Until the middle of last month the citizens of Denver seemed almost as likely to see wild orchids blooming on the frozen eastern slopes of the Rocky Mountains as to see a professional football team operating in their city next season. It was not that the Denver Broncos were not wanted. Of course they were. They were wanted by Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, Cincinnati, New Orleans, Seattle and perhaps even by Zortman, Montana, if someone had ridden a mule up there to find out. But the Broncos, a team proficient in the arts of losing games, did not appear to be wanted by Denver, the city which had weaned and then more or less abandoned them during the first five years of the American Football League's existence.
In Chicago, White Sox Owner Arthur Allyn was already planning tactics for a gate war with the Bears once the Denver franchise was his in fact as well as in rumor. A syndicate in Atlanta had offered a reported $6 million for the Broncos, and that was clearly a sum that could not be turned down. A group of Philadelphia businessmen, headed by a toy manufacturer, had offered $4 million for the right to bring the Broncos in to compete with the Eagles. All this for a team that last year in Denver sold 7,996 season tickets.
At the January meeting of the American Football League in Houston two newspaper reporters, Wells Twombly of The Houston Chronicle and Jerry Magee of The San Diego Union, were sitting in a hotel room and happened to overhear a most interesting conversation in the room next door. The speakers were Barron Hilton, owner of the San Diego Chargers, and Calvin Kunz, president of the Broncos. In their printed accounts of the conversation Twombly and Magee agreed that Hilton was urging Kunz to move the Broncos out of Denver, and Kunz, the second largest Bronco stockholder, was in favor of the idea. Kunz was forced to slither around the question later at a press conference but, as it broke up, several reporters heard Kunz turn to Hilton and mutter, "How did they find out?"
"After the Houston meeting," said Gerald Phipps, who, with his brother, Allan, owned the biggest single block of Bronco stock, "I had visits from two very fine men—Sonny Werblin of the New York Jets and Ralph Wilson of the Buffalo Bills. They tried to convince me the Broncos ought to get out of Denver for the good of the league. They considered Denver a detriment to the AFL, and at the time they were right." Attendance for the seven Denver home games in 1964 had fallen off to a very poor 118,259 paid admissions. That was down 14,000 from the previous year, when there were nearly as many empty seats in the stands as there were people.
As if that were not enough to dictate a shift of the Denver franchise, there was another and maybe more ominous consideration—television. Beginning this year, AFL games belong to NBC, which will televise them on a regional basis, as CBS does in the National Football League. In its new five-year contract with the A FL, NBC has guaranteed each team about $990,000 per season. Outside the metropolitan area of Denver (pop. one million) the television market for the Broncos is mainly bighorn sheep and jackrabbits. There was speculation that NBC might put pressure on the Denver owners to find themselves more people to play to.
All in all, it seemed quite obvious that Denver would not have a professional football team in 1965, or that the Broncos would move by 1966 at the latest.
So what happened? As of last weekend, the Broncos had sold 17,927 season tickets—the third highest total in the AFL. From being the AFL's shakiest franchise, the Broncos apparently have become one of the strongest. It is an incredible reversal, and it has happened not to a champion but to a team that had a 2-11-1 record the past two seasons and could easily finish at the bottom of the AFL's Western Division again in 1965.
Although it has now become a community effort, two men are primarily responsible for saving pro football for Denver. They are the Phipps brothers, Gerry and Allan. On February 14 they turned down the Atlanta offer and held their 42% of the stock. The Atlanta syndicate withdrew. The next day Gerry Phipps met with the Kunz voting trust and made an offer of his own. The Phippses bought the voting trust's 52% for a $250,000 down payment and an offer of $1.25 million to be paid by June 1. When it was announced on February 16 that the Phipps brothers owned 94% of the Broncos and would keep the team in Denver, public reaction was immediate and overwhelming.
The morning after the deal was made, an outdoor advertising company erected a sign that said: THANKS TO GERALD AND ALLAN PHIPPS FOR THE BRONCOS IN DENVER. The Bronco ticket office sold 143 season tickets, a one-day record for the club at that time. The people of Denver—possibly remembering that the city had let three pro hockey franchises, two pro basketball franchises and assorted individual events slip away through nonsupport—charged the ticket windows in a stampede such as Denver had not witnessed since the gold rush.
All at once the Broncos found themselves beloved. It was, and is, a highly emotional situation. "Fantastic," said Paul Manasseh, the capable assistant general manager of the Broncos. "I've been in sports a long time and I've never seen anything like this." With people standing in line to stuff cash through the ticket windows, Bronco Publicity Director Don Smith called an organizational meeting. What he did first was ask Nick Petry, one of Gerry Phipps's most formidable competitors in the construction business, to head the club's ticket drive. "If Gerry doesn't get all the construction jobs in Denver away from me in the next few months, I'll be surprised. I'm spending all my time working for his ball club." said Petry.
Petry attacked the ticket selling in an unorthodox way. "I'd rather sell 1,000 individuals one ticket each than sell 1,000 tickets to one big company," Petry said. "A sidewalk and country-road alumni is what we want. When it is snowing or the team is not doing well, the individual fan who has bought his own ticket will be at the game."
