A Whole New Ballgame

The man who drove a stake through Guide the Ride may take aim next at Pat Bowlen's stadium tax.

The TV deal has already started an inflationary spiral in NFL wages. The ink was hardly dry on the agreement when New England Patriots offensive lineman Max Lane scored a new $11 million, five-year contract. It's widely expected that NFL star quarterbacks will now routinely draw salaries as high as $10 million per year.

Despite the difficulty the Broncos say they have meeting their payroll, the worth of the franchise has grown in recent years. Last year Financial World magazine estimated the team was worth $182 million, a dramatic rise from its estimated $119 million worth in 1992. The magazine also said the Broncos had less than $1 million in operating income because the team put almost all of its profits back into player salaries. Having a new stadium would increase the value of the Broncos by millions, since it would give the team access to as much as $25 million per year in revenues from skyboxes, club seating and elaborate new concessions operations (the Broncos receive no such revenue at Mile High Stadium).

Despite his brittle public persona, Bowlen is known as one of the NFL's better owners because of his willingness to reinvest profits in the Broncos. However, his attempt to maximize revenue at taxpayer expense may have come at a bad time. Critics say the public is tiring of the skyrocketing cost of professional sports, and point to last November's stadium vote in Pittsburgh as proof. In that election, voters stunned the sports world by defeating a proposal to build new homes for the football Steelers and baseball Pirates with a .05 percent sales tax. As in Denver, the owner of the Steelers had claimed he might sell the team to someone who would move it out of town if voters turned down the deal.

Of particular interest to Kopel is the fact that the Independence Institute's counterpart in Pittsburgh, the Allegheny Institute, played an important role in that city's campaign. Those opposing the tax were outspent fifty to one by pro-stadium forces that included the CEOs of major corporations. "The proponents [of the tax] spent $5.5 million," recalls Grant Gulibon, assistant research director at the Allegheny Institute. "They had all the big local corporations and the teams. I don't think anybody was prepared for it to go down as badly as it did."

The vote in Pittsburgh is being viewed as a watershed by many who've studied the push for new stadiums around the country. "I've rarely seen such an overwhelming defeat for one of these proposals," says Peter Eisinger, an economist at Wayne State University in Detroit. "It's the principle that angers people. A city like Pittsburgh has serious problems with infrastructure and its public schools. There was a sense in Pittsburgh that here were wealthy owners and players standing at the public trough."

Denver City Councilman Ted Hackworth says the issue is whether poor people should subsidize millionaires. "The voters in Pittsburgh stood up and said, 'Wait a minute, this isn't a good deal,'" notes Hackworth. "There's some hope we'll get common sense re-established here."

Drawing too many parallels to Pittsburgh may prove dicey in Denver. In an attempt to broaden the potential appeal to voters, the Pennsylvania measure lumped the new sports stadiums with other civic improvements such as an expanded convention center. Next November in Denver, the Broncos will stand alone--and as defending Super Bowl champions.

But that prospect doesn't seem to faze Caldara. And though he has yet to officially take the field against Bowlen's proposal, he's already talking like a man with his game face on. "I believe it's a defeatable tax if someone takes it on," he says. "The Guide the Ride election showed that money alone does not guarantee a win.

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