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Denver tries to bounce back after Olympic blow

Broc Waring of the USA drops down the take off during practice for the LG FIS World Cup Snowboard Big Air Event in Civic Center in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)

  • USOC decided against hosting the 2030 Winter Olympic Games in Denver
  • Colorado capital dubbed the ‘Mile High City’ is already an experienced events host
  • City hopes to become one of the host destinations for the 2026 Fifa World Cup

In many ways, Denver feels like a city on a roll.

On a recent list compiled by US News & World Report, only Austin ranked higher as a place to live in the United States. This popularity has been reflected by a 20-per-cent increase in the city’s population since 2010.

With a thriving $6.5bn (€5.9bn) tourism and hospitality industry, Colorado’s so-called ‘Mile High City’ has everything from acclaimed craft breweries and music festivals to national parks and ski resorts, with its location at the base of the Rocky Mountains making it an ideal winter sports setting.

With five major-league franchises and established events in sports such as cycling, rugby sevens and lacrosse to throw into the mix, Denver has a sporting CV to rival any city in the US. However, in the bruising battle to secure sport’s stellar events, this alone cannot guarantee success.

Olympic setback

The city was dealt a blow last December when the United States Olympic Committee opted to proceed with Salt Lake City as its candidate to stage the 2030 winter Olympic Games.

Infamously, Denver is the only city to have given up the hosting rights to the Olympics after mounting public opposition and poor planning led to the 1976 winter Games being reallocated to Innsbruck in Austria. So, has the ghost of the Games haunted Denver’s attempts to become an Olympic host city in the 21st Century?

Matthew Payne, executive director at the Denver Sports Commission, an affiliate of the Visit Denver organisation charged with representing the City and County of Denver in recruiting sporting events, is among those to argue that the city’s unenviable place in the Olympics’ history books is irrelevant to today’s outlook.

“Since that time, we have held hundreds of events including the 2008 50,000-person Democratic National Convention, NBA, NHL, MLB All-Star games, women’s and men’s regional basketball games and Final Fours, and NCAA Men’s Hockey Final Four,” Payne says.

“Denver is known for its love of sports and the outdoors, and hosting high-profile events is a source of pride for our community. Sports are a huge economic driver for Denver, and we welcome a variety of sporting events each year that generate tens of millions of dollars in economic impact by bringing visitors, creating jobs and producing positive exposure for the city.”

Unconventional approach

From the outset, Denver’s proposal for the 2030 Games was unorthodox. Its radical co-hosting model set out to split events across North America, with venues as far afield as Lake Placid in New York and potentially even Canada.

In the end, USOC – which has since rebranded as the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee – took what could be perceived as the safer choice in Salt Lake City, which hosted the Games in 2002. That Utah already has the 16 venues necessary for hosting all winter Olympic events undoubtedly swung the decision in Salt Lake City’s favour.

Committee chief executive Sarah Hirshland praised Denver’s “creative thinking”, but ultimately its “unconventional” model proved a sticking point.

“We think Denver is an ideal location for a winter Olympics and our accessibility, diverse facilities, and history of hosting large world-class events are really unmatched. However, the decision to move the selection to an unprecedented two years earlier put us at a disadvantage,” says Payne, who is not alone in suggesting that timings did not help.

Rick Burton, who served as chief marketing officer of the Colorado-headquartered USOC at the Beijing 2008 summer Olympics, feels Denver’s latest Olympic setback may prove to be a blessing in disguise.

“Looking at it from Denver’s perspective, there would have been significant infrastructure costs,” says Burton, who currently serves as the David B. Falk Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University.

“My sense is that the infrastructure in place in Utah played more of a role than Denver doing anything wrong. We are in the midst of a recent IOC trend to return to former Olympic cities, such as London, Beijing, Paris and Los Angeles.

“But I could be wrong about all of that and maybe this is about personalities and friendships. Let’s assume the USOC had very good reasons to select Salt Lake as a single-state effort as opposed to a multi-country effort.

“And perhaps the Canadian Olympic Committee didn’t want Canada to lose a place in the IOC hosting line by getting tied in to Denver’s bid. It’s possible the COC called the USOC and lobbied for Salt Lake. And the USOC might have owed the COC a favour.”

The Denver Broncos and the Chicago Bears play at Empower Field at Mile High in Denver, Colorado. (Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images)

World Cup ambitions

Although the failure to secure candidate city status for the 2030 Games has clearly led to a degree of introspection, there is also a determination to bounce back as Denver seeks to become one of the host destinations for the 2026 Fifa World Cup, which the US will co-host alongside Mexico and Canada.

Denver’s 76,000-seat Empower Field at Mile High, home of NFL team the Denver Broncos, is on a shortlist of 17 potential US venues and, although the city did not stage games during the 1994 World Cup in the US, the tournament’s expansion from 32 to 48 teams from the 2026 edition has boosted hopes of securing a host-venue berth.

“Soccer is a sport for people of all backgrounds, and it is growing in the US and Denver,” Payne says. “Hosting the World Cup would be an inspiration to thousands of sports fans in Mile High City, especially our passionate sports and youth communities; and it would allow the state’s millions of sports fans an opportunity to experience world-class soccer up close in their own city.”

Whilst Denver itself has a population of just under 740,000, the metropolitan region is home to three million people, while Colorado has 5.7 million inhabitants. Aside from the sheer numbers, though, Denver, as the state’s focal point, believes it has the experience and infrastructure to serve as a major draw for fans from further afield during the World Cup.

