Arizona Wins... A New Stadium
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Arizona Wins... A New Stadium

Publicly funded stadiums can be a tough sell. The Arizona Cardinals learned this the year before when a proposal to raise the sales tax to finance construction of a stadium on the Tempe-Mesa border was overwhelmingly rejected by voters (60%-40%).

Paul Holmes

 “Nearly everyone agrees that winning broad political support for public financing of a new stadium will be an uphill battle at best.”—Pat Flannery, The Arizona Republic (1/10/00)

“The Arizona Cardinals’ toughest contest this fall will take place in voting booths across Maricopa County.”—            Paul Giblin, The Tribune (4/19/00)  

“In this environment, getting a publicly funded stadium is quite a trip.  That was a tough sell and you’ve got to tip your hats to them.”—Mike O’Neil, Political Analyst, The Tribune (11/11/00)

Proposition 302, on the November 7, 2000 ballot in Maricopa County, Arizona, proposed an increase in tourism taxes to fund construction of a multi-purpose stadium facility which would house the state’s NFL franchise (the Arizona Cardinals) as well as the Fiesta Bowl, a collegiate football event. It would also have the capability of hosting major trade shows and conventions.

THE CHALLENGE

Publicly funded stadiums can be a tough sell. The Arizona Cardinals learned this the year before when a proposal to raise the sales tax to finance construction of a stadium on the Tempe-Mesa border (a project known as Rio Salado Crossing) was overwhelmingly rejected by voters (60%-40%). More recently, a ballot measure to fund renovation of Lambeau Field, home of the beloved Green Bay Packers, was approved narrowly. Even the Super Bowl champion Broncos had a tough time convincing Denver voters to fund construction of a new stadium. In Arizona, the Cardinals do not enjoy anything approaching the public support of the Broncos, Packers and many other NFL teams. In the twelve years since the Cardinals moved to Phoenix from St. Louis, they have had but one winning season. The team was an anemic 3-13 during the 2000 season. The owner and management have long been favorite targets for fan and media criticism.

RESEARCH

A survey taken of Maricopa County voters by Public Opinion Strategies in February, 2000 revealed that, by a margin of 65%-29%, voters opposed construction of a new football stadium. Indeed, there was never a poll taken by anyone at any time that showed a majority of support for a new stadium.

PLANNING PROCESS/STRATEGIC APPROACH

In the aftermath of the 1999 defeat of Rio Salado Crossing Arizona Governor Jane Hull announced a special task force to study whether a new stadium was in the state’s best interests and, if so, how it could be funded. The resulting “Plan B” Task Force, announced in November, 1999, was comprised of 35 top business and civic leaders. The Governor challenged the Task Force to develop a funding mechanism that would minimize impact on the average citizen. Hence, an increase in the sales or income tax was ruled out from the start.

In the months that followed, the “Plan B” Task Force heard testimony from experts regarding the economic impact represented by the NFL franchise (which would leave the state without a new stadium), the Super Bowl (which would come to Arizona on a regular basis if a modern stadium was built) and the Fiesta Bowl (the event would lose its top-tier collegiate bowl status without a new stadium). Further, Task Force members heard about efforts by other states to lure away major league baseball teams that spend spring training in Arizona’s Cactus League and the blow to the economy their departure would represent. They also heard experts from the tourism industry, the state’s largest industry, testify that Arizona’s tourism promotion budget is severely underfunded.

The strategy that emerged for promoting the concept of a multi-purpose stadium was essentially: this would be a true public-private partnership, with the Arizona Cardinals investing roughly one-third of the construction costs and the Fiesta Bowl contributing as well; the public monies involved would come not from ordinary Arizona citizens but from out-of-state visitors who rent hotel rooms and cars. Moreover, funds generated by these taxes would go toward not just construction of a stadium but also toward funding the state’s tourism promotion budget (doubling the budget in the first year alone, quadrupling it by year ten), re-energizing the state’s Cactus League facilities and providing millions of dollars for youth sports facilities, from soccer fields to swimming pools.

The proposal had to be referred to the Arizona Legislature before it could face the voters. This proved to be a high hurdle. So controversial was the stadium issue, so strong was the antipathy toward the Cardinals organization, so leery were legislators of any new taxes, that the bill to refer what became Proposition 302 to the voters passed by a single vote in the Arizona House of Representatives in April, 2000 (after having been defeated the day before).

CAMPAIGN EXECUTION

The Proposition 302 campaign was led by a team of professionals with wide-ranging and varied experience. People who had worked on opposite sides of campaigns for many years joined forces to create a winning scenario for 302.

The message given to voters via paid advertising, direct mail, media interviews and special events was: “Prop. 302 is about more than a new football stadium. It’s about tourism promotion, Cactus League baseball and youth sports. And we don’t have to pay. Funding will come from private users of the stadium and out-of-state visitors who rent hotel rooms and cars. It’s a good deal for Maricopa County.”

Tracking polls never showed Prop. 302 reaching the necessary 50% level. Except for a brief time in early October when the measure appeared close in the mid 40% range, the spread throughout much of October remained about ten points. During October 24-29, the gap was even larger, fourteen points between the No vote and the Yes vote.

As the campaign headed into the final stretch the gap began to narrow. A desperate temptation in the final days to alter message was mercifully rebuffed, as there was no empirical evidence that a new message was superior to the one that had been developed. When tracking ended in the first week of November, the vote stood at 51% No and 46% Yes. The trend was moving in favor of the Yes side but there was no way of knowing for sure which side would prevail.

RESULTS

On November 7th, 2000, Proposition 302 stunned the experts and pundits by capturing 52% of the vote. As a result, a $329 million multipurpose stadium facility is under construction in Tempe, Arizona and is scheduled to open in fall, 2004. The Arizona Cardinals will remain in Arizona permanently. The Fiesta Bowl will retain its top-tier status. The Super Bowl is expected to be played in Arizona as early as 2007 and will return there on a regular basis. Two new major league baseball teams will spend spring training in Arizona and a new baseball stadium will be built with funds from 302.  The state’s tourism promotion budget is being increased.  And youth sports facilities throughout the county are scheduled to be built.
Arizona truly won as a result of the passage of Proposition 302.

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