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Pat Bowlen's contributions to NFL make him potential Hall of Famer

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  • Pat Bowlen's contributions to NFL make him potential Hall of Famer

    Very good read.

    It seems incomprehensible now, but it wasn't all that long ago when the NFL was in serious distress.

    It was the period from 1989-91, and the U.S. economy was mired in a deep recession. The NFL had just surpassed baseball as America's most popular sport, but barely — by 1 percent, according to a national poll. The NBA was reveling in an era that merged the Showtime Lakers, Larry Bird's Celtics and a young superstar named Michael Jordan.

    The TV networks claimed they were losing money from their NFL packages. And TV executives wanted a break.

    Longtime NFL broadcast committee chairman Art Modell was willing to keep the rights fee flat through a two-year extension, the idea being that the economy would rebound by the end of the contract.

    That's when Pat Bowlen stepped in to take control.

    The NFL is celebrating Pro Football Hall of Fame inductions this weekend in Canton, Ohio, the event occurring as the expansive Broncos fan base copes with the still fresh revelation that Bowlen relinquished control of his beloved Denver franchise as he deals with Alzheimer's disease.

    The end of such a profound era has brought tears, but it also revives reflection on the enormous impact Bowlen has had on the game. Broncos fans are well aware of his astonishing record. Less known in this region is what Bowlen did for the NFL.

    Counting his work not only with the Broncos, but in helping to greatly expand the overall revenue for the league through television, stadium and players union agreements, Bowlen clearly has been a Hall of Fame-caliber contributor.

    Tough, sometimes reticent, Bowlen by the late 1980s was not only the devoted and successful owner of the Broncos, he had become dedicated to advancing the interests of his league.

    "He was very hard initially to get inside," said Dick Ebersol, who had just become president of NBC Sports during this transitional period. "I believe that's how it was with all friendships with Mr. Bowlen. You had to earn your way in. He had to get a read on you and develop a sense of respect before he really came open."

    Bowlen and a young, ambitious owner named Jerry Jones conspired to put the kibosh on Modell's television contract proposal. They argued for what Jones called the "I Love Lucy" theory.

    Networks didn't make a profit showing "Lucy" reruns, but they received prestige and credibility. There was a price to be paid, even a debt, for that service.

    The networks would not get an extension on flattened rights fees.

    "Led by Pat and Jerry, the new guys on the block, they said, 'We believe the strength of football will always get stronger and stronger and stronger, and we will not give the networks a break," Ebersol said. "That was a huge deal."
    Pat Bowlen
    Pat Bowlen (John Leyba, Denver Post file)

    The NFL's TV contracts went from $473 million per year in 1989 to $900 million in 1990. Then, in 1993, with Bowlen anchoring league negotiations, Fox became a partner and the NFL went from a large planet in the American sports solar system to its own galaxy. The next NFL television contract starting in 1998 soared to $2.2 billion per year, then $3.1 billion in 2006 and starting this year through 2022, the NFL's 32 owners will split $5 billion per year in TV revenue.

    "What I admire the most about Pat was his future vision," Jones said. "He received some criticism within the ownership at that time. But he believed in where he saw this thing going."

    "Pat was the new transition"

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    From Labor Day to Dec. 19 of last year, 30 of the top 31 television shows were NFL games. Only the Macy's Thanksgiving parade broke through.

    "Pat and Jerry absolutely were the stewards of Fox coming into football," Ebersol said. "The Fox money reinvented the whole game. They were absolutely right. Football had a value that was never going to go down. It will go up no matter what the economy was doing. It was always going to go higher.

    "You can imagine as the years went by, how strong that made Pat."

    Bowlen's influence spread well beyond the TV negotiations, however.

    "There were four areas where the league was really transformed in the late '80s, early '90s," said Paul Tagliabue, who started his long run as NFL commissioner in 1989. "Pat was the only owner who was heavily involved in all four areas. "

    Television was one. Another was mollifying the contentious relationship between team owners and players union leader Gene Upshaw into one of trust, respect and labor compromise. A third was the league's movement to new venues. The Broncos' Sports Authority Field at Mile High was at the forefront when it opened in 2001. A fourth was building the NFL brand globally.

