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SBJ/20090126/Super Bowl XLIII
Getting in the game for the game
Published January 26, 2009
The Super Bowl comes to Tampa this week, returning to the Florida city for the first time since 2001. Over the past 10 years, nine cities have hosted the event, and Dallas and Indianapolis are in line to join that list. Where the Super Bowl goes in the years after that, and how the league comes to those decisions, is as difficult a question for teams and their cities to answer as it’s ever been.
The chairman of South Florida’s Super Bowl committee is all Miami: born there, raised there and educated there. Before rising into rarefied air as a real estate developer with deep political ties, he worked as a city of Miami cop. His first Super Bowl was the one he sneaked into at the Orange Bowl as a rough-and-tumble kid.
You never will convince Rodney Barreto that there is a better place to hold the Super Bowl than Miami, any more than you could convince Joe DiMaggio that there was a prettier girl than Marilyn Monroe.
So when Barreto headed to Detroit three years ago for a glimpse of what another Super Bowl host was up to, he came away reminded of the complex dynamics that go into the bestowal of America’s biggest game.
Super Bowl beauty is in the eye of the bestower.
“No disrespect to my friends in Detroit, but, you know, I walked through the snow to go to their community event,” Barreto said, spitting the word “snow” as if it were an expletive. “It was terrible, OK? It was terrible. The game was great. It was controlled-climate; domed stadium. But it’s not South Beach and it’s not Joe’s Stone Crab, you know what I mean?”
Sure you do. Everyone does — particularly everyone stuck in an Atlanta hotel that ran out of food during the ice storm of 2000, or waiting in line to get off a Jacksonville cruise ship in 2005, or trying unsuccessfully to convince a client to bring the CEO to Detroit three Februarys ago.
How the game long associated with South Florida’s beaches, Bourbon Street and the wonders of sunny Southern California has ended up in Detroit — twice, no less — and is bound for ice-threatened Dallas in 2011 and Indianapolis in 2012 is testimony to the incalculable calculus that goes into the selection of the host.
The last eight Super Bowls have been played in eight different cities. Tampa, host of this week’s game, is the first to land the game twice since the turn of the millennium. That is striking, considering that 25 of the 33 played before that were held in Southern California (9), South Florida (8) or New Orleans (8), and that the league never went more than two years without returning to one of those three familiar destinations.
Frank Supovitz, the NFL’s senior vice president of events, says that today’s Super Bowl “can be accommodated, either minimally, or ideally … everywhere where the NFL currently plays games.”
It is the “minimally” that worries people like Andrew Judelson, chief marketing officer at Sports Illustrated, which typically entertains heavily at the Super Bowl but will pull back this year, citing the sinking economy.
“Given its scale and importance in the sports business landscape, the Super Bowl is almost what I’ll call market-proof,” said Judelson, who before joining SI headed corporate marketing at Sprint and then the NHL. “It can go to Detroit. But, with all due respect to Detroit, Detroit from an entertainment standpoint is not South Beach. You are going to have to recalibrate your entertainment.
“All markets are not created equal.”
That fact, crossed with the emergence of amped-up facilities across the NFL and the fade of buildings in some of the gold-standard Super Bowl cities, makes this an interesting time for America’s largest sporting spectacle.
Los Angeles and San Diego, two popular host cities, both are off the list of qualifying venues. The former won’t get the game because there’s no longer an NFL team there; the latter is out because the league considers the stadium to be subpar.
New Orleans is thought to be a strong contender to return as a regular host, but not until the state of Louisiana works out a lease extension with the Saints. There’s no telling what will happen beyond that for a stadium with some of the same shortcomings as San Diego’s.
At the same time, several cities are running hard to enter a “rotation” that, for the record, the NFL says has never existed.
South Florida, which will host the game next year, has its spot locked. Weather always has favored it — and still does, despite its surprising distinction of having hosted the only rain-drenched Super Bowl two years ago. South Beach’s emergence as a world-class destination gave it the second side of the triangle. A $250 million renovation that added 360,000 square feet of entertaining space to Dolphin Stadium completed it.
Tampa Bay, which is hosting its fourth Super Bowl and its second at Raymond James Stadium, has proved it has the horsepower of a repeat host, albeit with longer breaks between its shots.
Dallas has 2011 and Indianapolis 2012. Both cold-weather cities got the game as payback for funding new, climate-controlled stadiums.
Three sites that have hosted multiple Super Bowls — Arizona, New Orleans and South Florida — are expected to bid on 2013.
