It’s game day in Denver.
Before the Broncos start playing football, players are announced as they sprint onto the field through a smoke-filled tunnel shaped like three wild, galloping horses.
This pregame ritual is only a couple minutes long, but for an NFL team, it’s a really big moment.
“It is on a national stage a lot of times,” says Liz Coates, Game Entertainment Manager for the Broncos.
“It’s what TV uses when they’re rolling out … highlights,” she says. “A lot of that footage gets used.”
Until this year, the Broncos used a huge, inflatable tunnel for this pregame moment. It was puffy and looked a little cartoonish.
“It looked like a blimp and so it was a very puffy version of our brand and our logo,” Liz explains. “So, we wanted to have a better representation of our actual logo.”
Around the league, teams are abandoning the shapeless, inflatable tunnel in favor of more realistic designs.
For instance, the Miami Dolphins players charge the field through a giant sun ring that shoots flames in the sky. The Tennessee Titans run onto the field beneath two crisscrossed swords that shoot smoke into the air.
Both of those tunnels were designed by Paul Britten. He founded Britten Studios in Traverse City, and he recently designed the new Denver Broncos tunnel.
Paul says when he thought about the Broncos logo, he wanted to incorporate that specific brand and logo into the new tunnel as much as he could.
“But we also needed to create an actual tunnel,” he explains. “So, we thought of a herd of broncos. It wouldn’t be rare for a wild bronco on the frontier to be running along with others.”
Standing in front of the new tunnel, you see three broncos. They’re staggered; one on the left side, one on the right, and then another that gets lifted between the two. Players run under that top bronco, as fog spews from its nostrils.
Paul Britten has been designing stuff for major sporting events for decades. From banners at Wrigley Field, to huge signs for the Daytona International Speedway, to more recently, 3D foam sculptures which make up the three broncos in Denver's new tunnel.
It started when he was studying architecture at the University of Detroit in 1984. Back then, he painted rush party banners for fraternities and sororities.
“If I painted three banners a night, I could make $30 bucks, which was pretty important for a senior in college,” says Paul.
One day, he was in his dorm room when he heard a radio announcement for a banner design contest. It was in honor of the Tigers, who had just advanced to the World Series. The winner of the contest got box seats to a World Series game, limo service to and from the game, and five hundred bucks.
“I decided if I was going to enter, I was going to paint to win,” he says. “And I spent probably 30 straight hours and a twelve pack of beer on that banner.”
"And painted the best work that I could do, my own little masterpiece that said 'WLLZ rocks the Tiger' and the baseball was on fire breaking through the banner as it appeared.”
The finished banner was huge, twelve feet by thirty feet, and made out of butcher paper.”
The sign blew away the competition. In fact, second place was some guy who spray painted “Go Tigers” on a bed sheet. Paul says he was almost embarrassed his banner was so much bigger and better than any of the others.
“But it was an eye-opener that there might be additional projects – there didn’t seem to be competition in the world of big banners,” he says.
Days later, Paul had an idea for an even bigger banner. This one would hang from General Motors’ headquarters in Detroit. He called GM and begged for a meeting with anyone, and a gentleman from the public relations department obliged.
An hour into that meeting, and Paul found himself walking down a hallway to meet General Motor’s CEO, Roger Smith.
“We walked right into Roger Smith’s office,” Paul says.
After looking at it, Roger Smith leaned back in his chair and asked, “Can you have that banner done in three days?” Paul replied, “Yes, I can.”
Paul Britten’s business grew from hand painted banners to highly technical printed ones. He learned to hire, manage, and ultimately give his workers control. Today, Britten Studios employs over three-hundred people.
“You think you can do it all yourself, but you’re never going to grow unless you learn to trust other people,” he says. “I can honestly say that I have 18 or 19 of the largest digital printing machines and I don’t even know how to turn them on.”
These days, Paul focuses on running his business, not day to day operations. But once in awhile, a project big enough comes along to where Paul Britten can’t help but get involved. Like the Denver Broncos player entry tunnel, for example.
The tunnel is big – easily over twenty feet long. The middle Bronco alone weighs over four hundred pounds. Despite the massive size, workers have only five minutes to set it all up, and just four minutes to take it all down again. All that has to be done before the game can start.
When the workers tried setting up the new tunnel for the first time at the field, it took them an hour and a half, just to set up.
Days before the Broncos’ season opener on Monday Night Football, and the team was ready to get the inflatable tunnel back out.
When Paul Britten got that news, he jumped on a plane headed West.
“We had a very, very dramatic and exciting three or four days,” he says.
The main problem was the new tunnel was designed for a level surface, but the football field was sloped for drainage. This made the whole tunnel out of alignment and made it really hard to set up.
So, while the Broncos were thinking about other options, Paul and his team worked on a solution.
“Time kind of stops when you have a project like that needs to get done,” says Paul. “It’s about pushing forward to find the solution, and a lot of innovation happens in those pressured moments.”
They compensated and made some adjustments for the sloped field, simplified some of the mechanics required to lift the tunnel, and on the morning of game day, they shaved the set up time to about five minutes.
The Broncos decided to roll with it.
“Very excited when it went up,” Liz Coates recalls. “It met all of our expectations.”
Paul Britten believes there’s more opportunities to work with other NFL teams in the future. But in 2018, he’s got his eyes set on the collegiate sports market, where there’s a lot more than 32 teams.