SBJ/20090126/Super Bowl XLIII

Here for the party, gone by the game

The Super Bowl long ago become more than just the biggest day in American sports. Super Bowl is now a catch-all phrase for the biggest days, or even week, in sports, as the parties, meetings, media attention and revelry that consume the host city each year can often outstrip the game itself.

“Go to the airport on Sunday morning and see how many people are leaving,” said Jim Steeg, who organized the game for the NFL for two decades and now works for the San Diego Chargers. “It is a convention. Everybody is there.”

By Steeg’s count, 30,000 people come to the host city each year who do not attend the game.

Bob Potter, a sports filmmaker, was on one such flight home last year from Phoenix. Why? His meetings with potential sponsors of his films, the likes of Nike and Bacardi, were done, he said, and working in the sports industry, he has been to enough sporting events. So, the founder of Bombo Sports took the 7 a.m. Continental flight home to New York in order to watch the game with his son.

From the beginning, the Super Bowl host city has been positioned as a destination for fun, relaxation and a place to do a little business. Steeg said former NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle insisted the game occur in warm weather climates and entertainment capitals like Miami and Los Angeles, and the timing of the game allowed companies to reward their best employees of the previous year with trips to the game.

Parties to a certain extent have always been part of the scene. Rozelle threw the first Commissioner’s Party in Los Angeles at the Biltmore Hotel for journalists before the inaugural game in 1967. Sponsors from early on have also thrown parties around the game. But the emergence of unrelated entities such as Playboy and Maxim, groups with no deep connection to sports, throwing huge, seven-figure parties is a more-recent phenomena.

“It is a convention.
Everybody is there.”

Allen St. John, the author of “The Billion Dollar Game: Behind the Scenes of the Greatest Day in American Sport: Super Bowl Sunday,” traces the emergence of the mega Super Bowl party to the 2000 game in Atlanta.

Playboy was unveiling a new Web site at halftime of that game, and as part of the promotion, it held a party at a local bar. Playboy executives, St. John said, were shocked when the line snaked around the block to get in.

But it was the 2002 game, he added, when the parties really took off. That was the year when the Super Bowl was moved back a week from its original date because of the 9/11 terrorist attacks disrupting the season. Because of the one-week move, St. John said, Playboy was able to secure the Anne Rice Mansion in New Orleans, thereby setting a new standard for the type of venue that houses these events.

Now, tickets on the secondary market to the parties thrown by the likes of Playboy and Maxim can fetch more than Super Bowl tickets. Before last year’s game, tickets to Maxim’s party could be had on ticket-resale sites for as much as $4,000 each, which was more than what some tickets to the game were costing.

“There are 65,000 people who get into the game, but there are only 1,200 who get into the exclusive parties,” St. John said, noting the number of people who can be invited to one of the giant parties. “I have even heard tales of trades,” he added, meaning there are fans willing to give up their seat at the game to get into one of the A-list parties.

Whether that continues this week, what with the down economy, is a question. Some traditional parties, including Sports Illustrated’s and Playboy’s, have already been scuttled. CAA Sports, which had thrown a party the last several years, also canceled its event. Corporate spending is sure to be down as well (see story, opposite page), and how many fans of the two teams besiege Tampa will also be a closely watched indicator for how this week compares.

Nonetheless, many of the parties will go on simply because, as they have become such big events, they are budgeted and booked far in advance.

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