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Picture this for a moment: On the second Sunday in February, more than 75,000 people from across the world pack Empower Field at Mile High. As the sun sets over the Rocky Mountains to the west on a clear, idyllic night, a camera pans over the sold-out stadium, broadcasting the image to nearly 100 million people. On the field, the NFL’s two best teams line up to compete for the sport’s ultimate prize in a game that defines careers and cements legacies. For one glorious night, the collective gaze of the sports world is fixed on Denver.
If that’s a scene that seems too good to be true, it’s because it is.
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Denver is one of 15 cities with a current NFL team that either hasn’t hosted a Super Bowl or isn’t set to host one in the next three years. For a football-crazed market that’s home to a franchise with a passionate following, the Mile High City is a notable exclusion.
The Super Bowl is much more than just a four-hour football and entertainment extravaganza on a winter evening, of course. It’s the marquee event of the country’s most popular sports league and accounts for 30 of the 31 most-watched single-network television broadcasts in U.S. history. For the city in which the game takes place, millions of dollars and prestige are at stake.
On paper, Denver makes sense as a host. It’s a vibrant city with a metro population that has increased by about 80 percent over the past 30 years. It has been home to the Broncos for more than six decades, a time during which the team has developed one of the largest followings in the NFL. It has a walkable downtown with the Rockies serving as a picturesque backdrop. And given the timing of the event, Denver offers access to some of the best skiing in the world for anyone who comes to the big game. “I think we’ve earned the right to compete for a Super Bowl,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock says. “It wouldn’t surprise me that we would continue to be competitive, but it has been a difficult challenge.”
With so much working in its favor, why has the Super Bowl eluded the Mile High City? It’s a simple question with a straightforward but ultimately unsatisfying answer.
By this point in their careers, leaders such as Hancock and Denver Sports Commission executive director Matthew Payne are familiar with the pitch. When selling Denver as a destination for large-scale and lucrative events, they can refer to the city’s bevy of amenities and offerings in rapid succession, as if they’re reading from a tourism brochure.
The metro area has more than 50,000 hotel rooms that can house a huge influx of visitors. Its airport was the third busiest in the world in 2021 and is currently undergoing a $2.1 billion renovation. It’s located near the geographic center of the country, making it relatively easy to reach from anywhere within the continental United States. All three of its major professional sports venues are in, or within walking distance of, downtown.
The Queen City of the Plains is no stranger to high-profile sporting events, either. Over the past 40 years, it has hosted two Major League Baseball All-Star Games, two NBA All-Star Games, and the Final Four for both men’s and women’s college basketball as well as games for the World Series and the Stanley Cup Finals. “We have all the things you need and amenities you need for big-time events,” Payne says.
The Super Bowl isn’t just any event, though, and for all the boxes Denver checks, there are two all-important ones on the NFL’s list that it doesn’t: its weather and its stadium.
It’s obvious the NFL has a type—or, more specifically, a couple of types—when it comes to cities that host the Super Bowl. Of the 56 Super Bowls, 50 have taken place in warm-weather locales, such as Miami (which has hosted 11 times) or New Orleans (10). Of the six games played in cooler winter climates, five took place in indoor stadiums, shielding the game from potentially brutal conditions that could affect the quality of play.
The only game played outdoors in a colder climate took place in 2014 in East Rutherford, New Jersey, just a few miles outside of New York City—which happens to be the home of the NFL’s headquarters. Convenience may have been one factor in the decision to award East Rutherford the game, and the fact that MetLife Stadium was just four years old was likely another. But the league was also certainly cognizant of the benefits that would come with holding the Super Bowl just miles from the nation’s largest city and media market.
It’s not as easy for other cities to get the league’s attention. In Denver’s case, Empower Field is not only an outdoor venue, but it’s also not new. Seven of the past 12 Super Bowl stadiums, including all of the cold-weather venues, hosted the game within four years of opening. Each of the league’s nine newest stadiums has either hosted a Super Bowl or will house the game in the next three years. There’s something of a tacit understanding that if you (the team and city) build it, they (the NFL and the Super Bowl) will come.
At just 21 years old, Empower Field is the 16th oldest of the NFL’s 30 stadiums, and unlike venues that are roughly the same age or older, such as New Orleans’ Caesars Superdome or Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, the Broncos’ home hasn’t undergone a recent renovation. (Replacing a section of seats that caught on fire last year doesn’t count, apparently.) Newer, glossier facilities are perhaps the clearest and most sensible explanation for why outlying municipalities such as East Rutherford; Glendale, Arizona; Arlington, Texas; and Santa Clara, California, have hosted the Super Bowl while larger cities with more to offer—such as Denver, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and Seattle—have never been given the opportunity.