The announced season-ticket goal of the Broncos is 20,000. On February 15, when the Phipps brothers became majority stockholders, the Broncos had sold 3,357. Last week the total had spiraled up to 17,927, with as many as 921 sold in a single day. The Denver Post carries a front-page box every afternoon showing total sales and the number sold the previous day. Palmer Hoyt, editor and publisher of the Post, has instituted an employees' payroll-checkoff plan under which a person can buy a season ticket for himself for 88¢ per week and for children under 17 for 44¢ a week. Twenty-two other companies in Denver have done the same thing.
"A prospering professional football team is a major asset to any community, not only for entertainment but also for its direct and indirect effect on the community's prestige and economy," said Hoyt.
Mark Freeman, a former major league pitcher, is president of the Denver Broncos Quarterback Club. Bronco booster clubs currently are doubling their memberships merely by scheduling meetings. ''I would like to think it was just a pragmatic, businessman's decision that made me get into this drive," Freeman said. "But actually it was because I am a fan. The way the sales have gone has evoked nothing in me but total disbelief. And, of course, pride."
Probably the biggest factor contributing to the Bronco ticket surge is a refinancing, no-service-charge plan started by Ron Hermes, a vice-president of the Peoples Bank in suburban Aurora. When Bank President H. J. Bleakley approved the idea and the Broncos announced it, people began pouring into the bank from all over the state. Under the Hermes plan, a buyer selects a stadium seat and then signs a "Bronco Note." The bank pays the full price of the season ticket—$31.50—to the Broncos. The ticket buyer pays the bank $7.85 down (which includes 35¢ for mailing and insurance) and the rest in four installments of $6 each. There is no interest on the note. Since Hermes started the idea, nearly 20 other banks and savings-and-loan associations have adopted it.
From merely being on the board of a team that nobody in Denver seemed to care about, the Phipps brothers are suddenly the owners of a team with an almost fanatical fandom. Owning the Broncos means owning Empire Sports, Inc., a corporation that also owns a minor league baseball team called the Denver Bears and the 34,264-seat Bears Stadium, where the Broncos play. Empire Sports got the original Denver football franchise in 1960, when the AFL was organized, and the Broncos put a ludicrous team on the field.
The players were dressed in uniforms with socks that had vertical stripes. They were ashamed to leave their locker rooms, and often looked more interested in hiding their socks than in winning a game. They would come out for the kickoff like ladies surprised at their bath. They had no play books. Sometimes the quarterback simply squatted on the ground and drew the play with his finger. After Denver's first extra-point conversion, the general manager ran into the stands and wrestled the ball away from a fan. The Broncos did not sign enough draft choices to fill a closet. But in 1961 Kunz, a former Marine Corps colonel in combat in the South Pacific, formed a syndicate lo buy Empire Sports, and Gerry Phipps became chairman of the board.
The Phippses are a wealthy, old-line, respected Denver family related to the more widely known horse-owning Phipps clan of New York. Allan Phipps, a lawyer, and Gerry were active in Denver civic affairs, but neither took much of a role in operation of the Broncos until last fall, when Manager-Coach Jack Faulkner was fired and Mac Speedie became the Denver coach. Then, suddenly, the Phippses moved to the foreground in an effort to rally the morale of the team and the public.
"Why do we want to keep the Broncos in Denver?" Gerry Phipps, a tall, graying, pinch-waisted man, asked last week. "I could sell out and make a potful of money. We're not kidding ourselves that this will ever be a gold mine here. But we're trying to attract industry to this community. Nothing would hurt us more than headlines around the country saying Denver had lost its football team. I would be cutting my own throat if I did something that would set back the community, and if we can sell 20,000 season tickets we can break even financially."
Gerry Phipps brushes off any possible objection to Denver by NBC, which insists it would never object anyhow. "Green Bay is the No. 1 attraction in the NFL nationwide," he said. "Because of community support here, we can be in pretty much the same position in the AFL. We've got to start winning games, but we've got the fans now. We haven't done any good at all selling tickets at the Denver Country Club or Cherry Hills, the status places. But we've done very well in appealing to the little man. Our Quarterback Club is full of guys in service-station uniforms. The Broncos will be their alma mater. I know we're going to have to have a bigger stadium. We can't really compete unless we have 50,000 seats. I think what we'll do is add on to the stadium we have. We pay about $250,000 per year in maintenance and taxes, plus servicing the debt that was there when we took over in 1961 and the debt we've added. When I think of how the Kansas City Chiefs were paying a dollar a year for a stadium and Buffalo $5,000 a year while getting 13½% of the concessions it's not easy to forget all the problems we've had. But we're on our way to success now."
The Broncos have dealt for Fullback Cookie Gilchrist from Buffalo and Halfback Abner Haynes from Kansas City, two of the AFL's best running backs when they care to be. The football team should be improved by their presence. And already the Broncos have sold more season tickets than the average attendance (16,894) at last year's games. Denver is a town of football fans gone mad. The astonishing thing is that they will have something to watch. A month ago you could have got a bet against it anywhere in town.
Gleeful Banker Ron Hermes, inventor of "Bronco Note" no-interest installment plan for moving season tickets, chortles over record sales.
Friendly Center Jerry Sturm of Broncos signs autographs for young fans during team parade through football-happy Denver suburb of Aurora.
Civic leader Gerry Phipps and his brother surprisingly kept his Broncos in Denver.