Sports Biz: Pat Bowlen: The game came first

Colorado sports icon

Colorado’s other professional sports franchise owners could learn a thing or two from Denver Broncos’ owner Pat Bowlen.

In the modern era of the NFL and other pro leagues, there are countless examples of owners who micro manage the day-to-day workings of their teams, including forcing personnel decisions on general managers and coaches or unwillingness to fork out the investments needed to win. Bowlen, one of this year’s Colorado Business Hall of Fame inductees, has never been that guy. He never made it about himself.

He took over as majority owner in 1984 and the team has produced a winning record in 25 of the past 30 seasons, easily the best record of success in the league in that span. The Broncos’ six Super Bowl appearances in that time are tied for the most by a single owner in league history.

“No.1, he always put football first,” Broncos CEO Joe Ellis said. “We’re in the football business, but he always put the game of football in front of the business of football. He empowered people to allow them to do their jobs.”

Bowlen purchased the team for $78 million 30 years ago. A valuation by Forbes published in August estimated the franchise is now worth $1.45 billion.

This sort of success in a hyper-competitive business doesn’t just happen by chance. It’s rooted in a culture established from the top-down. Bowlen never shied away from confronting tough decisions, such as making a coaching change, seeking public assistance to build a state of the art stadium or changing the team’s uniforms. And he’s taken some hits to his popularity along the way.

Bowlen was seen as an outsider initially. Standing on the sidelines of old Mile High Stadium in a fur coat, he didn’t fit in with the blue-collar fan base. There were those who believed Bowlen would sooner move the team out of Denver than lead it to unprecedented success here.

There really is only one way to overcome that kind of negative perception – win.

Professional sports teams are unique businesses to own and operate because your customers feel like they have a say in the direction you’re going. They want their voices heard and respected in return for the passion and dedication they give to your brand. Bowlen seemed to understand the emotional aspect of the relationship.

If there was a time when Bowlen endeared himself to the community, it probably occurred in the moments after the franchise won its first Super Bowl in 1997 against the Green Bay Packers. Denver had seen beloved quarterback John Elway fall short in his three previous trips to the Super Bowl a decade earlier. When Bowlen finally clutched the Lombardi Trophy that day in San Diego, he proclaimed, “This one’s for John.”

“I felt very fortunate to have the relationship that I’ve had with Mr. Bowlen,” Elway said in a video produced about the owner by his team. “I don’t know how other quarterbacks have a relationship or what their relationship is with their owner, but I was blessed to have an open-door policy with Mr. Bowlen. He’d always come and talk to me. He wanted to know what was going on in the locker room and he always wanted my opinion and when I had an opinion his door was always open. So I was able to have that relationship where I could get things off my chest and vice versa and he always knew what was going on with his football team.”

In July, Bowlen relinquished control of the franchise after publicly acknowledging his battle with Alzheimer’s disease. His ownership was placed in a trust with the long-term goal that one of his seven children will ultimately take control and guide the franchise into the future.

Denver Broncos fans are left to appreciate an era of achievement and winning Bowlen directed. And they must hope that whichever of Bowlen’s children eventually does assume control of the franchise, he or she has the good sense to follow dad’s example.

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