Where the Super Bowl goes after that will go a long way toward clarifying things for cities that have made large investments predicated on the idea of being more than a one-and-done host.
“I’ve said many times now that we are in the Super Bowl business,” said Michael Kennedy, the chairman of last year’s Arizona host committee. “It’s pretty clear to me that Miami is in the Super Bowl business. And I think Mr. [Jerry] Jones is going to try to put Dallas in the Super Bowl business as well.
“A big part of being in the business is deciding how frequently you want to be in the business: how often you need it and how often you can handle it. Unfortunately, you don’t control that. You don’t dial in and say, ‘We want to be a one-in-five-years city’ or one-in-three-years city. You keep throwing your hat in the ring, and you hope the owners choose to keep coming back.”
Like South Florida, which a few years ago proposed that the NFL lock into playing there every third year, Arizona would like to see a rotation similar to those of earlier days, so long as it is included. So too, it seems, would North Texas, which is still two years away from hosting its first Super Bowl.
“The NFL has changed over the last 20 or 25 years,” said Bill Lively, who earlier this month began full-time work as president and CEO of the North Texas host committee. “The nation has changed. Certain cities have changed. And certainly stadiums have changed. The warm-weather cycle that favored Florida and New Orleans and California for so long is still a relevant cycle, but the NFL is looking beyond that for lots of reasons.
“We see ourselves here in a historic posture … to plan and produce our first-ever Super Bowl, but to do it in a way that is legacy-oriented. We’d like to be in this cycle and do this again every three to five years, whatever the cycle is.”
What it takes
The baseline requirements for hosting a Super Bowl, the bid specs, are straight-forward. The league says it will consider NFL cities that have:
A 70,000-seat stadium, or one that can be suitably expanded to that size for the game;
About 19,000 hotel rooms that will provide three- and four-night minimums, totaling about 90,000 room nights;
An average daily temperature of above 50 degrees on the week of the game, or a climate-controlled stadium; and,
Letters of support from all the government entities that will be asked to provide services such as police, fire and ambulances at no cost to the NFL.
There are more than 200 pages to the document that outline further specifics, but most of them can be negotiated up or down, depending on the abilities of the market. Many cover minutiae, such as the breakdown of workout equipment to be provided at the practice facilities for the two teams.
“The [specs] have not changed dramatically in the last three years … in terms of what is required in order to host the Super Bowl, at minimum,” Supovitz said. “What has changed dramatically is the amount of enhancements that a stadium, team or community will add to the minimum-bid specifications in order to present a competitive proposal.”
Miami knew that its competition for the 2010 game, Houston and Atlanta, could bring stout financials to the table. It figured that in order to land the game so soon after hosting it in 2007, it had to distinguish itself. So it got creative, offering a series of perks that included the use of a yacht for each of the 32 owners.
For this year’s game, Tampa offered all 32 teams free golf.
North Texas included in its bid $1 million paid directly to the league to cover game-day costs, and that’s after running laps around all previous hosts in terms of the number of seats and suites it will provide. Total capacity for the game will exceed 100,000, and the NFL will get the use of 150 suites.
“Everyone is out there finding ways to shoulder more and more expenses for the NFL,” said Michael Kelly, the only person to have headed a Super Bowl host committee in three different cities: Tampa (2001), Jacksonville (2005) and Miami (2007). “Paying for more tents at NFL Experience, for more hotels, for more travel for NFL staff. Everyone is out there trying to find another piece that would be attractive to the NFL.”
The South Florida committee expects to put on next year’s game with a budget of $12 million to $15 million. That would put it above the $11 million that Tampa’s committee will spend this year, but beneath the $17 million that Arizona spent last year, or the $25 million-plus that Dallas wants to raise for 2011.
In 1995, South Florida hosted the game on less than $5 million.
“And we fulfilled all our obligations, and everybody was happy,” Barreto said. “Everything has gone up. At some point, there’s going to be a breaking point in all this. At what point is that? I don’t know. Somehow, we haven’t seen it yet.”
The process is designed to encourage competition.
Each November, the NFL sends out its bid book, the 200-some pages of specifications that detail what is expected from cities that want to host the game. Draft bids are due in April. The league’s event division reviews those, conducts an initial comparison and then reports back to each bidder to go over shortcomings and answer questions.
While the league will tell a city when its plan comes up short compared to others, it won’t reveal the specifics of other proposals.
