In the early 1990s, about all that soared in this country were unemployment rates and the budget deficit.
President George H.W. Bush was forced to break his promise of “read my lips: no new taxes” as America reeled through a recession. The television networks struggled to get the beverage, automobile and fast food companies to put up necessary advertising dollars.
It was a time when Pat Bowlen made his move from highly successful owner of the Denver Broncos to one of the most effective and pioneering stewards in NFL history.
A Pro Football Hall of Fame subcommittee will convene next month to select one contributor candidate to bring before the full Hall voting committee for likely final election.
Bowlen is expected to receive his strongest consideration yet as a Hall of Fame contributor. The strength of his case is two-pronged. One, his remarkable guardianship of the Broncos. Besides having the NFL’s best overall winning percentage since he purchased the team in 1984, Bowlen’s most outstanding accomplishment during his 33 seasons is the Broncos recorded more Super Bowl appearances (7) than losing seasons (5). This staggering statistic alone should qualify Bowlen for entrance into Canton’s hallowed halls.
But, there is a second point. Bowlen became such a powerful and effective leader within league circles, he changed the course for the NFL, soaring its fortunes to far-reaching heights that did not seem possible in the early ‘90s.
Hemorrhaging money from their previous rights deals with the NFL, TV network and cable executives begged mercy upon the league’s court. At the time, Art Modell of the Cleveland Browns was the NFL’s top power broking owner, as he had been for nearly 30 years.
Modell was sympathetic to the networks, particularly long-time partner CBS, which would claim a nearly $100 million loss in 1993 alone. The networks initially wanted a rights-fee reduction for the final two years of their contract in 1992 and 1993.
Modell was set to agree when two NFL owners, Bowlen and the Dallas Cowboys’ Jerry Jones, broke ranks.
Nonsense, they said. The NFL had helped lift these networks and cable stations to a new age of television. Modell compromised by negotiating an additional year, in 1994, at the same rights fee as 1993.
Bowlen and Jones objected again. Who were these guys?
“Ownership had always tended to follow Art and whoever the commissioner was, and they felt they were well-served,’’ Dick Ebersol, who was then the president of NBC Sports, said in an interview with 9News last week. “But then along came Pat and Jerry, guys who were then called mavericks – I would say in retrospect they were visionaries.’’
The instincts of Bowlen and Jones were proven prescient late in the 1993 calendar year when Fox, a cellar-dwelling network so raw it didn’t have a sports department, kicked in a jaw-dropping $1.58 billion of Rupert Murdoch’s money to win the rights to carry NFC games for the next four-year period of 1994-97.
And it wasn’t all about the money.
"We like their demographics,’’ Bowlen said of the Fox network in a December, 1993 interview with the Washington Post. “They appeal to a younger audience and we're looking to grow that end of our business. That was very important. We're not getting the kids growing up watching the game. It's not a big erosion, but our audience is also getting a little older and Fox really does attract a younger audience. Now we'll have both.’’
It was a seminal moment. In the new deal, CBS was out and so was Modell, who resigned from his long-time prestigious post as chairman of the NFL’s broadcast committee. CBS had eventually outbid NBC for the AFC package, but it came after the league – more specifically, Bowlen and Jones -- had already made a handshake agreement with Ebersol.
Sure, Bowlen and Jones were about the dollar, but not at the cost of something more valuable: Their word. They turned down CBS’ more lucrative, if tardy offer, and signed up with Ebersol and NBC.
“That was the beginning of the real deep business relationship and soon friendship between me and Pat. And Jerry,’’ Ebersol said.
As it turned out, the 1990s became what many analysts have deemed our country’s greatest economic growth period. With Bowlen serving as co-chairman of its broadcast committee, the NFL brought in DirectTV and helped develop the NFL Network. CBS returned in 1998, replacing NBC, which reappeared in a smashing, primetime way in 2006.
