The Name Game

Just a wild surmise, but doesn't it seem to you that in recent weeks Denverites have been far more concerned with the name of their new football stadium than with the name of their new president? Terrorists could blow up Boettcher Concert Hall in mid-Mozart, and not a soul would notice, so obsessed is the local citizenry with another structure only a few blocks away. Warren Christopher could start as point guard for the Nuggets, and nobody would blink.

The noisy wrangle pitting Mayor Wellington "Mile High" Webb and dyed-in-the-wool Broncos fans against the Metropolitan Football Stadium District and the forces of filthy corporate lucre has taken on the aspect of a holy war. For the predominantly orange faithful, the idea of selling out and naming owner Pat Bowlen's new $364 million playpen anything other than Mile High Stadium is not just a matter of snubbing tradition or violating the halls of memory: It's nothing less than interference with the practice of religion. This cowtown may have long since wiped the dung off of its boots, come to understand the major-league hit-and-run and learned how to order sushi, but some things never change. The Broncos are still the beloved kings of the Queen City of the Plains, and he who musses a hair on their sacred heads disturbs the world entire at 5,280 feet.

For the conventional wisdom in a nutshell, listen to Mike Rodriguez, a mechanic who attended his first Bronco game on November 24, 1963 (two days after the Kennedy assassination) and has missed exactly six home games since then. "We are not for sale," he says bluntly. "Let 'em do whatever the hell they want in Houston or Green Bay, but this is Denver, and the Broncos play in Mile High Stadium. No one will change that."

Never mind the physical impossibility of Rodriguez's claim. Following this season, Mile High will be reduced to a pile of rubble, and the Stadium to Be Named Later will be completed several football-field lengths to the south. But for guys like Rodriguez, the realm of Mile High Stadium knows no earthly bounds. As the Song of Solomon reminds us: "Thy name is an ointment poured forth."

That's clearly why three potential corporate ogres -- AT&T Broadband, Janus Capital Group and Invesco Funds Group -- recently withdrew tentative offers to pay between $52 and $89 million for naming rights to the new ballpark, fees that would have significantly reduced taxpayer debt. These corporate citizens didn't want to be flies in the ointment. They came to understand that the result of their considerable outlay would be similar to affixing the company name to a cathedral in Rome or a mosque in Mecca. The congregation wouldn't like it one bit, and the only thing the investor would get for its many millions would be a monstrously expensive social backlash. For its part, the Stadium District called Webb's successful efforts to queer any deal "political grandstanding" that "polluted" the negotiating environment.

The forces arrayed against the Big Bad Wolf of corporate anonymity speak with one voice. The get-a-life callers to the sports talk shows, the columnists flinging pablum from their booster seats and the organizers of assorted pro-Mile High publicity stunts all apparently have one thing in common: Their own identities are threatened by the notion that next year's Broncos will play football in Bogus Dot Com Stadium or Goliath Corp. Park. Assorted sociologists and psychologists have weighed in with the opinion that the moniker "Mile High" gives people here a sense of belonging and continuity that they wouldn't have otherwise. Something called the marketing advisory committee of the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau informs us that the words "Mile High" give off a positive economic vibe for the city, akin to certain other linguistic bell-ringers lodged in the minds of the traveling public: "Big Ben" and "London," say, "pizza" and "Chicago," or "gambling" and "Las Vegas." That members of the advisory committee attended college to come up with such stuff brings to mind another set of word associations: "kindergarten" and "insight."

Best of all, one letter to a Denver daily eloquently compared the beleaguered Stadium District's effort to negotiate a corporate naming deal to Faust's earthly bargain with the devil. Fine. As soon as the Broncos draft a wide receiver named Sonny Mephistopheles out of Goethe State, the circle of dishonor shall be complete.

For now, we have the memory of Mike Rodriguez and 50,000 or so of his best friends holding those orange and blue "Mile High Stadium" cards over their heads throughout Denver's frigid November 13 home game against the Oakland Raiders. This massive demonstration, dreamed up by a local restaurateur, was meant to show the twenty million or so Americans who watch Monday Night Football that Denverites are a plucky lot who stand by their most honored traditions. Great idea, except that the people who run ABC Sports refused to cooperate in the stunt, just as they would have refused to indulge streakers on the field. While the TV cameras looked elsewhere, Broncos fans wound up waving their signs at each other.

Isn't that a major clue? Doesn't that amount to an insight (deeper than the association of "San Diego" and "zoo") that this whole stadium-naming dispute isn't as crucial as everyone's making it out to be?

The present Mile High Stadium, whose downtown neighbors include a pair of reasonably popular edifices called Coors Field and Pepsi Center, has been the site of many spectacles, including scores of thrilling football games, a visit from the Pope and concerts by pop icons like Michael Jackson, the Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd. The new stadium, whether it's called Elway Park, or Bowlen Bowl or, as one forward-looking wit has suggested, One-Point-Six Kilometer High Stadium, will soon begin to accrue its own memories and encrustations of myth, separate but surely equal to those of the past. Do the words over the door really matter? Well, maybe for now. But Shakespeare, a pretty fair judge of the social climate in his day (and ours), likely nailed the crux of the issue: "What's in a name?" Willie asked. "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet." And get just as loud on game day.

So how about it? Let's move onnnn, shall we, and worry ourselves with something worthwhile. Like the efficacy of the new administration in Washington. Or Johnny's sub-basement report card. Or even the three thousand bucks Bowlen is busy extracting from season-ticket holders for the right to move up to the new club level of What's-Its-Name Stadium.


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