Canadian Bakin'

A state senator who stands barely 5-6 in his wingtips could be more damaging to Pat Bowlen's hopes for a new football stadium than the defensive line of the Jacksonville Jaguars was to John Elway last December.

Last week Bowlen and the Metropolitan Football Stadium Authority finally admitted that there's no way the Denver Broncos will get their call for a taxpayer-financed playground onto the ballot in 1997. That delay will hurt the team in more ways than one--but the biggest hurt put on owner Bowlen could come from Mike Coffman, an Aurora Republican who's vowing to use the overtime period to turn up the heat on Bowlen.

Coffman last year almost single-handedly shepherded welfare reform through the legislative process as chairman of the senate finance committee. Having worked so hard to move people from welfare to work, he says he isn't about to let Bowlen move in the opposite direction.

"The psychology of the lifetime welfare recipient is exactly the same as the psychology of Bowlen," Coffman says. "Neither of them can imagine how they are going to get along without government money."

One difference between a welfare recipient and Bowlen, though, is that Bowlen has lobbyists, including Porter Wharton III, who convinced the legislature to okay the bill that created the Metropolitan Football Stadium Authority in the first place. And Wharton is already bracing for Coffman's attack.

"I would say Senator Coffman should do quite a bit more homework," warns Wharton, adding that governments around the country have concluded that it's in their interests to build sports palaces for millionaire team owners.

But Coffman says he's done plenty of homework and claims that the more he learns about the issue, the more he's convinced that Bowlen's numbers don't add up. "He's running a big shell game," Coffman says of the Canadian businessman's claim that brand-new, publicly financed stadiums are now a necessary part of any NFL team's revenue stream. Coffman says a better alternative for Denver would be helping the Broncos renovate Mile High Stadium--assuming the numbers add up. And Coffman says he already knows what financial item he'd like to scrutinize first: the luxury sky boxes built atop Mile High ten years ago.

Bowlen built those sky boxes at a cost of about $12 million. But he turned around the same year and sold them for a reported $18 million, using the profit to buy out a group of minority team owners and consolidate control of the Broncos.

It looked like a sweet deal at the time. However, by selling the sky-box rights to Penthouse Suites Ltd., a private partnership based in Connecticut, Bowlen was also slaying a financial golden goose.

A woman who answers the phone at Penthouse Suites' Denver office says the company has a policy of not talking to the press. However, a current sales brochure from Penthouse lists one-game prices for suites running from $9,500 to $13,500. The prices go up for Monday night games, of which there are two this year. Both of those games are sold out; in fact, most of the sixty suites are booked for the year, at an annual rate of between $40,000 and $80,000. That suggests that Penthouse is collecting around $3 million per year from the operation--money that Bowlen presumably could have used to feed a new offensive lineman.

Coffman's question is this: What happens to Penthouse Suites if the Broncos leave Mile High? Wharton's answer is that Bowlen will take over the sky-box revenue at a new stadium, but only after he--not the city--pays Penthouse to get out of the current deal. According to Wharton, it's not a big factor anyway, because the sky boxes take in only about $500,000 a year after expenses.

"That small of a revenue stream is not going to help him compete with the $45 million in stadium revenue that Jerry Jones makes," Wharton says. According to Wharton, Jones, owner of the Dallas Cowboys, makes that money from a combination of naming rights, parking and concessions, revenue Bowlen doesn't get under the terms of the lease he signed at Mile High.

Wharton adds that he's getting frustrated by Coffman's constant harping. "What does Senator Coffman really want to accomplish?" he asks, noting that the Aurora legislator is planning a run for state treasurer. "He says he wants to be helpful to the franchise, but if he's using this issue to get elected to a higher office, I don't know that he's going to be that helpful."

Coffman, however, says that given the number of diehard Broncos fans in the state, he's not doing himself any favors by taking on Bowlen in public. "My position is definitely a political loser," he adds. He says his questioning of the Broncos is even making it difficult for him to raise money from conservatives who are usually happy to donate to Republicans.

Coffman says the fact that Wharton and the franchise have started to attack him personally is an indication of their shaky position on the stadium issue. And Bowlen's position isn't likely to get more comfortable anytime soon: Coffman has recently started questioning the motives of not just the Broncos, but two public boards set up by the legislature to evaluate stadium issues. If the Broncos asked the stadium authority and a separate site-selection committee to "roll over and do stupid pet tricks, they would do it," Coffman says.

Bowlen desperately wants a special election next May on the stadium question, says Wharton. But the Broncos will need to get permission from the legislature to hold an election any time other than November 1998. And Coffman, who was a Marine captain during the Gulf War, says the team will get a May election "over his dead body."

Coffman says the Broncos want the vote held in May because a special election will bring out only Broncos fans, whereas a general election would draw many more voters to the polls. "It's one of the fundamental things I believe in: The whole basis of democracy is broad participation," he declares.

Wharton counters that recent special elections in Seattle and San Francisco over stadium issues had high voter turnout and adds that the only reason the franchise wants to speed up the election is to make Bowlen more "economically viable."

Coffman says he's glad to hear Wharton acknowledge that the real issue is Bowlen's pocketbook. In the early days of the stadium discussion, he recalls, Wharton talked about a need to replace Mile High because it was "unsafe."

And if Bowlen's financial health is the prime consideration, Coffan adds, the team owner should be willing to open his books to the public and explore ways of improving his economic position without building a new stadium. "I want the Broncos to stay," says Coffman. "But I'm not yet convinced that the team needs this massive infusion of taxpayer money."

Polls now show the public is against subsidizing a new stadium, and Wharton says Bowlen's job is to educate the public about the Broncos' situation. Coffman says if Bowlen can pull off that feat, he'll stand up and applaud. "If he can convince the public despite what I think are some pretty smelly numbers," says Coffman, "then he deserves to win.

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Scott C. Yates