Ebersol has since called Bowlen “the father’’ and “single major force” of ‘’Sunday Night Football,” the NBC bonanza that to this day almost always ranks No. 1 in television’s weekly ratings.
And those young viewers? The NFL is by far the most popular among the four major sports. In the coveted 18 to 49 years old demographic, the No. 1 series, by a wide margin, in 2016 was “The Walking Dead.’’ Let’s just say this show is a long way from resembling, “60 Minutes.”
NBC’s Sunday Night Football was No. 2 among the younger audience last year. CBS’ Thursday Night Football and Fox’s postgame show ranked No. 5 and 9, respectively.
The NFL may have rose from obscurity in the mid-1950s to No. 1 of the four major sports thanks to the work of Modell, Lamar Hunt, the Rooneys and the Maras.
But it was Bowlen and Jones who led the new age of ownership that ushered the NFL into the monolith it enjoys today. By almost every measure of popularity, baseball, basketball and hockey are planets while the NFL has exploded into its own galaxy.
The NFL’s TV contracts went from $473 million per year in 1989 to $2.2 billion annually starting in 1998 with Bowlen running the league’s broadcast committee, then $3.1 billion in 2006, when he moved to the labor committee in light of an impending clash with the players union.
Today, and on through 2022, the NFL’s 32 owners will split $5 billion per year in TV revenue.
“Mr. B and Jerry Jones are the two people who really opened the flood gates of television money,’’ Ebersol said. “It had increased every time since the ‘60s. But never like what happened when Fox came and the money changed.
“Because of how tough that economy was on things like the beer, they were pulling back on advertising. It was the first time they were proposing freezing the TV money for an additional year. Pat and Jerry stood up to that and it turned out well for all the other owners and as a result of that they became real power brokers in the league.’’
All those names except Modell from the “old guard” ownership are in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.
More recently, Jones and Eddie DeBartolo, owner of the San Francisco 49ers’ run of dominance in the 1980s and 1990s, from the transitional ownership group were inducted into the Hall.
Bowlen has so far been overlooked, but perhaps that will change next month when the nine-person contributor committee convenes to put forth one candidate for final Hall of Fame election on Feb. 3, 2018 in Minneapolis.
Bowlen received strong support from the contributor committee last year and it was surprising Jones got the nod instead. It wasn’t that Jones wasn’t deserving. The surprise was he moved ahead of Bowlen in the line of immortal enshrinement.
Jones bought the Cowboys in 1989, five years after Bowlen and two siblings purchased 60.8 percent the Broncos for $51 million. (The next year, the Bowlens bought the remaining 39.2 percent interest for $20 million. And Pat Bowlen has always held controlling interest.)
Bowlen’s Broncos have also won more than Jones’ Cowboys. In fact, no NFL team and only one franchise from all four major sports – basketball’s San Antonio Spurs -- has won with greater efficiency than the Broncos since Bowlen bought the team in March, 1984.
HIGHEST REGULAR-SEASON WIN PERCENTAGE
AMONG NORTH AMERICAN PRO SPORTS TEAMS (1984-PRESENT)
San Antonio Spurs
New England Patriots
Los Angeles Lakers
San Francisco 49ers
Green Bay Packers
Detroit Red Wings
Granted, Jones continues to be the league’s unquestioned ownership fixer who recently worked the room to put Stan Kroenke’s Rams in Los Angeles and Mark Davis’ Raiders in Las Vegas. Sadly, Bowlen’s work has been done since Alzheimer’s forced him to relinquish day-to-day operations in 2011.
But during the league’s remarkable transformative period from the late 1980s until its most recent collective bargaining agreement with the players’ union in 2011, Bowlen’s contribution was unparalleled. In fact, former NFL commissioner Paul Tagliabue has said Bowlen was the only owner who was heavily involved in all four transformative aspects of television, labor, global growth and new stadium construction.
Bowlen wound up serving on nine NFL committees where he helped groom some of the newer owners to become future guardians of the game.