“We want to open our doors to an international audience, expanding our global reputation and creating future opportunities to drive a vibrant, diverse community here at home,” Payne says. “Events like the World Cup allow us to utilise existing investments in venues, hotels and other infrastructure for additional gains.”

Hosting experience

Earlier this year, Empower Field was one of the host venues for the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football’s (Concacaf) Gold Cup national team tournament, with a crowd of 52,000 turning out for Mexico’s 3-1 win over Canada.

“If it works for the Gold Cup, I don’t see why it wouldn’t work for the World Cup,” Manolo Zubiria, chief of football officer for Concacaf, told the Denver Post following the match.

Meanwhile, speaking in July, Colorado Governor Jared Polis pointed out that Denver is the only city in the American Mountain West competing for the World Cup matches. Such arguments over geographical awareness and fairness have resonated with major event rights-holders in recent years.

“If the tournament is desiring to really represent the continent, it’s important we have that geographic diversity and that Colorado has that opportunity to highlight the Rocky Mountain west for an international audience,” Polis said.

According to Burton, it is likely that missing out on the Olympics will have made Denver “more attractive to Fifa”. He adds: “I think Denver will get World Cup games. Denver is a wonderful bid city and the pro sports teams would probably be willing partners if they can lease out their stadiums and make a few extra dollars.”

The US list will eventually be cut to 10, with three venues each in Canada and Mexico. The final host cities are expected to be announced in late 2020 or early 2021.

Major league city

The aforementioned Broncos are the city’s biggest sports franchise, holding the remarkable record of selling out every home game since 1970. The three-time Super Bowl winners were recently boosted by a 21-year agreement with Empower Retirement that grants the company naming rights to the stadium until 2039.

Elsewhere, Major League Baseball’s Colorado Rockies play their home games at the 50,000-seat Coors Field in downtown Denver. The team’s average attendance has been relatively stable, hovering at around the 37,000 mark since rising sharply nearly three years ago – countering falling crowd numbers experienced by many of its rivals.

The 18,000-seat Pepsi Center houses two more major league teams in the shape of the NBA basketball league’s Denver Nuggets and the Colorado Avalanche NHL ice hockey franchise. The city’s Fifa World Cup credentials will also be boosted by the presence of one of Major League Soccer’s founding clubs, the Colorado Rapids, which plays at the 18,000-capacity Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

Denver’s lengthy list of sports franchises also includes the Colorado Mammoth (National Lacrosse League), Denver Outlaws (Major League Lacrosse) and Glendale Raptors (Major League Rugby), with the latter playing at the 5,000-seat Infinity Park.

“One relatively new and expanding sport in Denver is rugby,” explains Payne. “Denver has a made a mark in the sport of rugby, due in large part to Glendale’s Infinity Park and a history of hosting international events like the Churchill Cup and matches featuring the US men’s national team at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park.

“We are now ready to feature the sport of rugby at Empower Field at Mile High and we are passionate about bringing more exposure to the game in the United States.”

Infinity Park, which opened in 2007, also hosts a leg of the Women’s World Rugby Sevens Series, a leading tournament in a discipline that continues to grow following its Olympic exposure. USA Rugby is another sports administration to be based in Colorado.

Variety

However, with such a range of sports on offer, is there breathing space for them all to succeed in a crowded market?

“The abundance and variety of sports options and sporting events in Denver can present a saturation challenge, wherein there may be difficulties in gaining media exposure for events,” Payne explains. “We work to mitigate any ROI issues by marketing in a diverse way and scheduling events in more accommodating periods during the year.”

One such event was the 2019 Ice Climbing World Cup, which took place in February – a “relatively needy period” for Denver’s hotel community, according to Payne.

He adds: “With seven professional teams, college athletic programmes, world-class venues and a rabid fan base for hometown sports, it’s easy to share this passion with athletes and teams coming into our city to compete in some of the best sporting events in the world.

“With three walkable stadium and arena venues downtown, sporting events create massive economic impact for the city by helping to fill hotel rooms, restaurants and retail businesses in close proximity.”

As an example, Polis has suggested that the Denver metropolitan region would generate more than $300m in new economic activity from hosting the World Cup, supporting 2,500 jobs and generating $90m in earnings. However, the foundations for major events have been built over several years.

In Denver, PGA Tour golf tournaments have pulled in visitors from across the US and beyond, while the acclaimed 2009 edition of SportAccord’s World Sport & Business Summit, the global gathering for international sports federations and governing bodies, left a lasting impression.

The city also hosts the annual Colorado Classic, which is among the only UCI-sanctioned women’s professional cycling races in North America, and the Colorado Crossroads volleyball tournament, which attracts more than 20,000 attendees.

“Having this variety of events taking place in our city allows us to work with some of the best ownership groups in the country and gives us the opportunity to host some of the biggest matches outside of our own teams,” Payne says.

“For example, this summer the Colorado Rapids hosted Arsenal to a sold-out crowd at Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, while we also have staged all of the major All-Star Games a city can host.”

Denver’s packed sporting schedule no doubt brings a challenge as well as an opportunity, with healthy competition for the attention of locals in what Burton describes as “a special sports town being at a little bit of altitude”.

Denver’s Olympic ambitions may have been scuppered for the time being but, with few US markets boasting the variety of sporting attractions and such a growing portfolio of events, few would bet against future efforts to exorcise the ghost of Olympics past.

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