Ten pieces of advice for the new owners of the Denver Broncos
Aug 9, 2022, 9:25 AM | Updated: 9:35 am
(Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images)
AN OPEN LETTER
Dear S. Robson Walton, Carrie Walton Penner, Greg Penner, Mellody Hobson, Dr. Condoleezza Rice and Sir Lewis Hamilton:
Congratulations on your pending purchase of the Denver Broncos Football Club! You’ve taken a bold and prudent step in joining one of the most exclusive groups in world sport. NFL clubs have experienced exponential increases in value in recent decades and represent a terrific investment — both in asset appreciation and in civic, regional, national and global prominence. Furthermore, the club you purchased has a robust, massive and engaged fan base.
That being said, enough with the pleasantries.
I’m not here to tell you how to do the job that you will assume Aug. 9.
I can help you get the lay of the land.
A little background: Among the lines on my CV are two separate stints working in digital media for the Broncos and another two years in a similar capacity with the Carolina Panthers. I wasn’t a high-level executive, but I know a bit about how the sausage is made.
With that, here are a few tips:
1. IT’S BRONCOS COUNTRY, NOT “BRONCOLAND” …
… or “Bronco Nation” or “Broncos Planet” or whatever you want to say. “Broncos Country” finds its origins in the team’s marketing department, circa mid-2000s.
Personally, I’m not a fan of it. It sounds like a small-market country-music station. But the fan base, by and large, adores it. The customer is not always right, but in this case, there is no reason to eschew the collective desire of your clientele.
2. SIT BACK, WATCH AND LEARN.
You may have plans and ideas. Massive ones. And you might believe that implementing them requires putting “your people” into key positions. But before you do that, wait a moment. Your organization possesses boundless reservoirs of institutional knowledge of the Broncos and NFL.
And football is not like the other businesses you’ve known. As I once heard from an NFL owner, it’s a business that operates in loyalty and passion from its customers — the fans.
When the late Pat Bowlen assumed the reins in March 1984, changes were minimal. Dan Reeves remained the coach. John Beake was an internal promotion to general manager. And in both cases, staying the course proved wise, to the tune of three AFC titles and just one losing season in the next decade. (That being said, they had some guy named John Elway at QB … just like you inherit a future Hall of Famer named Russell Wilson there.)
“He [Bowlen] didn’t mandate anything,” recalled Joe Ellis, who worked in the team’s front office at the time. “He made it clear that he was coming in to learn and he was going to listen to Dan Reeves and John Beake on the football side. They were running the whole program at that time, and he deferred to them.”
Bowlen also took a few years at NFL meetings to listen and develop a feel for the landscape before becoming a prominent voice on league matters. The time he took strengthened his eventual voice and presence to the point where in the NFL’s highest echelon, he became a leader among leaders.
3. GET TO KNOW YOUR PLAYERS.
This was a massive aspect of how Bowlen got buy-in from the team he purchased.
“He knew you,” Ring of Fame linebacker Karl Mecklenburg said in the 2010s.
This was different from the Broncos’ other Ring of Fame owner, Gerald Phipps. Now, Phipps and his brother Allan helped save the team for Denver; his contributions were deep, too. But he didn’t have the connection that Bowlen gained.
“I remember a story Tom Jackson used to tell me about Mr. [Gerald] Phipps. Mr. Phipps was the owner before Edgar Kaiser. Mr. Phipps would come in the locker room and pat you on the back and say, ‘Have a good game,’ and then he’d look at the back of your jersey so he could see your name and say, ‘Have a good game — Jackson.’ That’s how most NFL owners are.
“Mr. Bowlen was unbelievable. Pat was so involved and wanted to be part of the game-day activity and everyday activity. He was a special guy that way.”
4. THAT SAID — GET OUT OF THE WAY, EXCEPT TO SAY, “YES.”
Learn about your players, coaches and staff. And then step away and let them do their jobs. Do not micro-manage.
Trust your experts.
With this in mind, say “yes” a lot. You possess the financial resources to do so. Don’t go to the mat over a request for a new blocking sled. Don’t wedge the entire traveling party onto a narrow-body plane, not even for a short trip; stick to the wide-bodies.
You won’t be able to do but so much in player salaries; the cap puts a constraint on that. You can’t pull a Steve Cohen or a Sheikh Mansour, who bought the New York Mets and Manchester City F.C. and engaged in unfettered spending sprees on player talent to push their teams skyward. But you can spend on the fringes, on facilities and accommodations and resources that will tell every potential free agent that Denver is a place where they don’t scrimp.
5. KNOW THAT ORANGE AND BLUE IS THE BRONCOS’ IDENTITY.
Don’t get it in your minds to change the colors, unless you want to lighten the shade of blue. Don’t add black trim or slate gray or yellow or anything else.
It’s orange and blue. In that order.
Which means …
6. THE PRIMARY JERSEY MUST BE ORANGE.
The Broncos are the only NFL team whose primary shirt is orange. Others throw it in as an alternate — Cincinnati, Chicago, even Cleveland over the years. But for them, it’s an accent.
Take a close look at Empower Field at Mile High for an early-season day game and you will see an ocean of orange jerseys. It is one of the most resplendent sights in the sport. It is a vision that vanished during the 15 seasons (1997-2011) in which the Broncos’ primary jersey was blue.
Orange is the real deal here. One of the most iconic units in Broncos’ history was the Orange Crush defense of the 1970s and early 1980s. “Orange Sunday” became an annual occurrence to celebrate the team, and even in the days before jerseys became stylish to wear, fans would turn the old Mile High Stands as bright as the sun shining above.