“He was so good to me when I came into the league,’’ Robert Kraft, who bought the New England Patriots in 1994, told 9News on the eve of Super Bowl 50 in San Francisco. “Such a special friend. Anyone who’s a fan of the NFL or the Broncos has to … such a good owner and committed to winning. And probably has given me the roughest time in the 22 years but he’s a great friend.’’
Patrick Dennis Bowlen was 40 years old and the Broncos’ owner for about one week when he called in an anxious employee formally named Steve Antonopulos but forever known as “Greek.” Antonopulos had already worked for two owners in his first eight seasons on the Broncos’ training staff and Bowlen made three.
The reason for this meeting with the boss is Antonopulos had been working on putting together a sports medicine clinic. When Bowlen bought the team from Edgar Kaiser Jr., “Greek” initially figured it was a stroke of tough-luck timing.
But Bowlen was always more approachable than his misunderstood aloof veneer suggested. “Greek” was given a chance to pitch his idea.
“I had all these elaborate graphs, pictures, charts, and he stopped me about 5 to 10 minutes into it and he says, “You know what? I think you should do it. Go for it.’’’ said Antonopulos, who is beginning his 42nd season with the Broncos. “I look back on that, he quickly pulled in all the information and was able to make a quick decision. It was the right decision because it turned out to be a financial coup for the Broncos in the long run.
“He got the NFL to approve licensing rights for using the Denver Broncos’ sports medicine. And to do that today it would have cost millions of dollars. I don’t remember what it was then, but it was nominal. But he got the NFL to OK that.
“He’s a quick thinker. He didn’t like a lot of bull. He was a decision maker. He’d listen and then he’d make his decision. It was the same thing with the players. He’d listen and then he’d throw his two cents in and go on.’’
Bowlen eventually settled into a 28-year daily routine that began with Antonopulos. Each day, Bowlen parked his car and strode immediately into Antonopulos’ training room. Not because “Greek” was his friend, although he is. And not because Bowlen was maniacal about fitness, although he was to the point he used to compete, quite successfully, in Ironman Triathlons.
“The most important thing to him was to know how his players were,’’ Antonopulos said. “He cared about his players more than anyone I had ever been around. The sense of compassion he had. Yeah, sure, he was the owner and he had a stake in it, but he really cared about the personal lives, cared about their injuries.
“He wanted to know what was going on with them. It was just amazing over the years how he developed that compassion. It was there till the last time he was around the facility. It was a major deal to him. Always has been, always will be.’’
Perhaps some of Bowlen’s concern for his players’ well-being was about the pursuit of victory. But as it turned out, genuine interest in his players blurred into players wanting to win for him.
One of Bowlen’s favorite players was Champ Bailey. Bowlen OK’d the famous swap of Broncos star running back Clinton Portis to Washington in exchange for Bailey, a star cornerback, plus a second-round draft pick that turned out to be running back Tatum Bell. With all due respect to Randy Gradishar (and with Von Miller closing fast), Bailey turned out to be the best defensive player in Broncos’ history.
“But I can’t say at the time I wanted to get traded,’’ Bailey said for the book, “The 50 Greatest Players in Denver Broncos History,’’ that will be released in November. “I was a guy who was a Washington Redskin at 25 years old, who was starting to understand how big a market it was to play in Washington, playing in the NFC East. To be a part of an organization that was top 5 in value in the league. I didn’t want to leave. There were endorsement opportunities.
“But after a year or two (in Denver), I knew the difference was Pat Bowlen. You’ve got a guy who’s running the team the way he runs it -- you’re going to have success. And I knew I had a better chance at having success in Denver than I did in Washington. And that was the best thing that happened to my career.’’
Gary Zimmerman played seven seasons with the Minnesota Vikings and five with the Broncos. Yet, when Zimmerman was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2008, he not only told all concerned his wish was to be enshrined as a Bronco, he stamped his sentiment by having Bowlen present him during the ceremony.
