DENVER — With cousin George’s painting of the Broncos’ logo hanging on the wall behind him, Joe Ellis appeared relaxed for a guy who, along with his two fellow trustees of the Pat Bowlen estate, is getting sued by Pat Bowlen’s two oldest daughters.
Amie Bowlen Klemmer and Beth Bowlen Wallace have petitioned the Arapahoe County District Court and Judge John E. Scipione to have the Pat Bowlen Trust invalidated on grounds their father lacked the mental capacity to sign his estate-planning documents in 2009.
The petition lists their late father’s trustees Ellis, Rich Slivka and Mary Kelly as the defendants.
Judge Scipione has agreed to hear the complaint with the civil trial scheduled to commence September 1, or about the time Broncos’ general manager John Elway and head coach Vic Fangio begin holding meetings to discuss how to best trim their season-opening roster from 80 to 53 players.
Asked by 9NEWS if the timing of the trial is troubling considering it comes at such a pivotal time for the football team – the Broncos are to open their regular season two weeks later, September 14 against Tennessee – Ellis demurred.
"I hate to duck your question but I have to," Ellis said during a sit-down Zoom interview with 9NEWS as George W. Bush’s hobby work hung on the wall behind him. "Simply because there’s a protective order issued by the court that requires confidentiality on all levels. And I’m not going to speak to it.
"The only thing I can tell you is the case stands ready to go in court on September 1st. We’ll get through it and it won’t be disruptive to our business whatsoever with the Broncos. We’ll proceed forward. Everybody is working really hard."
Simmering under the surface of the lawsuit is Beth Bowlen Wallace publicly announced on May 31, 2018 her desire to become controlling owner of the Broncos while the trustees have instead let it be known that her half-sister, Brittany Bowlen, is the chosen one.
If the Bowlen children don’t unanimously agree on Brittany, Ellis has said he would have little choice but to sell the team.
Ellis, as the Broncos’ chief executive officer and president, is putting Brittany through a series of challenges as she works to assume her late father’s chair at UCHealth Training Center. After bringing Brittany in to the Broncos’ front office in an executive management role last November, Ellis charged her with running the team’s COVID-19 task force this spring.
As the task force’s leader, Brittany has worked closely with NFL public policy and government affairs office, which works in consultation with the league’s chief medical officer and players union.
She also has been in regular communication with officials associated with Governor Polis and the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
Thanks to her comprehensive, 32-page Infectious Disease Emergency Response (IDER) plan, Brittany received a variance for the Broncos to hold training camp at the UCHealth Training Center. She is now working to secure variance to safely hold events at Empower Field at Mile High.
"That’s pretty much occupied, I would say, 99.9 percent of her time," Ellis said. "I’m proud of the work she’s done. She’s really done a good job of facilitating our task force, moderating the meetings and discussions. Keeping the agenda items moving forward.
"There’s been no slip up, no time delays. We’ve been on task throughout this when we started this in April. I thank her for doing that.
"I asked her to do this on my behalf and I stepped out of the way. And I think it’s really, really worked well. She rolls up her sleeves and gets into work every day early and leaves late and works through the weekends. Doesn’t get mad when I call her at terrible hours in the night, or when I have a bunch of questions she already has the answers for me. She’s done a really good job."
It begs the question: Does Ellis plan on stepping out of the way for good to let Brittany run the Broncos? And if so, when? His contract as the team’s top boss runs through March 2022. Brittany will be 32 by then.
"Hopefully, we can pull off a transition to a new owner, whether that’s Brittany or somebody else," Ellis said. "I’ll stick around for that. I don’t know when that would be at this point. A lot of things are up in the air.
"Right now we’re not focused on that. We’re focused on getting this 2020 season under way. Having a good safe training camp. Going through all the details here up until September 14 when the season starts. It’s a lot of work."
Ellis noted Brittany had a lot of help. Other key members of the Broncos’ COVID-19 task force included Nancy Svoboda, Chip Conway, Steve Antonopulos, Patrick Smyth, Mark Thewes, Mac Freeman, Jay Roberts and Justin Webster.
"It’s been all hands on deck," Ellis said. "For me it’s been really nice to see the work and the effort given, as you just pointed out, some really difficult circumstances. People dealing with personal anxieties, having to manage their families. Having to work differently, all of that. So very proud of the way our organization stepped up.’"
The next two challenges the Broncos’ COVID-19 task force must work through:
1. Whether to put fans in the stands for games at Empower Field at Mile High, and if so, when and how many?
2. Keeping the players safe through travelling to road games.
It was put to Ellis: Will there be fans in attendance for the Broncos’ opener against the Titans on September 14?
"I don’t know," Ellis said. "I don’t know, yet. And I don’t know when I’m going to know that. It’s going to take some time to work through this with the state. The Governor has done a really good job of being careful, listening to the scientific evidence and the medical experts and I think doing the right thing.
"Mayor Hancock is also involved and has followed that pattern as well. We have worked hand-in-hand with both of them. They have been very reasonable, very thoughtful of taking their time, working through things to understand exactly what we’re doing because we are going to be playing to a big audience. Whether there are fans or no fans, we’ve got a lot of people hitting each other, around each other. Coaches, sports staff. It’s a big undertaking no matter how you look at it.
"I do know our fans want to come back and watch us play. I’ve received a lot of different messages in a lot of different forums. I respect that but we have to take everybody’s health and safety and welfare into account every time we look into making a decision.
"I can’t predict for you what the crowds will be, if there will be crowds at all."
Perhaps, the biggest challenge, as baseball’s Miami Marlins discovered this week, is staying COVID-19 free while travelling to road games. It’s one thing to stay safe when working 12 to 13 hours a day at the thoroughly sanitized environment that is Broncos headquarters. It’s another to stay healthy after moving 100-some people – including 53 active players – from team headquarters to the airport, from the airplane to the hotel, from the hotel to a visiting locker room, to a playing field where the game will be played against strangers.
"Yeah, you’ve got to do that eight times," Ellis said. "I think it’s going to be challenge. I think we can do it, I really do. Now we’ll learn some things over the course of these next six weeks. Late-September is our first road game. Pittsburgh. We’re going to learn a lot before that. We’re going to keep working with the league, keep working with the local officials of a different variety to make sure that when we travel, everything is safe. We have the right PPE, we’re masked up. The buses we got on, the planes we got on, the locker rooms we’re in, all of that is as pristine as can be.
"Look, there are no guarantees. You’ve seen what happened in baseball. But I’m hoping we go in and conduct ourselves appropriately and we can be all right. I’m optimistic. In listening to our staff, and in listening to some of the things our players said in meetings, I think our guys are going to take this very seriously and hopefully we won’t stray too far to a point where we have real problems here. Can’t say what’s going to happen with 32 teams in the league. But we do have some time on our hands."
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