Deflating Hysteria over Broncos

By Dave Kopel

Denver Business Journal. February 13, 1998. More by Kopel on corporate welfare.

Broncomania has been a favorite sport for about half of the Denver population for the last three decades. Having been a Broncos fan ever since the Lou Saban and Floyd Little era--before most of the current Broncos were even born--I'm delighted that the Vince Lombardi Super Bowl trophy now resides in Denver. But while Broncomania is a lot of fun, Bronco hysteria--as currently being practiced at the state legislature--is nonsense.

Last year, the legislature passed a bill to allow a vote on a tax increase for a new Broncos stadium in November 1998. Pat Bowlen's lobbyists, however, are hard at work trying to get the election moved up to May 1998. There are a few problems with this, however, starting with the fact that it's illegal.

The state Constitution's Taxpayer Bill of Rights specifically requires that tax elections be held in November, so that the largest number of people will vote. Bowlen's push for a May election amounts to electoral cheating, trying to rig the contest so that a hard core of tax supporters can capture a low-turnout election.

The pretext for moving the election to an illegal, earlier date is--get this--to save the taxpayers money. The Bronco lobbyists contend that the cost of building a stadium is growing by one and half percent per month, so we have to have an early election so we can start building soon, to keep the costs from going up even more.

A cost increase rate of 1.5% per month works out--on a compounded annual basis--to near 20% per year. At a time when the inflation rate is running less than 3%, we are supposed to believe that stadium construction inflation is 20%? Even under the worst inflation of the late 1970s, the inflation rate was well below Bowlen's alleged stadium inflation rate.

The second cause of Bronco hysteria--besides wild claims about Italian-level inflation rates--is the unfounded fear that if Pat Bowlen isn't given hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars, he will move the Broncos.

But in fact, the Broncos are tied to Mile High Stadium by an unbreakable lease that has eighteen more years to run. No matter how much the chumps in some other city might be willing to pay Mr. Pat, it is legally impossible for him to move the team.

Moreover, if Bowlen did get the huge bribe he is demanding, there is no particular reason to believe that he would keep his promise to leave the team in Denver--if a better deal came along from another city a few years later. In the 1970s, Mile High Stadium was given a huge, taxpayer-financed expansion and upgrade. In return, the Broncos signed a long-term lease with the city.

This is the very lease that Bowlen is now threatening to break, if he doesn't get what he wants. A contract is a legally binding promise, and if Pat Bowlen won't keep his existing promises, only a fool would expect him to keep his new promises.

The third cause of Bronco hysteria is the fear that Denver needs the Broncos more than Broncos need Denver.

In truth, the Broncos contribute very little to the Denver economy. Study after study has shown that professional sports do not promote economic growth; they simply divert the spending of entertainment dollars. More dollars spent on the Broncos means less money spent on movies, museums, and dining.

The Broncos do attract some fans from Wyoming, Nebraska, and other places, and these tourist dollars do represent a net gain to the Denver economy. But a few thousand fans from out of state hardly justify the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies.

Nor are the Broncos necessary to Denver's status as a world-class city. If football teams made the city important, then Green Bay (with an outstanding team) is a more significant city than Los Angeles (which has no professional football team).

Professional sports are fun, but their contribution to a city's quality of life is rather small. Do you know anyone who is ashamed to live in Colorado because the 1998 Nuggets may be the worst team in National Basketball Association history?

If the Webb administration were misguided enough to let Pat Bowlen out of his unbreakable lease, allowing him to move the team elsewhere, he would quickly find that the football grass is much greener in Denver.

True, there may be some cities with self-image problems that would build him a brand-new stadium. But once the stadium is built, you have to sell tickets. There are no fans in America more ready to fill a large football stadium--in good times and in bad--than Denver Bronco fans. The franchise has sold out almost every home game for the last three decades, including in seasons when the team could only win five games.

Try getting that kind of ticket sales in Los Angeles, or Birmingham, or wherever Pat Bowlen thinks the fans are better.

Dave Kopel is Research Director at the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden,

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