    "I remember when they first started the American Bowl, Pat would raise his hand," said John Beake, the Broncos' general manager since Bowlen's first ownership season of 1984 through his final Super Bowl title season of 1998. "We went to (seven). He loved that. He loved taking the team over and expanding the game globally."

    From 1987-99, Bowlen brought his Broncos to play exhibition games in London, Tokyo (twice), Berlin, Barcelona, Mexico City and Sydney.

    There was a fifth criterion to meaningful NFL ownership during that transitional period, and it really was No. 1 — taking care of the franchise at home.

    By now, Broncos fans are well aware of the unprecedented 300-plus victories in 30 seasons. No owner in the 300 club has a higher winning percentage. The six Super Bowl appearances. No owner has more. Two Super Bowl championships.

    Perhaps the most impressive accomplishment on Bowlen's résumé is that his Broncos suffered only five losing seasons during his 30 years.

    "No one knows that one better than me," said Jones, whose Dallas Cowboys won three Super Bowls in the 1990s but have been inconsistent ever since. "It shows you his management is able to put the team in place to win championships, but not at the cost of a major slide. That's the art of the deal right there. How do you position your team to be in it year in and year out, yet at the same time in our system not go completely to the bottom? He has shown us how to do that."

    Problem is, an owner's performance — his won-lost record — hasn't done much to sway the Hall of Fame selection committee. There are only 11 NFL owners who have been enshrined in the hallowed halls of Canton. Most were original owners in the NFL or American Football League.

    Only four have been immortalized in the past 42 years. The Pittsburgh Steelers' Dan Rooney is the only living Hall of Fame owner. He is 82.

    "The ones that are in there now are the founding fathers, the Maras and the Rooneys, that whole group," Beake said. "And they earned that. But Pat was the new transition."

    To their credit, the people running the Pro Football Hall of Fame have recognized the oversight. One reason owners might have been largely bypassed is their election would be at the exclusion of a modern-day player.

    Bowlen, who has never been afraid to speak out about what he perceives as an injustice regarding the limited number of Broncos in the Hall of Fame, would be appalled if he was elected at the expense of, say, Terrell Davis.

    "It's inevitable he gets in"

    Such an obstacle was removed Friday, though, when the Pro Football Hall of Fame board passed an amendment that will separate a "contributor" category from the group of modern-player candidates.

    Bowlen might not have needed the amendment to receive strong consideration for Hall of Fame induction.

    "I think it's inevitable he gets in," said ESPN's John Clayton, one of the 46 voting members of the Hall of Fame selection committee. "He's what you want for an owner. He has his priorities taken care of. He's always made his franchise the best possible. He never scrimped on money. He never scrimped on resources. He always created a classy organization.

    "So he's a winner on that front. His involvement in league issues is another big factor."

    Still, even with owners and contributors getting full future attention from the Hall of Fame selection committee, competition will be steep. Eddie DeBartolo Jr., the owner of the San Francisco 49ers during their dynasty from 1982-94, has been a three-time finalist. Tagliabue was another three-time finalist who deserves strong reconsideration.

    Voters fighting for DeBartolo, Tagliabue or longtime Dallas Cowboys executive Gil Brandt might say Bowlen lucked into success because he inherited a second-year quarterback named John Elway.

    Even after Elway retired, though, the Broncos have had only three losing seasons in 15 years. And the Broncos were only part of Bowlen's contribution to the game.

    "Pat once told me: 'My full-time job is for this franchise at the league level,' " Jones said. " 'For me to do the best job for Denver is to do the best job for the league.' No one spent more time, no one in ownership spent more time on league matters than Pat Bowlen.

    "When you talk about league and you talk about contribution during these critical years and how we have evolved from where we were in television and how we were in stadium, what we were in all of it, Pat Bowlen spent that kind of time. That was not at the exclusion of Pat spending time leading the Broncos.

    "I do distinguish an owner that did change the course. Pat changed the course."

    Mike Klis: [email protected] or

  • #2
    nice article. I had no idea Bowlen was so involved.


    • #3
      I had herd Bowlen was active in NFL business but that is first I herd of some details.

      We definitely need to put Mr B in Ring of Fame this year and he will be in HoF imo.
      Skill + Effort = Talent. Talent + Effort = Achievement. A. Duckworth - Grit.


      • #4
        He deserves it , hope he can get it