We’re a couple of days away from the biggest football game of the year, the Super Bowl.

The Los Angeles Rams and the Cincinnati Bengals will go head-to-head on Sunday, with only one team taking home the Lombardi Trophy.  In the shadow of the big game, as the 101st NFL season comes to an end, emerges news that the end is also near for one of the league’s 32 business families. The NFL is a tightly knit community of family enterprises, and it’s not all that often that teams change hands outside the family.

In this case, the Pat Bowlen Trust announced two weeks ago that the Denver Broncos are officially for sale after 38 years of family ownership, according to this report in Bloomberg. The news follows a protracted family feud between the late owner’s two daughters, Beth and Brittany, who contested his succession plan.

We first shone a light on this story last September, exploring what went wrong with Pat Bowlen’s succession plan to keep the Broncos in the family.

  • First, Bowlen created an incentive trust that didn’t produce the outcome he wanted – for the Broncos to stay in the family. What we often see with families is that just because a trust structure is in place doesn’t mean collaboration amongst family members will follow. “The trust structure does not contract good behaviour.”  This reinforces the need for deep (and trusting) relationships be built within the family before the ownership transition occurs.
  • Next, three trustees (CEO Joe Ellis, General Counsel Rich Slivka, and lawyer Mary Kelly) were entrusted to run the team and decide which of Pat’s children was best suited to become “primary owner,” which the NFL’s ownership rules demand. CMG’s experience in similar situations is that these decisions are often made without solid engagement of the next generation in the process, including agreeing on measurable standards and qualifications for individuals interested in ownership roles.

Could the family have avoided this outcome and maintained control of the Broncos?

We don’t know the full story of what went on inside the Bowlens, but we do know there are some key ingredients that help most business families in similar ownership transitions:

  1. Commit to better communication.  In our experience with business families, we’ve seen the importance of building authentic trust and having transparent conversations with the next generation of owners. Starting this communication at an early stage creates opportunities for better family dynamics and a stronger likelihood of “being on the same page.”
  1. Assess where the family is today. Interviewing family members – or even creating anonymous surveys – can help to determine if everyone is aligned on how they should move forward. This is a critical place to start.
  1. Enlist the right support.  Do business families do their own taxes?  Fix their own IT systems?  Patch their own plumbing problems? No, they call in the experts for both solutions and support. It’s no different with “family dynamics.”  A good family coach can work wonders in supporting the family through ownership transitions.
  1. Practice new tools and sustain the momentum. Coaches will support the family with new tools – and it’s then the family’s obligation to use them consistently, practice them, and improve their conversations. This gives family members confidence to co-create the future of the family enterprise. They can keep the conversation going by setting up regular family meetings.

As for the Bowlen family, the trustees hope to have the sale of the Broncos completed by the start of the 2022 NFL season (prospective buyers from Peyton Manning to Jeff Bezos and media mogul Bryon Allen have been mentioned). The sale price is expected to be USD $4 billion.

A tidy sum? For certain.

But we’re guessing the Bowlen family would have preferred to have held on to their beloved Broncos for a long time to come.

Christina Outridge is a Marketing and Communications Specialist at Creaghan McConnell Group.