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A Whole New Ballgame

Following the Denver Broncos' Super Bowl win last month, Denver's movers and shakers tripped over themselves in a rush to endorse a new taxpayer-financed stadium for the team. Mayor Wellington Webb, Governor Roy Romer and the Denver Metro Chamber of Commerce all gave high-profile endorsements to the stadium proposal, even though everything, from the structure's design to its final cost, is still up in the air.

But stadium-tax opponents have been busy themselves recently, working on what could be their first big coup: persuading fiery RTD board chairman Jon Caldara, who led the campaign against the Guide the Ride proposal, to head a similar effort against the stadium tax.

The outspoken Caldara, who became something of a political star during the Guide the Ride debate and is now considering a run for Congress, says he's seriously considering reprising his spoiler's role. "I love the Broncos, but they're playing a heavy hand and saying, 'Buy us a new stadium or we're leaving,'" he says. "The Broncos are well-paid entertainers. It's going to be hard to sell to people that these entertainers should be publicly subsidized."

Cheering Caldara on are his ideological soulmates at the Golden-based Independence Institute. Members of that conservative policy group worked closely with Caldara to defeat the Guide the Ride initiative and are already vowing to go all out against the stadium tax in the November election.

"We're certainly going to play a major role in the discussion," says Dave Kopel, the group's research director. Kopel calls the proposed tax "football socialism" and says the usually libertarian Independence Institute plans to call for city ownership of the Broncos. (National Football League bylaws forbid municipal ownership, but Kopel says he believes that provision may be unconstitutional.)

For Caldara, fighting the wildly popular Broncos would be much different than fighting the wildly unpopular RTD. But he says he's not discouraged by the team's lead in the opinion polls (at last word, 57 percent of metro voters reportedly favored a subsidy). Guide the Ride originally enjoyed a wide lead in the polls as well, Caldara points out, but those numbers shifted as the election neared. He says the Broncos proposal may suffer a similar fate. "The proponents of the stadium tax will have a tougher time than they think," he predicts.

But the Broncos--who are asking taxpayers to extend the .01 percent Coors Field sales tax to build them a new stadium--had a pretty easy time of it last week at the state Senate. Team owner Pat Bowlen easily convinced the Business Affairs and Labor Committee to increase the public's proposed contribution to a stadium from $180 million to $265 million. Meanwhile, the senators gave Bowlen a warm welcome, jokingly asking him to move his team to their hometowns and offering kudos for the big win over the Packers. Wisecracking tax opponent Douglas Bruce, widely loathed at the Capitol for his success in passing tax-limiting Amendment 1, also appeared before the committee. He got a much frostier reception.

The appearance by Bruce, whose victory on Amendment 1 was followed by a series of embarrassing clashes with the City of Denver over his dilapidated rental properties, constituted yet another public-relations setback for stadium-tax opponents. There has been organized opposition to a stadium tax for some time; northwest Denver activists Bill and Shirley Schley formed Citizens Opposing the Stadium Tax (COST) well over a year ago and have gotten endorsements from such odd bedfellows as conservative representative Penn Pfiffner of Lakewood and liberal representative Ron Tupa of Boulder. But COST's spokesman, the soft-spoken Bill Schley, has found it hard to do public battle with vocal tax backers like KOA radio talk-show host Mike Rosen.

Adding Caldara to the mix would instantly alter that dynamic. The former political cartoonist from Boulder clearly relished trading potshots with fellow RTD boardmembers during the Guide the Ride campaign. And should he sign on to the stadium fight, his friends at the Independence Institute stand ready to provide him with plenty of ammunition to shoot from the lip.

The Golden group, for instance, is already targeting self-proclaimed conservatives who have abandoned free-market principles to support a stadium tax. "It would certainly be wrong for somebody to be opposed to welfare for poor people and be in favor of welfare for Pat Bowlen," says Kopel.

Not surprisingly, describing the stadium tax as welfare rankles the Broncos. "How anybody can characterize this as welfare--which is a one-sided gift, if you will--is beyond me," says lobbyist and team spokesman Porter Wharton. "I would say it's debatable whether a community receives something back from welfare. It's indisputable the community receives something back from their partnership with professional sports."

But Kopel and others do dispute the notion--also being pushed by the chamber of commerce--that the Broncos pump millions of dollars into the local economy. According to Kopel, professional sports franchises simply "rearrange entertainment dollars" that might otherwise be spent at movie theaters or museums. And critics of the proposed tax also hope to make political hay with the NFL's mammoth new television contract. That deal, which Bowlen played a large role in negotiating, will bring more than $17 billion into the league over the next eight years. But Wharton says the massive infusion of cash will go into player salaries and won't be available to help fund a new stadium. "Virtually all of it goes to the players under our collective-bargaining agreement," he says.

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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