Both on and off the course, the 6-handicap Broncos CEO works hard for his results.
Many business deals are struck on golf courses. There’s only one line of business on the mind of Denver Broncos president and CEO Joe Ellis on this particular early August afternoon—getting the best of his fellow Cherry Hills members Eric Black and Bill Danneberg.
Knowledgeable Broncos fans probably know Ellis by name, but unlike the team's famous Executive Vice President of Football Operations John Elway, Ellis can walk down 16th Street wearing the brightest of orange Broncos polo shirts and still go unnoticed by the general public.
The anonymity amongst sports fans and non-sports fans alike suits Ellis just fine. His identity on the golf course is that of a friendly competitor.
Ellis’ drive from the first tee box lands in the left bunker. He follows with a sand wedge shot, then misses a long birdie putt.
“Everything can be ugly at certain points,” Ellis, a 6, says in assessing his golf game. “Most of my biggest problems are around the green, the short game—a lack of touch with chips and sand shots. It’s what happens to most amateurs. I can get the ball near the green in regulation—maybe not on it, but near it. But that’s when the trouble starts.”
From setup to swing, it’s evident that Ellis plays a solid game of golf. He received his first set of clubs after graduating from Colorado College in 1980. “I took them and went out to Patty Jewett almost every afternoon that summer went I got off work,” he remembers. “Since then, I never really got good.” Good enough, though, to shoot his best low score of 73 “a long, long time ago,” Ellis says.
Smooth Stroke: Ellis sinks a par putt.
Ellis is starting his 21st year in the Broncos’ organization. He has held the title of team president since 2011. Last year he was named CEO after owner Pat Bowlen stepped down from day-to-day team operations due to complications from Alzheimer’s Disease. Ellis will continue in that role until the Bowlen family decides which family member will serve as Pat Bowlen’s successor.
Josiah Ellis is a native New Englander who played high school soccer, baseball and ice hockey in Massachusetts. “I lucked into a job in football and fell in love with it,” Ellis says. His first NFL job came with the Broncos, selling advertisements. “I overheard in the gift shop at old Mile High Stadium that they were looking for somebody to sell advertising in their Game Day program. In those days, you didn’t have access to rosters, so a lot of people bought the program to see the names and numbers.
“So I sniffed around and got a guy who knew the general manager at that time, to get him to interview me. His name was Hein Poulus. Hein said to me, ‘We don’t have anything. If you want to sell ads for us, you’ll have to do it on a commission basis.’ I didn’t have any money, so I said, ‘How about this—you give me an advance on my commissions? If I meet that advance or exceed it, you pay me the excess. If I don’t meet it, I’ll pay you back.’ He laughed, said it took some guts and I got the job. That’s how it started.”
The ad seller and self-professed “glorified go-fer” for former Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser does have direct bloodlines to both former President Bushes. Not that he advertises it.
Ellis did bring John Elway to the Broncos—literally. He picked up the young quarterback from Stapleton Airport upon his arrival in Denver in 1983. After Bowlen purchased the Broncos the following year, and Ellis remained with the organization. “Pat Bowlen came in, I introduced myself and said the same things to him, that being, if you need anything I’ll do it for you.”
Driving ambition: Ellis tees off at Cherry Hills
Ellis left the organization in 1986 to pursue his Master’s Degree at the J. L. Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University. After graduating in 1988, he was hired by the NFL in 1990, working under then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue (and alongside current NFL commissioner Roger Goodell). Bowlen, along with former Broncos GM John Beake, helped Ellis get the job at the league office.
Ellis returned to the Broncos’ front office in 1998 as executive vice president of business operations. He became the organization’s chief operating officer in 2008. Ellis usually is all business at the office, but at times he was forced to lower his guard—at the request of his boss.
“Some of my fondest memories of playing golf in Colorado come from when Pat would come into my office at lunch and say, “Let’s go play Castle Pines.” And I’d say, ‘Oh gee, I’ve got something coming up this afternoon . . . but I think I can fit it in. I’ll re-work it.’ We’d leave at 11:30, get one cart, play 18 holes in two hours, have lunch and be back at the office by 2:30. Pat always was fun to play with and very, very gracious to invite me.”
Ellis never takes for granted his rise through the ranks of the Broncos’ front office. His primary goal remains the same—to help bring a Super Bowl championship back to Denver. “I only think of it in terms of importance to the public, to this area—and specifically, to our fans,” Ellis says.
“It’s a huge responsibility. It’s an honor to be in the position that I’m in, for the team that I work for—and the owner that I work for, especially. I spend most of my time not thinking about how I got here, but what we’re going to do as a company, as a team and as an organization to be the best we can be all the time. That’s what the expectations are.
“Their support and their equity . . . their emotional investment that they’ve put into this team—not to mention the dollar investment that a lot of people put into it. It’s so significant that I don’t sit here and think, ‘Wow, look what happened to me.’ It’s more like, ‘OK, now what are we going to do? What are we going to do to try and win the next championship?’”
Ellis confesses that he negotiated the naming rights for Invesco Field at Mile High while on a golf course, a deal in 2001 reported at $120 million over 20 years. “That’s the only one,” Ellis says. “But relationships are built, and you learn a lot about people when you play golf with them.”
Easy Go: The CEO and the scribe drive the course
What has he learned about being on the course with Elway or current Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning?
“I’ve played a few times with Peyton,” Ellis says. “I’ve played with Elway, but not this year. They’re just competitive people, and the handicap system generally doesn’t overcome their will to win when I take them on. It’s a different level of athlete, if you will. But it’s fun.”
Ellis admits that his long tenure in running the business side of an NFL team does not make him an expert on the football side. “I don't get over-exuberant,” he says. “I stay optimistic. I can see effort and enthusiasm. I can't see skill.”
Ellis then puts away his Laser Link range finder and sets up for his next shot. From that point, the driving, chipping and good-natured chirping between the trio of friends begins to heat up on the course.
Bio: CAG Contributor Sam Adams (likethebeer.com) is an award-winning writer and standup comedian. He last profiled Chauncey Billups in the August issue.