lawsuit on Oct. 25 with the goal of dissolving the trust and getting a judge to “appoint an independent party to serve as conservator” of the Bowlen estate, thus paving the way for Beth, the most immediately qualified of Bowlen’s children, to take over. Beth also had the support of Pat’s brother John (a current minority owner) and her older sister Anne Bowlen Klemmer.

“[The members of the trust] are their own boss and they can’t be fired,” Bill Bowlen said in a phone interview. “They have no skin in the game and yet they’re telling one of the beneficiaries to pound sand even though she is fully capable and qualified.”

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Neither Bowlen Klemmer not Bowlen Wallace are party to the suit, since they forfeit future ownership stake in the team if they sue the trust. In response to the lawsuit, the trust asked the judge to hold off while the NFL stepped in to arbitrate the dispute. Bill Bowlen claimed late last week that such a request was merely an attempt to stall. For their part, the NFL refused comment to both the Journal and the Times, though Roger Goodell has commended the trust in the past.

With the case stalled out and the NFL season coming to a close, Bowlen Wallace decided to go public and talk to the Times:

“I’m done checking off vague boxes, and my integrity and character in this community is unquestioned,” Bowlen Wallace said. “Of course, I have ambitions to work for the organization and be the next controlling owner because that’s what he stated he wanted one of his children to do.”

[...]

“This is not about Beth, this is about Pat Bowlen and his legacy,” she said. “My dad communicated he wanted this team to stay in the family, to stay in Denver, and there is an opportunity for a Bowlen dynasty and I don’t want to see that opportunity missed.”

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Looming over the proceedings is a third option, one that few in the Bowlen family seem to want. The trust is deputized to sell the team if none of the Bowlen children are deemed fit to lead.

The only things that’s clear about this fight is that it will continue to be messy and very public until there’s a resolution, which the trust is not happy about. As trust lawyer Dan Reilly said:

Pat would be extremely disappointed to have his family affairs play out in the public. The claims made by Ms. Wallace are simply not true, and the facts will come out in the appropriate forum.