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.