The History of Professional American Football in Denver

Although various professional American Football leagues and teams were established in the east and west coast in the 1920’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, it was not until the 1960’s that the sport reached the Denver area.   This is likely due to the fact that any Denver franchise in the 1920’s – 1950’s did have any local rivals from nearby major cities – and travel expenses to play a team on the west coast or in the Midwest would have been cost prohibitive.

This all started to change in Denver in 1959 due in part to the surging popularity of the sport nationally, and increased efficiencies in cross-country travel.

Denver’s professional football history actually begins with baseball. Bob Howsam was the owner of the Denver Bears – a successful Triple A team – and Bears Stadium, which would eventually become Mile High Stadium.

Howsam’s ultimate goal was to bring a Major League Baseball expansion team to Denver. To demonstrate his commitment to the sport, he became a founding partner of the Continental League – a rival to MLB – and poured considerable funds into expanding Bears Stadium to a new capacity of 34,000 seats.

The Continental League never got off the ground. So with a stadium much too large for Triple-A baseball, Howsam need to find a co-tenant to help fill the venue. He started his search by courting the NFL’s Chicago Cardinals who were looking to get out of the shadow of the Chicago Bears. When the NFL eventually moved the Cardinals to St. Louis, Howsam found solace among some of the other losing bidders including Lamar Hunt.

A Dallas-based oilman, Hunt responded to the rejection by working to establish a new league that would compete against the NFL. Howsam was encouraged by Hunt’s plan and formed the Denver Broncos as one of the eight charter franchises in the newly formed American Football League (AFL):

American Football League (AFL) – established 1960

Boston Patriots         Dallas Texans          Buffalo Bills                Los Angeles Chargers

Houston Oilers          Oakland Raider        New York Titans          Denver Broncos

The AFL eventually merged with the NFL and the rest, they say, is history for the Broncos. Howsam sold the team to the Phipps family – and eventually became the General Manager of the Cincinnati Reds where he was one of the primary architects of the Big Red Machine of the 1970’s.

The Denver Broncos captivation of the region has been so strong that many of the other professional football leagues have stayed away from the city including the Continental Football League (1965-69), World Football League (1974-1975) and American Football Association (1978-1983).

The only other attempt to establish a professional American Football team in Denver came with the USFL.  Ron Blanding, a Denver real estate executive, established the Denver Gold as a charter member of the USFL in 1983.

Denver Gold game ticket

As the USFL was a springtime league, the Gold were able to play their games in Mile High Stadium and did not go head-to-head against the Broncos.  The Denver marketplace supported the Gold very well, and in 1983 they led the league in attendance.  The Gold would play three seasons (1983-85), however their eventual demise, along with the demise of the USFL in general, was the decision to move to a fall season in 1986.  Knowing there was no way to compete with the Broncos head-to-head, Blanding attempted to merge the Gold with the Jacksonville Bulls, essentially relocating the team to Jacksonville.  Before that merger could be consummated, however, the USFL folded.

Denver is clearly the Broncos’ town now and forever.