League to choose Super Bowl sites through single-city negotiations
In less than four months, NFL owners gather in Atlanta where they may choose a host city for Super Bowl 57 in 2023. Nothing terribly strange about that except in one significant way: Only one city is on the ballot.
At the May meeting, or if it gets delayed sometime after, the league will formally do away with allowing cities to bid for its marquee event. Gone are the days of often three or more cities squaring off against one another, often with high-profile boosters litigating the case before a room full of owners. Instead, over the next few months the league is set to negotiate with a handpicked city, and presumably hash out a suitable deal.
The new process, developed through consultations with owners and the league office, is designed to give the NFL greater control over where its marquee event is staged each year.
“The process is really focused on identifying the really optimal destination for the Super Bowl, as opposed to a process where you may have multiple cities spending significant time and energy around a bid process,” said Peter O’Reilly, NFL senior vice president of events.
The holy grail for Super Bowl watchers is the host city rotation, a coveted group of four or five cities, largely warm-weather destination locales, that would each host the game twice a decade. O’Reilly declined to commit to that, but didn’t disagree a paradigm approaching such an outcome is desirable.
The cities aren’t a secret: Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles and perhaps soon Las Vegas top most lists (sprinkle in Arizona, too, and the occasional locale rewarded for subsidizing a new stadium). Contrast that with the Super Bowl in Houston last year, Minneapolis this week, Atlanta next year, and remaining in the Southeast in Miami and Tampa for the following two years.
“I wouldn’t say suboptimal,” O’Reilly said of the process that led to the recent sequences of games, “but you might not end up with the optimal sequence.” Indeed, veterans of Super Bowls will often jokingly refer to a particularly unappealing sequence of host cities as a Super Bowl death march.
The nine-member Super Bowl and major events advisory committee, comprising seven owners and two team presidents, will identify the target city, and then allow O’Reilly and his event staff to commence talks. That process is now underway (O’Reilly did not disclose the target city, but said a vote could occur in May).
Unbid Super Bowl host not a first
The NFL has awarded Super Bowls before without bids, though always due to special circumstance. The 2010 game had been awarded to New York, but contingent on the construction of a west side stadium, which did not happen. The game went to South Florida.
“The negotiation for that Super Bowl, with the stadium and the host committee, was much more difficult because they did not bid on it; it was much more difficult to reach a deal because the decision had already been made,” said Frank Supovitz, who ran events at the NFL at that time. “It does take leverage away from the league in terms of driving the best possible deal [when removing bids].”
Questioned about what the NFL did not get for the 2010 Super Bowl, Supovitz said he did not recall the precise issue, but it was related to upgrades to the stadium.
Jim Steeg, who had the NFL events post before Supovitz, recalled two other cases: the 2004 Houston Super Bowl, which the city received as part of the expansion Texans; and the 2001 game in Tampa, which got it after the city unexpectedly lost the 2000 game to Atlanta.
In those cases, Steeg said, the NFL negotiated what it needed.
Whether for Super Bowls or any event or business, bidding is designed to extract the best possible terms for the issuing entity, in this case the NFL. Giving that up theoretically then could lead to worse terms for the league.
The NFL discussed that issue as it designed the new strategy, O’Reilly said, and came away unconcerned.
“We believe because there is a very clear understanding from many of these cities, and that there are a lot of other cities lined up behind them very interested in the game … they would have significant motivation,” he said. And with five years now before the first game awarded under this plan (about a year longer than with bids), there is time to switch gears on the target city, O’Reilly added.
It’s down to one
There are skeptics. Supovitz for one cautioned that once a city is identified, the internal politics at the NFL would make it difficult to disengage. The local owner would be very unhappy if talks ended, Supovitz said. That could lead to intense lobbying of the Super Bowl committee.
Terrence Burns, an event consultant with ties to the Olympics and World Cup, lauded the NFL for its plan, but said having a handful of cities at once might be better. He called it a hybrid approach, in which the governing body selects two or three cities and then negotiated from there.
Steeg said that the issue with only one city in the mix is not the host committee negotiations, but removed parties like hotels and event spaces. Those businesses might not be as willing to cede terms if there is not a traditional bidding process, he said.
Nothing changes with what is required to host a Super Bowl, O’Reilly said. The criteria for the number of hotel rooms, necessary transport, event space and stadium features all remain the same, he said.
Don Renzulli, executive vice president for On Location Experiences, which handles the NFL’s hospitality business, disagreed with the premise that the NFL loses leverage with the move to a negotiated process. In fact, the league might come out better, he said.
“In the past, you have to come up with your best bid, you submit it, it gets out in front of ownership, they vote and if a city wins that really didn’t meet or come up with everything the league wanted they may still win,” he said.
It’s no secret owners were not thoroughly steeped in the details of the host city bids, and their votes were often a favor to a fellow owner.
Removing that political mix could aid the league. The Super Bowl vote had been the only regularly scheduled anonymous vote owners took, and it has led to hard feelings. Steeg recalled Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder leading a bid for the 2009 game, and the owner telling him the night before the vote he had 26 votes. In the end, Steeg said, Washington attracted about half a dozen votes and lost to Tampa.
That dynamic of owners changing promised votes is removed if there is only one city on the ballot. It’s possible the anonymous vote remains, but the days of competing owners twisting arms and currying favor the night before a Super Bowl vote is gone. The possibility of owners rejecting the negotiated city is remote, but O’Reilly explained that the process builds in enough time for the committee to move on to the next city should this happen.
The new procedure would allow the NFL to avoid embarrassment when it expects one city to get the Super Bowl and it doesn’t. Indianapolis lost its first try for the Super Bowl after the city appeared to expect it would get the game on its first attempt by publicly subsidizing the stadium.
“It became an embarrassment to the city and the mayor,” Supovitz said.
Indy got the game on its next try and staged a very well-received Super Bowl week and game in 2012.
While the NFL has no formal policy that cities that help finance a stadium get the marquee game, there has often been a not-so-subtle wink involved. Now, the league can better assure that outcome by entering into negotiations with that city for a specific Super Bowl date, keeping alive the hope of hosting a Super Bowl for municipalities that assisted in paying for a new or renovated stadium. The negotiations could take place with the city or a potential host committee based on the host city’s preference.
“This makes it less subject to the whims of a vote,” Supovitz said. “When you have a number of different choices that are available to the ownership to vote on you don’t have control obviously where it is going to go to. It gives the NFL some ability to strategize where it goes from year to year.”
A trend for other events?
If the NFL succeeds in securing Super Bowls in this new way, it could prove a model for other big events, from Final Fours to World Cups.
“Everybody looks at the NFL to understand how they are doing it; and then everyone kind of changes or alters the way they do things,” Renzulli said. “Everyone will let it play out with the NFL for the first year or two to see how they operate.”
The Olympics awarding two summer Games at once to two cities (Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028) starts the International Olympic Committee down that path. But unlike the NFL, the IOC and other major bodies are still using bid procedures for their major events. And the NFL would award only one Super Bowl at a time.
The NFL might even change its strategy for awarding the NFL draft, which has rapidly grown in size and scale in the three years it’s been put out to bid. For now, the league will continue to receive bids for the event, O’Reilly said, but that could change too. Dallas, which beat out nearly two dozen competitors, will host the draft in April.
The NFL never had to wade through two dozen bids for the Super Bowl (Steeg recalled 14 bids for four games in the early 1990s). And starting in a few months, owners will have little choice at all for choosing the host.