“Just the way I was treated, my family was treated, it was just unbelievable,’’ Zimmerman said for “The 50 Greatest Broncos,’’ project. “And not just me, the way Mr. Bowlen treated everybody in that building as family: The equipment guys, the janitors, everybody who works for the Broncos are treated with kindness. That meant a lot to me and you wanted to play for him.
“Mr. B, he’s so generous. He did a lot of stuff people didn’t know about. He was a behind-the-scenes guy. We had similar perspectives because he always wanted to be in the shadows, never wanted to be in the limelight. I took notice in everything he did. He made the biggest difference in my career.’’
For many Broncos fans, when they think of Pat Bowlen, they inevitably recall four words: “This one’s for John!’’
Bowlen’s speech may have astonished 90 million U.S. viewers for its brevity and selflessness but Zimmerman and Antonopulos never blinked.
Shy by nature, especially compared to those in position of power, Bowlen seemed a tad uncomfortable as he stood on the Super Bowl-winning stage on January 25, 1998 at San Diego’s Qualcomm Stadium. Bowlen’s Broncos had just pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NFL history by defeating the heavily favored Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII. The win had ended the Broncos’ unfortunate run of losing Super Bowls in blowout fashion and gave Denver its first world championship.
“It was probably the biggest day in the franchise history,’’ Antonopulos said. “And it wasn’t about him. Sure, it was about the Denver Broncos but at that moment, it was about John.’’
To Bowlen, it was not his Broncos. The moment belonged to John Elway, who had taken the Broncos to three previous Super Bowls, but had also absorbed the brunt of criticism for the team getting whipped each time.
“You would think an owner being a millionaire, billionaire, whatever, they would have an air about them,’’ Antonopulos said. “And yes, he had an air about him that helped make him the kind of successful person he was. But his air was behind the scenes. He never wanted to be in the frontline of anything. He wanted to stay in the back. He was there every day. He showed his compassion and care, communicated with players as needed.
“And of course, the compassion he had for John Elway was unprecedented in an owner-player relationship.’’
The spoils of Bowlen’s work didn’t end when he relinquished day-to-day operations of the Broncos in 2011. An underrated aspect of Bowlen’s legacy is he has left the Broncos in terrific shape.
His final decisions as Broncos owner were to hire Elway as head of football operations and promote Joe Ellis to president and chief executive officer.
“It goes back to he hires people and lets them do their job,’’ Antonopulos said. “I don’t think he ever meddled with the coaches. He wanted to know about what was going on. He’d stop by the coach’s office every day to find out what was going on, but he never meddled and he let them do their job.
“He had the right people in line with Joe and John. And if Pat had his presence about him today, he’d be proud of himself for what he did because it has been better since John came in. This thing has solidified because of that.’’
In the first five seasons after Bowlen stepped aside, the Broncos won five AFC West Division titles, appeared in two Super Bowls with one world championship.
Many successful people may secretly hope their team or company does not run as well without them. Bowlen was never wired that way. Starting with how he viewed the true ownership of the Broncos.
“This is their team,’’ Bowlen said in an August, 2013 interview while looking out his office window at the crowd that had gathered a Broncos training camp practice. “It’s not my team. I think if you manage your club well, the fans appreciate that.’’
Ask fans in Detroit, Cleveland, Jacksonville – or even Chicago, Oakland or Kansas City – if an owner managed a team any better than Bowlen has with the Broncos. Ask owners of baseball, basketball and hockey what they think of Bowlen’s work in enhancing the product that is the National Football League.
“I’ll never forget Pat telling me this. He told me: Our product is the most important product that you guys put on the air,’’’ Ebersol said. ‘“More important than any movie or television series. Because, with us, you’ve got a guaranteed audience. Whether or not people think a comedy is funny or that a drama has a sexy lead, our strength has been proven time and time again. And we believe it’s only going to get stronger.’’’
The Hall of Fame subcommittee would have a difficult time finding a candidate who has made a greater contribution to the National Football League than Pat Bowlen.