“The NFL is careful about that,” Kelly said. “They don’t say, ‘You have to do this and you’ll get it.’ They just tell you, ‘This is what somebody has done in the past,’ or that maybe in their minds you’re a little short on something. And then they leave it to you to compete. Cities know that if they don’t do something, somebody else will.”
In the end, it’s about landing the votes of NFL owners. The analysis may be objective. The voting is not.
When Houston bid against Miami and Atlanta for the 2010 game, Texans owner Bob McNair advised his constituents to structure their bid so that it would be the most lucrative of the three.
Houston’s was the first bid eliminated.
“You submit a bid that’s better than anybody else’s, and you still don’t get it,” McNair said earlier this month, still clearly frustrated by the experience. “Houston should be there [as a repeat host], but I think when it comes time to vote, there are other things that enter into it.”
In 2004, then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue named McNair to chair a committee to study the economics of the game and make recommendations in preparation for the coming round of labor negotiations. Not surprisingly, the debate over the ways in which teams share revenue became contentious. McNair ruffled feathers. When Houston came looking for a second Super Bowl, he had few allies at the table.
“I think that that did play into it,” McNair said. “There were some people that probably resented my forthrightness. They didn’t agree with me and they sort of viewed that in a negative way when it came time to vote on the Super Bowl. I don’t think that’s the way we should conduct our business, but I think that’s probably what happened.”
That premise doesn’t surprise anyone who has made a run at the game.
“I’m a very political animal, so I understand,” said Barreto, who counts a lobbying firm among his holdings. “Over the years, I believe the NFL has played politics with its own owners. They reward the ones who are good with the Super Bowl. They reward owners who are able to parlay their political strength to build a new stadium. They reward owners who have been good soldiers. … And then, I gotta believe there’s also their own in-fighting. There are going to be some who don’t want to see another guy benefit all the time.
“But put that all aside. At the end of the day, you gotta look at where people want to go.”
More than a game
While the NFL’s events staff analyzes all aspects of the bids — from average temperatures to line-item tallies — the comparison it delivers to the owners typically looks most closely at the financials of the proposal, the quantity and quality of the hotels and other venues that will be used throughout the week, the geographic layout of those venues, and the transportation plans that will link those sites.
In recent years, the owners have proved that they’re willing to take chances on locales that may not be able to check off all the boxes. Jacksonville memorably created a hotel district from nothing by bringing in cruise ships, a solution that ended up earning points for creativity, but enough complaints to make it unlikely that the league will ever bend its lodging requirements quite so liberally again.
This year’s host city, Tampa, offers lovely weather, a picturesque bayfront, Gulf sunsets, great golf and one of the better stadiums in the league. But its shortcoming is that same worrisome matter of lodging: not enough room at the inns, or at least the premier ones that are within 20 minutes of the stadium.
The league has reserved about 20,000 hotel rooms for its executives and teams and their guests this year. The plurality of those, about 8,700, are in the Orlando area. About 7,800 are on the Tampa side of the bay. About 3,600 are on the St. Petersburg/Clearwater side.
While a visit to Disney will appeal to guests of the league who choose to bring their families, some wonder whether those visitors will even feel like they’re at the Super Bowl and whether that divide will rob the event of its massive scope.
“You could be in Orlando and not even feel like the Super Bowl is going on,” Judelson said. “That’s an issue when you want to create event bigness.”
The stadium is a far larger piece of the equation for the NFL than it was a decade ago. This year, for the third consecutive year, the league will be putting its NFL Experience interactive showcase on ground adjacent to the stadium. It then will attach its tailgate party to it on game day, and it likes lots of space around both of them to make it easier to line people up to clear security on the way in.
Because NFL Experience alone takes up about 1 million square feet, a stadium in the middle of a large, open footprint, such as those in South Florida and Arizona, generally works best.
“There’s much more of an organic site plan for Super Bowl than there has been in the past,” Supovitz said. “The stadium has become much more of an epicenter of activity and interest.”
But even that can be adapted when the owners vote to take the game to a place that can’t accommodate it all in one spot.
In cold weather cities — such as Detroit and, in the near future, Dallas and Indianapolis — NFL Experience moves inside, into the local convention center. That will be within walking distance of the stadium in Indianapolis, but the stadium and convention center will be in entirely different municipalities when the game goes to North Texas.
What the league says it can’t work around is the condition, and level of amenities, of the stadium.
