In 1999, I found myself the unlikely leader of a community-based effort to protect what was arguably Colorado’s most important brand, and one once thought to be untouchable: the “Mile High” part of Denver’s Mile High Stadium. The Broncos were in the midst of erecting a new stadium, or rather, the region’s taxpayers were. But the Stadium District didn’twant to call it Mile High. The organization wanted to sell the naming rights to the highest bidder, ostensibly in order to help finance the construction.
My old pal Lew Cady got in my ear about it. Lew was a lover of beer and sports. And was as colorful a character as he was civic-minded. His point was that “Mile High” was synonymous not only with Denver, but with the entire state of Colorado. The way Lew saw it, selling away the name “Mile High” was like selling away the name of a beloved family member when you wanted to build a new house. (Maybe not the best analogy, but as I said, Lew liked his beer.) He didn’t think it was right for the Broncos organization and the Stadium District to sell off something that was so meaningful to taxpayers, especially since their taxes were funding most of the construction costs; they were selling something that didn’t belong to just them. I appreciated the need to find creative ways to finance a construction project, but Lew was right. I imagined how my very first next-door neighbor in Denver and dear friend, Colleen Feely, and her family would react if the Broncos sold away our Mile High Stadium. There might be a shootout, after all.
Seemed to me, there were millions of Broncos fans who felt the same as Lew and I did. He asked me if I would go public with my feelings, as a member of the business community with something of a profile. Lew thought it would matter. I said sure. I talked to a reporter from The Denver Post, and the next day there was a big story about how the business leader John Hickenlooper opposed selling off the naming rights. Everywhere I went for days, everyone was talking about that story. I thought, Well, that’s interesting. I had said what I said because I thought it was the right thing to do, but there was also an ancillary marketing benefit for the Wynkoop, a Denver brewery I co-founded. I got more involved. I did some research. I got a blue-chip consulting company to estimate how much the name was worth. The appraisal showed that the liquid gold brand value of “Mile High” to the metro Denver area was well over $100 million.
A bit more research showed that increasing annual city taxes for individuals by $4.24 per person would cover all of the proposed revenue from selling the name; then all Coloradans could keep their beloved Mile High Stadium name. I asked a local pollster and Wynkoop regular, Floyd Ciruli, if he would add a couple of questions to one of his polls to find out how willing taxpayers might be to pay for that. Almost 70 percent of locals surveyed said they would gladly pay. Floyd told me that was unheard of—that many people willing to pay a tax for anything. Again, as Lincoln put it, with public sentiment nothing can fail; without it, nothing can succeed.
We called a “press conference”—we meaning Lew and I. We set up some card tables with sheets over them outside the new stadium. Lew and his wife and a couple of their friends, and a couple of friends from the Wynkoop, drew up some posters and slogans for the backdrop. Lew sent out a press release. And we waited for the crowd.
Which never came.
But we did get reporters from all three local newspapers, and we had all five TV stations with cameras there. There were maybe ten people total on hand. Lew made me do almost all the talking. I laid out our case. That night we were on every news channel, and we were on the front page of the newspapers the next day. The earth shuddered beneath our feet.
But the Metropolitan Football Stadium District Commission (a nine-member board with one representative from each of the six original Colorado counties, and three representatives appointed by the governor) yawned. They knew public sentiment was against them. They had been going around to the counties gauging public response to the “possible sale” of the naming rights, which they had found was three-to-one against, and still the commission continued right along doing as they pleased.
Things changed in the fall of 2000. For the stadium deal and for me. As the finishing touches were being put on the new stadium, the commissioners decided to give one of the TV stations a tour. Because almost all the commissioners were from the suburbs and Republicans, they asked the conservative governor, Bill Owens, to be the pretty face of the tour. All well and good. Except that Denver mayor Wellington Webb caught wind of this and blew a gasket. He had worked his butt off to pass the regional sales tax to build the stadium. Governor Owens had opposed it. Plus, he and Owens had gotten crosswise so many times they couldn’t stand to be in the same room with each other. Mayor Webb was seething. He asked his press secretary, Andrew Hudson, “Who’s that beer guy in LoDo who is trying to save the name ‘Mile High Stadium’? Chickencooper, Hickenpooper...”
Andrew knew me well. He was no stranger to the Wynkoop Brewing Company. We had become friends. So while I was not surprised to hear his voice on the phone, I was surprised when he asked if I could join a press conference about the naming rights in the mayor’s office the next day. At that very moment, I was leaving a banquet at the Association of Brewers conference in Portland, Maine, where earlier that day I had given a speech on marketing beer. The next day was Sunday, and I said I couldn’t make it. I suggested Tuesday afternoon. Andrew asked me to hold on. I heard voices in the background, and then he got back on the line and said, Tuesday afternoon.