If you don’t want to wear orange in the Super Bowl, fine. For Super Bowl 50, the Broncos chose to wear white jerseys. One reason was the team’s 0-4 record in the ultimate game in orange. Another was that it forced the Carolina Panthers to wear black jerseys; Carolina had never — and still has never — won a postseason game in black.
Blue jerseys are fine as an alternate. But don’t insult the public’s intelligence by saying that orange-swoosh side panels ensure that “the predominant color of this uniform is orange,” as Bowlen said the day the Broncos introduced their current uniforms in 1997.
And speaking of the swoosh …
7. NEW UNIFORMS, PLEASE … BUT DON’T GET TOO CUTE.
Because it’s time.
First, ditch the swooshes, which are the most obtrusive element on any NFL uniform today. Sometimes, the jersey numbers on the back bleed onto the swooshes. They also makes the front of the jersey feel crunched and turn the players into ambulatory parentheses. And when the pants and jersey don’t align, the intended eunifying effect of the jersey and pants side panels vanishes. Finally, the helmet stripes don’t match anything else on the uniform.
It’s a mess. A dated mess.
At one point, it was supposed to be forward-thinking and the future. But now it looks like what Disneyland’s Tomorrowland became by the 1990s: “The future that never was.”
So, what to do?
You could design a uniform yourself. You could also work with a current template already in the Broncos’ arsenal: the all-orange Color Rush. The stripe patterns are consistent; the look can be applied to blue, white and orange pants, and jerseys.
But no matter what you do, don’t get caught in the cul-de-sac of in buzzwords like “innovation” and “cutting-edge.” This isn’t soccer, where you get a new kit every year, change is the norm and you can quickly move past a bad look. Whatever new look you choose, you’re stuck with for five years.
A football uniform should stand the test of time. Aim for a timeless look that evokes the Broncos’ history — and lean on Secretary Rice for her knowledge in this regard.
8. KNOW THAT CERTAIN JERSEY NUMBERS AREN’T ISSUED FOR A REASON.
Look out on the practice field and you won’t see a 24, 58 or 88 in orange and blue. It’s not a coincidence.
The circumstances are different on No. 88. I’ll explain in a moment.
But No. 24 belonged to Champ Bailey, who became the first and only Bronco since John Elway to be a first-ballot Pro Football Hall of Fame selection. Von Miller wore No. 58. He was the MVP of Super Bowl 50. He, too, is on a collision course with first-ballot Hall-of-Fame status.
Only Pacman Jones has worn No. 24 since Bailey’s retirement, and that choice was a mistake. The number went back out of circulation after Jones’ brief stint and should remain that way.
Being a first-ballot Hall of Famer for accomplishments as a Bronco would be a logical standard for current and future jersey-number retirements. It would also remove the guesswork and debate from the equation, leaving it to an empirical standard.
As for No. 88, I don’t expect Demaryius Thomas’ number to permanently stay out of use. Moral Stephens wore it during the 2019 preseason, less than one year after the Broncos traded Thomas to Houston. Nick Vannett wore it throughout the 2020 season and Shaun Beyer donned it on the practice squad last year.
While Thomas had a terrific career, if his resume represents a standard for jersey retirement, then one needs to also retire jersey numbers like No. 84 (Shannon Sharpe), 27 (Steve Atwater), 77 (Karl Mecklenburg), 80 (Rod Smith) and 53 (Randy Gradishar). And all of a sudden, you’ve got a number crunch. This is why the first-ballot standard is logical; it keeps jersey retirements rare.
So, No. 88 should eventually return. But a pause to mourn Thomas’ untimely death last December is appropriate.
9. IF YOU BUILD A NEW STADIUM OR FACILITY, DON’T ASK FOR PUBLIC FINANCING.
A tax break and/or some help on infrastructure like highway exits and additional lanes on roads, fine. But if you do a shakedown for corporate welfare in a time and environment in which schools are underfunded and infrastructure is crumbling, you will squander your goodwill in less time than it takes KJ Hamler to run the 40.
That said, you know the advantages to building it yourself. Furthermore, you can see what Stan Kroenke has constructed on his own dime in Inglewood, Calif.
So, build it bigger and better — and do it yourself, so you can keep every last dime of profit while also earning the respect of the community and Broncos fans at large.
10. TREAT YOUR STAFF RIGHT.
And I’m not just talking about your players, coaches and personnel executives. I mean that you should take care of your trainers, equipment managers, financial bean-counters, IT wizards, public-relations front-liners, digital-media mavens, marketers, groundskeepers, chefs, custodians and everyone else who draws a paycheck.
The football life brings sacrifices from more than just the players and coaches. They’re washing clothes at 5 a.m., crunching numbers at 3 a.m. fueled by greasy fast food from a 24-hour drive-through, or they’re posting digital content while on vacation.
The late Pat Bowlen said in 1984 that players “want to be treated like human beings, not like … pieces of equipment.” You should have that mindset for EVERY employee — and every fan, for that matter.
And be forthright with them. Don’t make them learn that they’re off of a project by seeing other people doing it without notifying them that a change was made. Furthermore, don’t pat ’em on the back with a positive performance review, only to knife ’em in the same spot with a layoff notice two weeks later.
AND IF ALL ELSE FAILS …
… simply do the opposite of what Daniel Snyder did in Washington.
For 23 years, Snyder has provided an instruction manual on how NOT to run a franchise. When he bought what is now known as the Washington Commanders, they were the Eastern Seaboard’s version of the Broncos in terms of fan passion and loyalty. Now, their support is as thin as a promise.
Just don’t do what Danny did, and you’ll be OK.
Wishing you success,