Nuggets history: How the movie 'Air Force One' helped fund the Pepsi Center, now Ball Arena

We enlist the help of a local historian and The Denver Post archives to tell the story of how 1997 blockbuster Air Force One helped Nuggets ownership to build the arena.
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Posted at 5:47 PM, Jun 01, 2023
and last updated 2023-06-01 19:47:50-04

DENVER — Myriad stakeholders have shaped the history of the Denver Nuggets franchise over its 55-year history that culminates in 2023 with its first-ever NBA Finals appearance.

Without Dan Issel, the first iteration of the franchise may have never made the ABA Finals.

Without one-time owner Red McCombs, the franchise may well have folded in the early 80s.

Without Alex English, the Nuggets may not have had the success that they did over the next decade once the franchise was saved.

Without Carmelo Anthony, they wouldn’t have been on the map in the 2000s.

Without Nikola Jokic, they very well may not be 2023 Western Conference Champions.

Without actor Harrison Ford, the Nuggets might not have Ball Arena.

One of those statements likely stands out more than the others, and, no, it’s not a typo.

How the movie 'Air Force One' helped fund the Pepsi Center, now Ball Arena

According to Jeff Morton, the host of the CSG podcast and defacto Nuggets historian, Ford – specifically his performance in the 1997 blockbuster Air Force One – is largely to thank for the funds used to build the Pepsi Center, which is now Ball Arena.

It was Morton who brought this story to this author’s attention. I enlisted the help of The Denver Post archives to help recount the events as follows.

The story starts in 1989, when, according to the Post, then-NBA commissioner David Stern tapped Robert Wussler, the owner of satellite cable provider Communications Satellite Corp. (Comsat) to lead an effort to buy the Nuggets for $54 million.

The Nuggets had been struggling financially under owner Sidney Shlenker. Stern recruited Comsat to join Chicago businessmen Peter Bynoe and Bertram Lee – the first African-American major pro sports owners – when Byone and Lee couldn’t raise the necessary funds to buy the team outright.

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Comsat, which later purchased the Colorado Avalanche, divested the two sports franchises to its entertainment arm called Ascent Entertainment Group in 1995. The company, which was also in the movie-making business through its wholly-owned subsidiary, Beacon Productions, quickly proposed plans to build a new arena.

According to The Denver Post archives, the proposal was unique in that Ascent planned to build its own facility downtown, rather than asking taxpayers to fund the deal. The deal was on thin ice as the company negotiated with the city on how much it should pay to finance the arena.

Making matters worse was that, like several Nuggets owners before it, Ascent hemorrhaged money. It reported a $6 million loss in the third quarter of 1996, according to the Post.

Its fortunes changed a year later, though, with the release of Air Force One – which was co-produced by Beacon Productions – in July of 1997. The Denver Post reported Ascent’s third-quarter revenue soared 270% year-over-year in the third quarter of 1997.

In all, Ascent raked in $68.1 million from the box office success of the political thriller, according to the paper.

As Morton put it, that money helped solve the financing puzzle that was the Pepsi Center, and also allowed the Avalanche to re-sign star center and 1995 Stanley Cup champion Joe Sakic.

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An aerial view of Ball Arena, formerly the Pepsi Center, near downtown Denver

Sakic, of course, who would lead the Avs to another Cup in 2001.

The financial improvements didn’t continue for Ascent, which lost $18 million in the second quarter of 1998, according to the Post archives.

In 2000, Liberty Media Group acquired Ascent with the intention of selling off the sports franchises. Liberty sold the Nuggets and Avs to Stan Kroenke, a 40% owner of the St. Louis Rams at the time, which would bring to an end the financial turmoil for the Nuggets.

“I guess the best you could say is that the Denver Nuggets never had until Stan Kroenke bought the team in 2000,” Morton said. “They never had an ownership that was either financially able or 100% backed by the team. There was always something wrong.

“They never really had that kind of commitment until Kroenke bought the team.”

Kroenke, of course, still owns both the Nuggets and Avs today.