I arrived 15 minutes before the scheduled start. The mayor’s spacious office was jammed with probably 60 people. Bright lights on a makeshift stage, maybe eight cameras. Mayor Webb, who is six-foot-five if he’s an inch, and broad across the beam, welcomed everyone. He said he’d been frustrated like so many others that a small group of people had effectively decided to sell one of the most beloved assets of the entire metro area—the revered name of its historic stadium.
He said the Mile High moniker was Denver’s identity, not unlike the Big Apple for New York City. He said, “Everything should not be for sale.” Talk about marketing; that line was gold. We were both on national news, although I could see his statements were more compact and powerful than mine, that he was painting images with words, while I was less articulate. Wellington Webb was one of the most significant mayors of the latter half of the 20th century. His natural political instincts are almost unrivaled. He suggested that the name-change decision be put to a public vote. The Stadium District Commission refused, but delayed its decision to sell or not sell.
As the controversy grew more intense, the Broncos played a big game of the 2000 season on Monday Night Football. For the occasion, we had 50,000 large placards printed that said save the name on one side and Mile High forever on the other. I recruited Andrew Hudson and the communications director for Denver’s tourism office, Rich Grant, and a few other friends to hand them out to Broncos fans as they arrived to watch the team play in the new (and as yet unnamed) stadium. Men were shaking my hands and slapping me on the back. Women were kissing me on the cheek. Little kids asked me to sign autographs.
When we finished handing out the placards, Andrew and I went to a rooftop bar near the stadium to watch the game on television. The first big Broncos play of the game, the crowd erupted. The Monday Night Football cameras panned over the audience. Images of that sea of Broncos Nation orange waving our save the name and mile high forever signs were broadcast to millions of viewers around the country. Andrew and I could hardly believe it. If I recall correctly, the cameras never again turned toward the fans in the stands that day.
The last thing the NFL wanted was to promote controversy over the Mile High sale and deter corporations from buying into stadium sponsorships. At that time, nationwide, more than 59 naming rights deals on sporting facilities had been sold for nearly $3 billion. This was big business, a huge revenue stream for franchises around the country and for the NFL. In January 2001, Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly, who also happened to be another Wynkoop regular, dedicated his wildly popular back-page column to the naming rights trend around the country. His column was titled “Corpo-Name Disease: Stop the Plague!” He made the Mile High story and his favorite brewpub owner the centerpiece. People across the U.S. are rising up against corpo-name disease.
In Denver, a skinny restaurateur named John Hickenlooper heard that the new citizen-paid-for Mile High Stadium was going to become Invesco Field or some such cheesiness and thought, Hey, wait a minute! How much is the name Mile High Stadium worth to this city? How many people hear Al Michaels go, “Live, from Mile High Stadium . . .” and think, I’m going to live there, or I’m going to visit there? He commissioned a poll, which showed that most Denverites agreed with him. Then the mayor agreed. Then Hickenlooper helped pay for 50,000 signs, handed out at a Broncos game, that read MILE HIGH STADIUM: BEST NAME BY A MILE. Now, no corporation with half a focus group will touch it, lest it risk the Oprah of all boycotts. Rick encouraged citizens and sports fans everywhere to “rise up” and “find the Hickenlooper inside you!” (While this was catchy, for obvious reasons, we never did use it as a campaign slogan.)
Some said that we who opposed that sale of naming rights lost. I say we won. The Stadium District delayed the decision to sell or not to sell for months, and ultimately struck a compromise. They would sell the name to Invesco, but would also keep “Mile High” in the moniker: “Invesco at Mile High.” In the end, we kept our stadium Mile High, and no one ever called the stadium by the full name. As far as Coloradans were and are concerned, it was and always will be Mile High Stadium. What’s more, The Denver Post refused to refer to the stadium by its corporate hybrid form for almost two years. In its newsroom style books and in its pages, it remained “New Mile High Stadium.”
The night of that Monday Night Football game, as Andrew and I sat in that rooftop bar and watched it on television, he said, “I’ve never seen someone garner so much goodwill as you have in such a short period of time. You ought to run for mayor.” I let out a “Ha!” A day or two later, another friend, Chris Romer, the son of former Colorado governor Roy Romer, suggested the same thing. He pointed out that Mayor Webb, then in his third term, would be term-limited in two years. Chris said I could bring a small-business perspective to the job. I asked him what was he talking about; I’d never even run for student council.
Then I bumped into Chris Gates, another friend active in politics. Chris was the vice president of the National Civic League. He, too, said I should consider running for mayor. Chris and I had a bit of a longer discussion about it. Among other things, he talked about how I could bring common sense to government. With these three smart political veterans all saying the same thing to me, I started to think about it.
The more I thought about it, the more I thought about it.
This article has been excerpted from John Hickenlooper's forthcoming book, The Opposite of Woe: My Life in Beer and Politics.