Football Season Begins—But Franchise Owner Estate Battles Are Forever

By Stephen J. Silverberg
New York Elder Law Attorney

With 11 controlling owners of NFL franchises 75 years and older, the next few years will see many teams changing ownership and the potential for epic battles off the field.

Ten years before his death, the Denver Bronco’s owner Pat Bowlen did what he was supposed to do. He met with attorneys to create a succession plan to hand over the team after his death in a carefully prescribed manner. He established a trust and named a trustee to oversee it. As per the league’s bylaws, he filed his succession plan with the NFL and notified his heirs of developments.

Despite Bowlen’s attempt to avoid problems before and after his death in 2019, his family members embarked on fierce fighting in court and the media.

The billions of dollars at stake, the emotional attachments to football teams, and intense media coverage create a massive headache for the owner’s families and the league. Add to that the scarcity factor—there are only so many NFL teams—and the problem is ripe for massive headlines and courtroom battles.

A group led by Rob Walton bought the Denver Broncos team for $4.65 million after years of legal battles. Walton, a 77 year-old father of three and steward of the family’s Walmart fortune, hopes to avoid the estate pitfalls plaguing the Bowlens and other NFL team family owners.

In the Denver Bronco’s case, Bowlen tried to give up control of the team in response to his suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. He revoked one trust to create a new one overseen by three trustees, each someone he knew for many years. None were family members. The trust was to manage the structure of the team’s ownership. But it gets complicated. A limited partnership, PDB Sports, owned the team, which was owned by a limited partnership, Bowlen Sports, owned by Patrick Bowlen and his brother John Bowlen. The trust also operated other Bowlen-owned properties, including the company that managed the Mile High Stadium

It didn’t go as planned. Seven children from two marriages and three siblings who were co-owners at different points and had their own children all disagreed on the team’s future and the trustees’ objectivity. It got very messy, with issues of incapacity, NFL ownership rules, equity being bought and sold, and massive fighting and litigation.

This is not a new scenario. Joe Robbie, the former owner of the Miami Dolphins, passed away in January 1990. The bulk of his estate was tied up in the Dolphins and he had not planned properly. Due to the family infighting, Robbie’s children had to sell the franchise at a deeply discounted price to pay the reported $47 million in estate taxes.

It’s far from the only NFL franchise ownership battle, and it won’t be the last.

Lessons to be learned: do estate planning, keep everyone involved informed, and implement many safety measures. Communication and trust-building between family members are critical. People are more likely to go with the succession plan if they hear it from the person creating it and have time to discuss and understand the plan.

Reference: Variety “Broncos’ Fumbling Handoff Reveals Perils of NFL Estate Planning”

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About the Author
Stephen J. Silverberg is nationally recognized as a leader in the areas of estate planning, estate administration, asset preservation planning, and elder law. He is a past president of the prestigious National Academy of Elder Law Attorneys (NAELA), and a founding member and past president of the New York State chapter of NAELA.