Where the fans are

December 2013

It’s midway into the third quarter on a bright September afternoon at Sports Authority Field, and the Broncos are putting it to Michael Vick and the Eagles. Peyton Manning just capped an 80-yard drive with touchdown pass to Demaryius Thomas, and the crowd’s roar is infectious. Two 20-something women decorated with blue eye shadow gyrate in a victory dance. A tall guy in an orange jersey, BAILEY stitched in white lettering across the shoulders, hoists a beer and joins in, his face lit in a loopy party grin. A woman to my left slaps me a high-five as music pulses over a sound system built into the stadium. Fans are loving the moment.

Except: We’re not actually celebrating in the stands. We’re 30 yards or so removed, on the first level at the stadium’s north concourse. Close to 100 Broncos faithful are watching the game on TV monitors circling the walk-up bar at The Tavern Mile High, a gathering place set up as part of a stadium improvement initiative called the Sports Authority Mountain Village.

The scene is familiar: sports fans whooping it up at a bar on a Sunday afternoon. But there’s a surreal element here. A short walk from here takes you through a tunnel that leads to the open stadium, where there’s actually a live game going on – the same game we’re watching here on the monitors. The same the game these people at The Tavern presumably paid lots of money to attend.

The thought strikes that it would be a lot cheaper just to go to a bar. But that doesn’t seem to matter to my new friend or to any of the people camped out here. None of them look like they’re in a hurry to get back to their seats.

“It’s more fun here!” the woman next to me explains. “My husband’s still up in the stands!” She says this with a smug grin.

The full-on party that’s happening at The Tavern says a lot about the state of live sports, especially football. Across the NFL, teams worry the in-home television experience has become so captivating, with its high-definition camera views and comfortable couches and relief from $50 parking tabs, that it’s getting harder to convince fans to attend live games. One of the responses – even in Denver, where a deep season ticket waiting list is the stuff of legend – has been to glitz up the stadium experience by borrowing creature comforts from home. Teams across the NFL and at major college football programs have invested in better wireless data networks, giant video screens and beautification efforts. The Broncos also have experimented with remedies including giving away handheld video monitors to season-ticket holders and elevating the hospitality experience from the beer-and-a-dog tradition.

It’s this last gambit that drew the attention of Tavern Hospitality Group, the Denver-based restaurant operator based in the Highlands neighborhood in north Denver. Co-founder Frank Schultz negotiated a deal to install a miniature version of one of his Tavern restaurants at the start of the 2012 NFL season.

It’s part of a broader sponsorship deal with the Broncos. For every home game, Tavern Hospitality also raffles off a chance for a fan to prowl the Broncos sideline for the opening quarter and win $1,000 for any points the Broncos score on opening drives. (Through the first five home games, Peyton Manning cost Schultz $35,000, about $17,000 more than Schultz had expected based on NFL scoring averages.)

The Sports Authority offshoot of the Tavern won’t make Schultz any money – it’s only open eight to 10 times a year for a few hours – but the affable owner says it creates visibility and goodwill for a restaurant group whose brand is closely aligned with Denver and its neighborhoods. “For us, it’s a showpiece,” Schultz explains.

Even so, he’s been happily surprised by how popular the place seems to be on game day. When I ask him how to explain the appeal of watching a game at a sports bar tucked inside a stadium whose entry price is $80 or more, Schultz doesn’t have a set answer. He suspects part of it has to do with the contrast between enjoying a drink in a comfortable setting and waiting in line to order at a traditional concession stand. Schultz points out he made sure to build a circular bar, or what he calls a “stand-all-the-way-around-it” bar to encourage socializing. Whatever the appeal, it’s working: Five games into the regular season, the Tavern had served more than 10,000 fans.

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