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BOWLEN FOR DOLLARS

DENVER'S FAVORITE CANADIAN MILLIONAIRE WANTS A STADIUM SUBSIDY. HERE'S WHAT HE WON'T TELL YOU ABOUT IT.BRONCO BULLY PAT BOWLEN PLAYS SMASH-MOUTH POLITICS IN HIS QUEST FOR A NEW STADIUM.

Pat Bowlen has a problem. The multi-millionaire owner of the Denver Broncos says his team needs more revenue. And the Broncos' public relations machine is already shifting into gear, preparing a campaign to convince taxpayers they should open their wallets and chip in $180 million to build the men in orange a cash machine in the shape of a new stadium.

But there are a few items not likely to be highlighted in the coming media blitz: the lease with the city that legally binds the Broncos to Mile High Stadium through the year 2018; questionable business moves by Bowlen that themselves have dammed the team's revenue stream; and growing criticism within the engineering community that a consultant's report used by the Broncos greatly exaggerates the cost of keeping the team at Mile High Stadium.

Bowlen insists that Mile High is falling apart so fast that it may be condemned within a few years, leaving Denver's beloved Broncos no place to play but the parking lot. To back up his claims, he has relied almost exclusively on a 1994 consultant's report that claims it would cost just as much to maintain Mile High over the next thirty years as it would to build a whole new facility. However, engineers familiar with Mile High say that study, commissioned by the city, drastically overstates the extent of structural damage at the National Football League's longtime Denver home.

Bowlen wants voters in the six-county metro area to okay an extension of the .01 percent sales tax that paid for Coors Field so he can break his lease at Mile High and move into a modernistic stadium to be built on the same site. Behind the arguments and posturing is an implied threat: Keep us happy or we may find a way out of here.

But while Bowlen blames his need for increased revenue on rapidly escalating player salaries, his own poor business decisions--including building highly profitable luxury boxes at Mile High and then selling the rights to another company--may have contributed to the team's call for a taxpayer bailout. A new, publicly funded stadium would get Bowlen off the hook for his sky-box blunder, allowing him to start all over with a clean slate--and to keep the millions in annual revenue from the stadium's high-roller suites all to himself.

Behind the scenes, the Broncos have gone into overtime lobbying politicians, and the effort is paying off. Despite Mayor Wellington Webb's early dismissal of a new stadium as a flight of fancy, the city and the team are now expected to announce their joint support for such a taxpayer-funded facility. The city may even be prepared to let the Broncos manage Mile High--and keep much of the revenue--while another stadium is under construction.

For Denver taxpayers the proposed deal looks more like a transfer tax--from their pockets into well-padded Broncos bank accounts. If voters agree to spring for up to $180 million, Denver would get a stadium that seats almost the same number of people as Mile High. The Broncos say they would pay $70 million of the estimated $250 million cost; the team would likely have to arrange financing for its share. What the Broncos would get in return, in addition to dozens of luxury boxes under the control of the team, is thousands of lucrative club seats, a steady stream of money from parking and expanded concessions, and millions in windfall profits.

With football superstars pulling down up to $3 million a year, it's a challenge for Bowlen to pay those kinds of salaries and still maintain a sizable profit margin. Not to mention a $1.6 million mansion on Cherry Hills Drive, another $913,000 house in Englewood, a $415,000 condominium in a Cheesman Park high-rise, a BMW sedan and a Mercedes-Benz coupe.

But Bowlen, the heir to a Canadian oil fortune, insists he needs the additional revenue from a new stadium not to enrich himself, but to keep the Broncos competitive.

"Why should the voters care if Pat Bowlen makes more money?" he asks. "The majority of the money goes to the players. There's a big gap between what some teams make and others. If you wind up in the lower tier, you can't be competitive."

The connection between stadium revenues and success on the playing field may be more tenuous than Bowlen wants to admit. The Washington Redskins, Arizona Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks each spent more than $40 million on player salaries last year--tops in the league--and all three teams had miserable seasons. Sports Illustrated magazine recently reported that general managers around the NFL will actually be less likely to offer $3 million-plus salaries next season.

What's really driving the cries for additional revenue coming from NFL cities across the country may be a desire to keep up with the Joneses. Team owners like Bowlen have been startled by the success of Dallas Cowboys' owner Jerry Jones in finding new sources of profit. The Cowboys have become a virtual money machine, scooping up revenue on everything from club seating to parking at Texas Stadium. Football-mad Texans have helped the team score lucrative promotional deals with Nike and American Express, and the Cowboys are now pulling in more than $30 million a year from these efforts. Jones has become known for defying the NFL hierarchy over whether the Cowboys have a right to keep those earnings to themselves instead of sharing them the way league teams share television revenues. The Cowboys have used their windfall to lure athletes like Deion Sanders, who got a five-year, $25 million contract. Dallas outbid the Broncos for Sanders, something that still rankles Bowlen.

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