Rocky Mountain Bye?

With Number 7 long gone, most pro athletes see Denver as a dead end—but when it comes to actually playing sports, Colorado still rules.

This whole town’s never had a bigger hero than John Elway—certainly not in sports, and honestly not anywhere else. Like it or love it, that big-toothed Bronco put this town on the map. And other than one glorious Stanley Cup win (I’m looking at you, Joe Sakic) in 2001, a miracle World Series appearance in 2007 (where we got swept, by the freakin’ Red Sox!), and a chance to play doormat to the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals in 2009, since Elway retired, Denver hasn’t done squat.

Which got me wondering—what’s wrong with Colorado sports?

At least Denver is not Seattle, which lost its NBA team (to Oklahoma!?), got crushed in its lone Super Bowl appearance and was named two years in a row as ‘America’s Most Miserable Sports City’ by Forbes.com. At least we’re not Buffalo, with all those blizzards to bury its football and hockey grief. At least we’re not Cleveland… Right?

Illustration by Kevin Howdeshell/kevincredible.com.

Not quite. Because it seems like the best thing about being a sports star in Denver is the platform it provides to be a bigger sports star somewhere else. Compared to Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Dallas and even D.C., Denver’s still just that DIA connection on the way to Vail or Aspen or Cancun or some other trendier spot.

Too bad all those folks from the pre-mentioned marquee cities don’t always make their connections and actually end up moving here, raising kids who hopefully grow up to be Broncos fans themselves, even while mom and dad keep rooting for the teams in the towns that they just left.

Frankly, those folks are pushing the Denver fans out. At a recent Rockies game at Coors Field, where our home team was battling the Padres for a playoff spot (we lost), I was dismayed at how polite and respectfully appreciative the Denver crowd was. And especially at how many San Diego fans seemed to have just shown up.

“Oh you should be here for the Boston game,” the woman beside me said. “This place goes crazy for the Red Sox.”

On the flip side, we do produce more than our share of ‘team of one’ minded athletes who like to cheer for themselves. Look at all those locally bred big air pilots boosting it at the Winter X Games, or gold medal grabbing skiers from Vail (I’m looking at you, Lindsey Vonn), human-lung triathletes from the aerobic high cult of Boulder, or world-beating cyclists, gymnasts, swimmers and paddlers pumping out of the Olympian factory in Colorado Springs.

As far as the business of athletic abilities goes, a recent independent study by Deloitte found that the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs is both physically and fiscally fit. It drew more than 13,000 athletes and staff from around the country last year. And Olympic-related organizations and businesses pump an annual $215 million into the local economy according to the report.

Further into the mountains, Colorado’s ski business generates more than $2.5 billion annually. With nearly 12 million skier visits in Colorado last season, we lead the way in selling winter physical fitness. More importantly, with more than 30,000 people directly employed by ski country, a lot of Coloradoans can actually make a living from it.

In the cluster economy concept of sound business, that’s a lot of professional ski instructors, patrollers, coaches and guides—i.e., professional athletes—providing the kind of structure and network needed for such a service-based strategy to thrive. Especially in a town like Aspen, where big name backcountry athletes, both ex and up-and-coming World Cup stars, and all-around great riders are on every slope.

“I talked a little shit when I first moved here,” one East Coast transplant once confided to me. “But then I realized who I was riding the chair with.”

Should an old friend from one of those aforementioned marquee cities drop an e-mail about how great his team is doing, “I just send them photos from my last powder day. That shuts them up.”

And Denver’s sports future? There’s Tim Tebow, the dimple-chinned, remarkably charismatic, devoutly Christian, saving-his-virginity-until-his-wedding, Heisman Trophy winning quarterback that the Broncos traded up to get in the spring draft. That story pretty much sells itself—just like the kid’s newly minted Number 15 Jersey, which continues to lead the league in apparel sales.

But what I think’s cooler about Tim Tebow than almost any other athlete Denver’s drafted in past two decades (other than the fact that he led his Florida Gators to wins in the 2007 and 2009 BCS Championships), is that he seems to think Denver’s cool, too. Just like Elway did.

Elway told the Colts he’d rather play baseball than play for them, and they traded his pick to Denver. And Tebow, already well-versed in self-motivation, said he can’t wait to pay Denver back for giving him a chance.

Sweet. Because that’s really all there is to it. Whether we’re a Cowtown, Ski Town, Broncos town or what, the one thing Colorado sports fans love the most is finding other fans who love Colorado just as much as us.

I wonder what John Elway would say about that… •

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