“If you’re going to pay certain levels, you want proper leg room, you want a cup holder, you want luxury access, you want to be able to get in in a reasonable way, you want a video board that you can see and enjoy,” Kelly said. “And from a logistical standpoint, there are some that you just flat out can’t do it right and meet security standards. You just can’t create that much more extra queuing space to get people into the darned place.
“The realities of venues like Miami and Dallas and Phoenix: they’re just ideally suited to an event of that magnitude.”
For all of that, many who use the game as a means to entertain clients still see the locale as the priority and the stadium as an incidental piece of the equation.
When Judelson ran corporate marketing for Sprint, the staff there used to reach the end of a week of revelry and joke, “Oh, there’s a game?” Since then, he has headed corporate marketing for the NHL and served as chief marketing officer for Sports Illustrated.
“I’m a huge football fan,” Judelson said, “but the game is an afterthought.”
Judelson empathizes with the league’s need to place the game in virgin cities to reward them for funding new stadiums. When he was at the NHL, the league often awarded its All-Star Game to Sun Belt cities that had built new arenas to attract teams but still needed all the help they could get to foster interest in the game.
Still, in the role he plays today as a corporate host, he’d prefer that the league stick to three tried-and-true markets: South Florida, New Orleans and San Diego.
“The [stadium quality] has an immaterial impact on our hospitality decisions,” Judelson said. “What we want most is a marketplace that knows how to put on a major event.”
Changes for the process?
The man who made Super Bowl magic happen in three different corners of Florida is relieved that he isn’t the one on the hook for the spiraling cost of the games still to come.
Michael Kelly says he is sure all the cities will make good on their promises, but he suspects the pressures to do so in an economy that has gone the way of a steeply descending punt will be immense.
“The NFL is cutting staff in New York, and at the same time, it’s making enhanced requests of the cities,” said Kelly, who parlayed his big-event success into a more stable job overseeing football for the ACC. “So when does that breaking point come? You can’t keep getting more from the [host] city because the city has nowhere to go to get that money either.
“How much can you ask? It’s becoming harder and harder to get the public resources. There are so many pressures on local governments. They want to be supportive, but there are so many other responsibilities that have to be met when you’re looking at shrinking tax bases. Almost every city you look at is having a major budget crisis. They’re going to need to pave that road or fix that hospital before they worry about paying for a Super Bowl.”
Tampa Bay will be the first of the Super Bowl hosts to feel that pinch.
“Companies in the community have been very supportive, which has put us in a position where we will be OK,” said Reid Sigmon, executive director of the Tampa Bay host committee. “But it is absolutely different from what we all thought of when we started.”
The timing of the economic tumble worked in Tampa Bay’s favor. The host committee there sold most of its sponsorships before the credit-market crash. Still, by the time November rolled around, Sigmon realized it was unlikely that the group could meet its goal of raising $8 million from sponsorships and hospitality packages. Its goal was to have sold out by then.
The committee reconsidered its expenses and decided it could put on a successful event for $7 million, plus about $4 million from government sources. Sigmon said he expects to hit that number, though it will be close.
At least he has warm weather working in his favor.
“If it were Indianapolis or Detroit [this year] or even next year, people aren’t going,” said Arizona committee chairman Kennedy. “No slam on Detroit or Indy, but [the weather] is too handy an excuse in this economy. But the other side of it is, you have to have that incentive [to build stadiums]. You have to be able to send the Indianapolis ownership back to town saying ‘Here’s the pot of the gold at the end of the rainbow for your public investment.’”
Kennedy said he has no quarrel with that approach but thinks it should be limited to every fifth year. He’d like to see Arizona included in a rotation — there’s that word again — for the other four slots.
While they differ on how frequently they’d like their turn to come up, most of the prospective hosts would like to see the league return to a more predictable model than it has followed for the last decade.
McNair says Houston deserves to be in that mix, but almost as much as he wants the game, he’d like to see the NFL revamp its selection process so that fewer cities would be sent away wondering where they went wrong.
“Because they work on these [bids] for two years,” he said, “they get discouraged and they start thinking, ‘Why should I put out this much time and effort and money when I really don’t have a high probability of succeeding. I don’t think that’s good for the league. I think it creates ill will.”
Instead, McNair would like the league to pre-qualify a handful of cities as suitable hosts and then rotate the game among them. Bidding would determine when a city would host the Super Bowl rather than whether it hosted the game.
“If Houston is deemed to not be in that category, so be it,” McNair said. “At least you’d know where you stand.”