The fact that Denver has never hosted a Super Bowl is not due to a lack of trying. In 2012, the Broncos and Visit Denver submitted a letter of intent to the Super Bowl Advisory Committee to host the event in 2018, 2019, or 2020, but according to Payne, the proposal didn’t get very far. “I don’t think we ever went down to any more formal stages of trying to host because they have that preference,” Payne says of the desire for new and indoor stadiums. “It’s even in their bid documents.”
Given everything that needs to be in place for the Super Bowl to come to town, it’s fair to wonder why so many cities make such an effort to lure an event that will be gone almost as quickly as it arrives. The primary reason, of course, is money. There’s an obvious financial benefit for the city that hosts the Super Bowl: According to a report from the Los Angeles Sports and Entertainment Commission, the 2022 Super Bowl in Inglewood, California, was expected to bring between $234 million and $477 million in revenue to Los Angeles County, including between $12 million and $22 million in tax revenue.
Not everyone, however, is sold on the idea of Super Bowls being economic boons for host cities. Victor Matheson, a sports economist and professor at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, estimates that a more accurate figure for a host city’s economic windfall is between $30 million and $100 million. That’s a significant sum, but it doesn’t take into account the sizable costs a host city must shoulder on the NFL’s behalf. In a 153-page document of NFL requirements for a host city obtained by the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 2014, the phrase “at no cost to the NFL” appeared 45 times and related to everything from parking and hotel space to wireless connectivity and under-field heating systems.
“The NFL knows they have this one very, very special event, probably the biggest single social event in the United States outside of Christmas and Thanksgiving,” Matheson says. “[The Super Bowl] is kind of like this weird, manufactured holiday. They know they have control over this, so they can say, ‘If you’re not willing to pay our demands, we can find someone else who’s willing to do it instead.’ They’re able to effectively squeeze all of the potential benefits out of that city.”
Then there are the costs associated with the main reason the Super Bowl ever winds up in a given city: the stadium itself. Each of the seven newest NFL stadiums that have hosted a Super Bowl or will host one in the near future came with a price tag of at least $1.1 billion. Several of those projects received public funding: Public subsidies paid for nearly $500 million of the $1.1 billion U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and $750 million of Las Vegas’ $1.9 billion Allegiant Stadium.
Empower Field was completed in 2001 at a cost of $400.7 million, with a multicounty sales tax accounting for 60 percent of that bill. Even when adjusted for inflation, that final cost is still less than half of what was spent on many new Super Bowl venues. In the time since Empower Field was built, stadiums have gone from being large structures for hosting games, and sometimes concerts, to opulent football palaces that double as hubs for shopping and entertainment.
There’s speculation that Empower Field was constructed so that a dome could be added to it, a significant investment that would bolster Denver’s Super Bowl candidacy. (A spokesperson for the Broncos declined to make any executives from the front office available for an interview for this article.) “It is absolutely in no way worth it for Denver to say, ‘Well, let’s spend a few hundred million dollars putting a dome on that stadium so we can host the Super Bowl,’ ” Matheson says. “That would be ridiculous.”
For all of those potential drawbacks, the event still has a singular aura, one of many reasons cities continue to comply with the NFL’s extensive list of demands and preferences. A Super Bowl enhances a city’s reputation, increases its visibility, and gives it a certain legitimacy. It’s what Daniel Funk, professor of sport and recreation management at Temple University in Philadelphia, calls psychic income. “That’s something that’s really hard to quantify, but it’s something that gets people excited,” Funk says. “It’s hard to rally around a road project. That’s important, don’t get me wrong. But it’s pretty easy to rally around a Super Bowl coming to town.”
It’s the kind of irresistible pull that could keep a city like Denver interested. Hancock jokingly says that, since he took office, he has kept track of Denver’s weather on the day of the Super Bowl. Over the past six years, the average high temperature was 56 degrees. In 2020, the temperature got up to 63, just one degree below the high that day in Miami, where Super Bowl LIV was played that year. That’s the sort of figure that seems ready-made for a pitch to the NFL.
For all the obstacles that stand in the way, some of which appear insurmountable, both Payne and Hancock say they’re open to the idea of a future bid. “I think we’re willing to do it,” Hancock says. “I think there’s probably some renewed energy and optimism since the new [Broncos] ownership is in town. They’re willing to take a look at the stadium and its ongoing capacity going forward. I know I’m excited about that.” In the coming years, Denverites will learn just how excited the NFL is about the Mile High City as a potential Super Bowl host, as well.