Denver is the smallest of the 13 U.S. cities with four professional sports teams in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, National Hockey League and National Basketball Association.
But is Denver really a sports city?
Let’s ask somebody who should know.
Jim Saccomano was born and raised in Denver. He went to Mount Carmel High School, has two degrees from Metropolitan State University of Denver and earned a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Colorado.
Saccomano worked as the public relations chief for the Denver Bears and was the highly respected Denver Broncos vice president of public relations for 36 years before retiring in 2013.
“It’s a knee-jerk answer, but sports are very important in Denver,” Saccomano said. “Sometimes we just get used to things and take them for granted. Like on those cool summer nights, I step outside on my deck and I say, ‘Oh, what a beautiful night this would be at Coors Field.’”
He added that people work hard, and that’s one reason sports talk shows are so big.
“People are driving home from work and they listen to those shows,” Saccomano said. “Then you come home, have dinner and sports are all on TV. It’s a diversion. Everybody works hard enough and it’s a wonderful thing for them to say, ‘Now, I’m watching my team.’ Sports are very important and I’ll be glad to have it back.”
Saccomano believes sports — on hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic — will be back in the near future.
“I just hope we play this fall and have fans when we can,” said Saccomano. “Right now, we will take what we can get. Everybody is going to have to adjust — the fans, the press, the teams, the players — and then we’ll see. It’s an adjustment for all of us and just shows us that nothing ever stays the same.”
Reminiscing on Denver’s sports history
Saccomano — with a little encouragement — remembered way too much of Denver’s sports history to reminiscence in this column. But here are a few of his thoughts about baseball, onetime Broncos owner Gerald Phipps, erstwhile Broncos owner Edgar Kaiser and Broncos quarterbacks John Elway and Peyton Manning.
“Denver was always a baseball town,” Saccomano pointed out. “Denver had a professional team in 1895. You think about it, and how the heck are you going someplace in 1895? By wagon? Five guys in a wagon? Three miles seems like a pretty good trek on a wagon.”
Saccomano remembered being shown the newspaper when Denver became a Triple A franchise from the Western League.
“The headline type was so big, almost as big as ‘War in Europe Over,’” Saccomano said. He added that “baseball was big, and the dog races. Sounds crazy now, but in the ‘50s, that was a really big thing. There wasn’t that much in Denver — the National Western Stock Show and Rodeo, and the Denver Bears, which were an affiliate of the Yankees and Tigers, and had great success.”
And what about the Broncos? Saccomano was once quoted as saying, “the Broncos are the state religion in Colorado and are the soul of the city.”
“When the Broncos came, I always felt historically that they were terrible,” admitted Saccomano. “Then in about 1964, they almost moved to Atlanta. The ownership group was going to sell to Atlanta, and then Gerry Phipps excuses himself from a meeting, goes across the street to a bank, borrows a million dollars and comes back and buys out his partners. Then Phipps owned the Broncos.”
Saccomano added that season tickets sales were in the 5,000-to-7,000 range.
“And then after a terrible year, when they didn’t move and were saved, there were 22,000 season tickets in (the) 35,000-seat Bears Stadium,” Saccomano said. “The Broncos just became enormous and set the stage for the Nuggets — which were originally the Rockets — and the other sports.”
Two other significant moves include owner Edgar Kaiser arranging the trade to get quarterback John Elway to Denver in 1983, and Elway enticing quarterback Peyton Manning to play for the Broncos before the 2012 season.
“Kaiser deserves a lot of credit for what he did to get Elway,” said Saccomano. “Everybody was thinking he would be traded, but they were thinking Raiders and Al Davis, or the Chargers. That statue at the airport of Wally Schirra, no offense what so ever, but that could easily be John Elway. If you say Denver internationally, they say, ‘Oh Elway, Broncos.’”
Elway, as Broncos president of football operations, signed Manning as a free agent.
“I remember sitting in the press conference room,” Saccomano said, “waiting for the Manning press conference and Les Shapiro said to me, ‘You know, I’ve sat in this room for so many press conferences and I just can’t believe in a few minutes, Peyton Manning will walk in these doors.’”
Looking at sports down the road
Saccomano says it will take some time for the Broncos, Nuggets, Avalanche and other sports to rebound from the problems caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It will be a big change, even more so because we will get used to watching games on TV,” said Saccomano. “It just makes it harder for everybody to get all those people back. It will take them a while to rebound. The Broncos are more like, to me, a big-time college program in terms of how the fans are to them. The Steelers and Packers are like us. They transcend everything and so do the Broncos. Good or bad.”
Saccomano added that discussions on tickets prices are “kind of like a two-edged sword.”
“Teams would like to raise them but it’s a terrible time to do that,” Saccomano said. “You probably have to say, ‘Welcome to 2021 and the ticket office is open.’ And for every ticket you sell, you say, ‘Thank you sir, thank you ma’am.’”
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