The Name of the Game

As this column went to press, the Metropolitan Football Stadium District announced that it was suspending naming-rights negotiations -- at least for now.

"Some things should just not be for sale," said Wellington Webb.

Denver's mayor was talking -- to just about anyone who would listen last week, including National Public Radio, the New York Times and USA Today -- about a name for the as-yet nameless new Denver Broncos stadium growing alongside old Mile High. Two years ago, after a heavy-pressure pro-stadium campaign that made this election's anti-Amendment 24 gang seem like Bill Romanowski without supplements, taxpayers in a six-county district voted to extend Coors Field's penny-per-ten-dollar sales tax until it also covered 75 percent of a $360 million pigskin palace. The taxpayers committed to paying their $270 million -- whether or not the Broncos won another Super Bowl (they won't); whether or not Pat Bowlen hiked ticket prices in that new stadium sky-high (he did); and whether or not the stadium's name was sold.

Sold, for example, to a company like AT&T Broadband, one of rapidly disintegrating AT&T's four bastard children, although AT&T Broadband Stadium sounds more like a Lazy Boy-equipped, cable-ready home entertainment center than it does a football arena. But Big Bucks Mutual Fund Stadium doesn't sound much better, not even if it's attached by a hyphen to the Mile High moniker. And so last Friday, Webb wrote to Ray Baker, chairman of the Metropolitan Football Stadium District, and asked the district to postpone entering into any naming-rights agreement until an independent audit could determine the value of the 38-year-old "Mile High Stadium" name, introduced when the Broncos first began playing football in the Mile High City.

"Some things should just not be for sale."

Hold that thought, Your Honor.

"Notice: United Airlines has purchased the football stadium -- all games will be Delayed or Canceled," announces the flier one anonymous jokester recently stuffed in a kiosk at Denver International Airport.

DIA: That's the airport Denver taxpayers voted to build a decade ago, a massive public-works project that was supposed to jumpstart business development in the northeast metro area. But today the city has plans to subsidize a new 500-room hotel at the airport -- because no private company has come up with the financing. This isn't the first hotel Denver has subsidized, either. Fred Kummer's Adam's Mark received a $25 million handout from the Denver Urban Renewal Authority, which helped make it possible for Kummer to knock down I.M. Pei's landmark hyperbolic paraboloid and replace it with a boxy hotel addition guarded by ugly bronze ballet dancers. (Kummer recently showed his thanks, and his endless love of art, by donating a hefty chunk to a pet city project, the new Martin Luther King statue set for City Park.) And the city's still promising to fork over as much as $55 million so that Bruce Berger, who's already knocked down the old Denver Post building, can build a $217 million convention-center hotel bigger than the Adam's Mark, which would allow the city to wipe out Currigan Hall and build the convention-center expansion that Denver voters passed at the same time they approved the new stadium.

Although the convention-center project was contingent on a convention-center hotel, the Metropolitan Football Stadium District had a clear path once voters fell for the Broncos' offensive line in November 1998. Despite the fact that the team had two dozen years left on its lease with the city, Bowlen made a convincing argument that without a new stadium, he simply couldn't keep a winning team in Denver, where he'd long ago sold off his skybox rights and other tricks of the owner's trade. So metro-area residents voted to keep the Broncos, relying on the promise that the MFSD, created by the Colorado Legislature back in 1996, and its nine-member board would watch out for their interests. "We have to pay attention to the law," says district spokesman Matt Sugar, and that includes minimizing taxpayer expense as well as tracking public sentiment.

Maybe the MFSD board thought that all public sentiment would be expressed as loudly as the cheer that shook the decrepit Mile High on October 1, landing Denver -- for at least a minute -- in the Guinness Book of World Records. (No, not as biggest suckers.) Although relatively few citizens showed up at district meetings to discuss the stadium, they spoke out overwhelmingly in favor of keeping the Mile High name; this summer, when the grassroots group led by John Hickenlooper -- and fueled by beer -- polled the populace, almost 70 percent said they'd be willing to pay the tax longer if it meant keeping the Mile High name.

Because some things should just not be for sale.

Hold that thought.

Webb's been thinking a lot lately about another Denver amenity: Winter Park. Although most major American cities would kill -- or at least tax themselves to death -- to possess a football team, none will ever own a ski area, as Denver does.

But Winter Park grew out of a city's love for a sport -- and as with football-stadium deals today, that's not what modern ski resorts are about. Now skiing is secondary (if it ranks that high) to big real estate deals, as well as all the ancillary income from shops and restaurants and hotels that turn the resorts into frigid Disney Worlds. Because it was owned by Denver rather than by a big, hungry, publicly traded company, Winter Park escaped the emphasis on ever-bigger base-development deals and carved out a niche as a Front Range favorite, home of a truly worthy athletic endeavor: the country's premier handicapped ski program.

For years, the Winter Park Recreational Association -- another bunch of big names, not unlike those on the MFSD -- got almost a free ride from Denver, paying just $7,000 a year to run the resort. A few years back, that was bumped to $2.3 million -- and this year, Winter Park says it won't be able to make its payment. So in September, Webb formed a 25-member committee to investigate the city's options for Winter Park: invest the $60 million in improvements suggested by a recent study (hey, in Denver proper, a measly $60 million subsidy won't even get you two hotels); enter into a partnership with a private company that would help create a competitive ski resort; or sell the place, either outright or through a vote of the public.

"We don't have many icons in the West," Webb said, in explaining why the Mile High name should not be sold. We used to have the hyperbolic paraboloid and the Denver Post building, of course, but those fell under Webb's watch; Currigan could go soon, too, and now Winter Park may be on the endangered list. (Presumably Red Rocks is safe from becoming ranchettes, and Washington Park will never be condos.)

No matter what the district does with the naming rights, Webb can't lose. If the Mile High name stays, he's a hero. And if the district decides to go the other way -- well, you can't buy the kind of publicity Webb has collected in the last week. The MFSD, on the other hand, can't win. If it doesn't sell the rights, taxpayers who voted against a new stadium will carp. If it does sell the rights to some corporate fat cat, it's bound to look like a sellout -- which is what it will be -- and Denver's stadium will look like it's in Anywhere, USA. Unless, that is, a community-minded corporation agrees to keep the Mile High name on the outside (paying taxpayers for the privilege of doing the right thing) at the same time it shells out bigger bucks to have its logo imprinted on every portal and sign and toilet seat inside the joint, thus keeping Bowlen flush with cash.

Miracles do happen. Mile High used to be known for them.


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