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Power shift: Ellis not far behind Elway in exit from Broncos

Ellis won't seek an extension once his contract as team CEO and president is up after the 2021 season.
Credit: AP Images

ENGLEWOOD, Colo. — John Elway has stepped away from his critical, day-to-day role, and Joe Ellis is not too far behind.

Ellis’ contract as the Broncos’ chief executive officer and president runs through March 2022.

“I don’t envision extending it past that other than maybe just an interim period of some sort if necessary,’’ Ellis said in a sit-down interview with 9NEWS on Tuesday. “But that would be dedicated to finding a replacement as a club president or CEO, depending on what the next owner – whether that’s Brittany or somebody else -- where that ends up.

“I think it’s important for the organization -- I don’t think CEOs should last forever. You look across businesses across the country, they don’t last forever, they need to move on. They’re asked to move on. And it will be time for me to move on, and how that transfer passes, I can’t predict right now. But there will be a transfer of authority at that level. I can assure you of that.”

RELATED: Major Broncos shakeup: Elway moves upstairs, Russell retires, team seeks new GM

Elway ended his 10-year run as Broncos’ general manager on Monday. He has maintained his title as president of football operations, which can be translated into a role as consultant. He and Ellis are co-leading the team’s search to find the Broncos' new general manager. Once that task is completed (given the league-wide competition for GM candidates, don’t be surprised if the Broncos have their new hire announced by early next week), Elway can jet off to the sunset and observe his Broncos from a distance.

Ellis’ departure will have a few more complicated hurdles. Besides his top executive roles with the Broncos, he is one of three trustees charged with executing the estate plan of late owner Pat Bowlen. Among Bowlen’s stated wishes was to have one of his children replace him as the Broncos’ controlling owner, provided that child had earned the right to sit in his chair.

Bowlen’s two oldest daughters from his first marriage, Amie Klemmer and Beth Bowlen Wallace, have petitioned the court to have the trustees removed from their father’s trust on the grounds their father lacked mental capacity at the time his trust was last amended in 2009.

The civil trial, initially scheduled to begin Sept. 1 of last year in Arapahoe County Court -- whose parking lot shoulders Broncos’ headquarters -- was pushed back by Judge John Scipione to July 12 because of COVID concerns. Ellis and his fellow trustees Rich Slivka and Mary Kelly have not been bashful in anointing Brittany Bowlen as the child most likely to succeed Pat Bowlen as the Broncos’ controlling owner.

RELATED: Annabel Bowlen attorney: Beth Bowlen Wallace views do not reflect majority of beneficiaries

RELATED: Lawsuit pitting Pat Bowlen's oldest daughters against his trustees rescheduled for July 12, 2021

At his end-of-season news conference a year ago, Ellis said the eight beneficiaries of the Pat Bowlen Trust must unanimously agree on the child to assume control of the Broncos. If not, Ellis said the trustees would likely put the Broncos up for sale.

At the moment, unanimous consent seems unlikely. Even if Annabel Bowlen, Pat Bowlen's widow who is dealing with Alzheimer’s disease, and their five children – Patrick, John, Brittany, Annabel and Christianna – agree on Brittany Bowlen taking control of the team, that would still make up only six votes. The lawsuit filed by Klemmer and Bowlen Wallace shows the two oldest daughters are not with the trustees’ succession plan.

9NEWS asked Ellis on Tuesday if unanimous approval among the family was still necessary to keep the team with the Bowlens.

“I stand by that,’’ Ellis said. “If there’s not consent from a few people, that complicates the transition of ownership over to another child -- and that’s something that they’re going to have to work out. They’re going to have to work that out, we (the trustees) can’t work that out for them. We’ll see if they’re able to do that. And if they’re willing to do that.

“I would add from a timeline perspective that the community, the fans, the organization and the beneficiaries – the family – deserve resolution at some point. Right now we’re focused on the trial and we’ll go to court. I believe we’ll prevail, but we’ll see, and we’ll go from there. Again, I think it’s important to so many different parties that this gets worked out sooner rather than later. ‘’

A month ago, after the Broncos’ non-quarterback debacle led to an embarrassing 31-3 home loss to New Orleans, Beth Bowlen Wallace urged the trustees to immediately surrender control of the team.

“Watching these past few seasons has been extremely painful, and we continue to see no other way to restore the franchise but through a transition of ownership of the Denver Broncos,’’ Beth Bowlen Wallace said in a statement on Dec. 2. “We have been committed to and will continue to pursue resolutions on all issues in order to ensure a smooth and timely transition. … We are hopeful that the current leadership agrees that this is in the best interests of the Denver Broncos and most importantly, it is in the best interests of our incredibly loyal fans, my father’s legacy and the Bowlen family.”

RELATED: Ellis talks Brittany Bowlen, ownership succession

Hugh Gottschalk, an attorney representing Annabel Bowlen, responded to Bowlen-Wallace’s statement by stating: "Any efforts to even consider selling the team before the Trustees’ authority is confirmed (by way of court case resolution) is unwise and impractical, and would be contrary to Pat Bowlen’s wishes to have the Bowlen family continue to own the Broncos if one of his children develops the ability to take over the role of Controlling Owner.''

Which seemingly leaves Broncos’ ownership with a chicken-and-egg dilemma. Sell the team and the oldest daughters may consider dropping the lawsuit. But the trustees say that unless the lawsuit is resolved, they cannot sell the team or transfer controlling ownership to Brittany.

“I don’t know anybody who -- if we did decide to sell the team -- I don’t know anybody who until the litigation goes away is going to step up and be a buyer, No. 1,’’ Ellis said. “And No. 2, the court case exists. We have to go to trial to validate the trust and to validate our authority within the trust. … If they decide to drop the case they drop the case.

“Until then our plan is to see this out through trial. And that’s the way it proceeds. I’m hopeful that the trial stays on target for the July date and by late July/early August it will be completed. I can’t speak to the judge as to how long it would take to rule, but when that happens, we’ll begin to look at decisions we should make that are in the best interest of the beneficiaries, that are in the best interest of the organization, and just as importantly that are in the best interest of our fans and all our constituents.”

The league has mandated that each team have one individual serve as controlling owner, but Ellis said Tuesday the Broncos have received a waiver to the rule until May 2022 because of the civil case against Pat Bowlen’s trustees. Ellis’ contract expires two months before that. The plan is for the Broncos’ transfer of power at the organization’s highest level to be completed before kickoff of the 2022 season.


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