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More than a year after NFL stadiums were devoid of fans due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Denver Broncos are still suffering Sundays with less-than-full attendance.
For a late October game against the Washington Football Team, nearly 12,000 fans were no-shows at Empower Field at Mile High. More than 10,000 people also didn’t make it to the stadium for a December matchup against the Detroit Lions, a game which included tributes to beloved former wide receiver Demaryius Thomas, who died unexpectedly the week prior. The following week, more than 9,000 fans who had purchased tickets skipped out on the matchup against the Cincinnati Bengals, a game that carried pivotal playoff implications.
The Broncos have rarely struggled this much to turn out fans during the past few decades, even while going through rough patches of play. While a variety of factors could explain this year’s shrinking attendance numbers, including pandemic-related concerns and bandwagon fandom, many fans are simply frustrated with the current state of the team, which is now six seasons removed from its last playoff appearance.
“There’s been way more no-shows than in years past,” says season ticket holder Stan Davis, a seventh-generation Coloradan whose family has had season tickets since the 1960s. “This will include me next week.”
Davis is far from a fair-weather fan: His first game experience was Denver’s 51-0 loss to the Oakland Raiders in 1967, during which he had a warm Dr. Pepper and got a sunburn. Despite that less-than-ideal first-time experience, he was immediately hooked on the team. But with the current playoff drought and what he perceives as a lack of enthusiasm from the team’s leadership, Davis will be one of thousands of fans who are expected to forgo attending the season finale against the Kansas City Chiefs in protest.
While the frustration is real, most season-ticket holders say they aren’t fully ready to give up on the team—or the asset that is a seat at every Broncos game. According to a 9News report from April of 2021, the Broncos have a 99 percent renewal rate for season tickets and there are still more than 87,000 fans on the waiting list.
“It was a 20-year wait, my man,” Kansas resident Jon Medina says. “The day I turned 18 was when I signed up. I’ve been a Broncos fan since I was five. I grew up in Colorado, and that’s our team.”
Fellow season-ticket holder Terry Rust, who grew up in Monument, Colorado, is also disappointed by the coaching decisions and poor quarterback play. But he isn’t giving up his seats, which, like many fans, he has a significant emotional connection to. He originally purchased season tickets to share with his son David. In 2016, David passed away at the age of 36 due to heart failure. Despite the loss of his son and a current battle with multiple sclerosis, Terry still embarks on a nearly 400-mile trek from White Rock, New Mexico—a six-hour drive to Denver—for most home games.
“I’m 66 years old and have been a fan a long time,” Rust says. “I still enjoy going to the games. It gives me time alone to myself. My son is buried outside Monument, so I can visit him, too.”
Even though he is forgoing the season finale, Davis also still has some hope. “I think the team is closer than a lot of people think,” he says. “We’re not nearly as bad as we were in the 1960s and 70s. I think a lot of Broncos fans jump on and off the bandwagon. You saw some big bandwagon jumps in the 80s with Elway, in the 90s with the Super Bowl wins, and after Super Bowl 50.”
Fans do have some trepidation, though, about who the next owner might be. During Pat Bowlen’s three-decade long tenure as owner, the Broncos rose to the upper echelon of the NFL, with three Super Bowl wins, 12 AFC West division titles, and 19 seasons with a winning record. Since Bowlen’s death in 2019, however, the future of the team’s ownership has been clouded by fighting within his family, which has played out in both the media and the courts.
“Going forward without someone of Mr. Bowlen’s character, involvement, and commitment leaves us in a constant rebuilding cycle like the Lions, Jets, etc.,” Rust says.
“If you’re a true fan, you’re scared of who the next owner might be,” Medina says. “You want them to align with the established cores and values that we have in Denver. We understand you don’t win it all every year. But we’ve got to have trust in a system that makes us believe we can compete.”
The Broncos will reveal a plan for new ownership after the season. The potential for that, as well as a new quarterback to change the team’s fortunes, makes returning for next season the preferred option for most. “It sounds silly,” Davis says. “But you can take my grandma’s piano and fine China. I’ll hold onto the season tickets.”