The Denver Broncos are entering the 2022 season as one of TV’s darlings.
With Monday Night Football, Sunday Night Football, and prime-time games galore, it feels to me like the days of 1996-1998 when it seemed like the Broncos lived on prime-time TV.
Of course, the Broncos open their season on Monday Night Football against the Seahawks in Seattle, a fitting start for one of pro football’s star TV teams.
Until the Broncos’ streak was called off last year, Denver had its longest annual streak of at least one game Monday night.
This current role is one the Broncos deserve, but not one that always has been. The team, like the city, has become a major player on the national stage, but it hasn’t always been like that.
Back in 1969, the NFL announced a three-year deal with ABC to televise Monday Night Football. The new series made the NFL the premier league with a regular series of national prime-time television shows.
This announcement was part of the stunning growth of professional football as the nation’s premier spectator sport, in the context of the merger of the NFL and the rival American Football League.
That announcement came on May 26, just a few weeks after the big announcement that Baltimore, Cleveland and Pittsburgh had agreed to join the newly created American Football Conference.
Thus was born Monday Night Football, but football franchises were used to playing on Sunday afternoons with a full week to prepare for the next game, so there was initial reluctance to attend night games.
The MNF series began in 1970, and it was only natural that the New York Jets would start the series with star quarterback Joe Namath.
Art Modell, owner of the Cleveland Browns, who had served as president of the NFL and gained notoriety as chairman of the prestigious television board, had been one of MNF’s key supporters, so his Browns were chosen to face the Jets in the opening game of the series.
Meanwhile, the Broncos languished in the lucky ones category to get into the Fusion.
Denver had just expanded what was once Bears Stadium from just over 35,000 to 50,000, and it would eventually grow to 75,000, but the Broncos were viewed nationally like the city itself. In the Rocky Mountain time zone, which is still home to less than 7 percent of America’s population, Denver and the region were something of an afterthought. Then as now, the east coast dominated.
“Monday Night Football” was something Denver fans could see, but were unlikely to attend.
The inimitable Keith Jackson was the play-by-play man for the series’ first year, but Frank Gifford took over that role for a long time in 1971, and Don Meredith was the color man from 1971 to 1973 and again from 1977 to 84.
But the key figure was Howard Cosell, who enjoyed being pompous and aggressive as the third man (the only man, some would say) in the ABC booth. I can personally attest to the unique personality that Cosell brought to the national stage and it seemed he was always on the national stage.
Cosell was a New Yorker, as were many of the support staff, and it’s safe to say that MNF and all that goes with it was centered on the East Coast and other major population centers. He didn’t think much of Denver, and maybe that made sense at the time.
So that kind of left the Broncos out, and the fact that Denver didn’t have their first winning season until 1973 didn’t help the Mile High City either.
One of MNF’s most popular features was the halftime highlights segment, hosted by Cosell, which highlighted Sunday’s games in minutes.
I remember well that whenever the Broncos had an exciting game, local fans would hum “They just gotta include us this time” or similar words.
But it shouldn’t be. Week after week of the series, Denver’s game was ignored in the halftime highlights.
In fact, there was a bar in Glendale called Sweetwater, and they started running a promotion where after the highlights were shown on MNF, minus the Broncos of course, a patron was chosen to throw a brick through a TV. Sweetwater went through a lot of television sets in those early years.
Denver didn’t have its first MNF game until 1973, and that 23-23 draw with the Oakland Raiders was considered one of the most socially significant games in the city’s history. It was significant in many ways, including the fact that it was the most-watched event ever televised from Denver to that date.
The whole town was proud, and that Monday there was a home-style luncheon with Cosell as the guest speaker. He continued to lecture everyone in attendance about Denver’s troubles and told the luncheon guests how lucky they were to have the “Monday Night Football” crew in attendance.
Usually a guest speaker doesn’t talk to his audience, but what can we say? Cosell seemed to enjoy being hated.
But time passed and the Broncos became one of the greatest teams in the NFL.
“Monday Night Football” and the rest of the television world quickly saw the beauty of the mountains, sunshine and sunsets illuminating Mile High Stadium, and the Broncos became a franchise that enjoyed successful seasons and a tremendous following.
The color orange seemed to go perfectly with sunshine and snow, and a few years later, with the immediate greatness of John Elway, Denver became a fixture on national television.
Only the win-loss record could do damage, and unfortunately that has happened in recent years.
But this, as everyone knows, is a new era, with quarterback Russell Wilson taking on the mantle of fame worn so brilliantly by Elway and later Peyton Manning, and now the Broncos are reopening on Monday Night Football.
Originally dusty old Cowtown has shaken much of that dust off its designer boots and has risen back to stardom in NFL heaven.
Denver is far from being ruled out in 2022 if any halftime highlights are shown.