When metro area voters were being asked to extend the sales tax that had been established to build Coors Field in 1998 so a new football stadium could be built to replace aging Mile High Stadium for the Broncos, the polling showed something fascinating. One of the biggest obstacles to passage of the proposal was voters’ personal animosity toward Broncos owner Pat Bowlen.
Bowlen was seen by a sizable percentage of the voters who would decide if the tax would be extended as aloof, arrogant and disconnected from the community. He responded in a rational way for a business executive about to ask for taxpayer support for his privately owned venture. He enlisted the help of public relations professionals to better understand the basis for his tarnished image and to suggest a strategy to polish it up.
Voters approved the extension, the new stadium has been built and paid for, and the Broncos have prospered as one of the most successful franchises in professional sports.
And a funny thing happened to Pat Bowlen’s image. He successfully incorporated the suggestions of his public relations team into his everyday persona and became a respected, revered and, despite any reasonable person’s expectation in 1998, loved owner by Broncos fans.
When the official news broke on the eve of training camp that Bowlen would have to relinquish control of the team and any meaningful involvement with its operations because of the progressive nature of his Alzheimer’s disease, there was genuine concern for his future and empathy for his status that would have been unthinkable 16 years earlier.
Pat Bowlen took what could only feel like a personal rebuke and provided Broncos fans and metro taxpayers true value for their investment. When the Broncos faltered under longtime coach and Bowlen friend Mike Shanahan, Bowlen pulled the trigger and made the changes necessary to get the team back on the road to success. (Maybe there’s a lesson here for a baseball team that but for one magical month in 2007 has had to strive to be mediocre over its 21-year history!)
In addition to using our public investment to ensure the ongoing success of our professional football team, Bowlen took the lessons learned to get voters to approve the new stadium and made sure that both he and his team strived for excellence and were actively involved in our greater community.
It’s a shame that Pat Bowlen’s illness will rob him of the wonderful memories of his life, including three decades at the helm of our most beloved sports institution. But the public’s reaction to the announcement is a testament to how seriously and successfully he reacted to the public’s previous dissatisfaction and should provide some comfort to his family at what must be a very difficult time.
Greg Romberg is president of Romberg and Associates, a government relations and public affairs firm. He lives in Evergreen with his wife, Laurie, and three daughters.