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Examining the costs of hosting the Super Bowl

Past experience has shown that the actual outcomes of such events — both in terms of realized public revenues and collateral costs — can differ significantly from boosters’ claims.

How much public money will be placed on the line for the 2018 Super Bowl?
Courtesy of the Minnesota Vikings

Last month’s announcement of the Twin Cities’ selection as the site for the 2018 Super Bowl has been touted as a civic “win” by local business leaders and public officials. As with the new Vikings stadium where it will played, the event has been touted as a community-enhancing public-private partnership that will create economic benefits for all.

Photo by Adrian Danciu
Matt Ehling

However, past experience has shown that the actual outcomes of such events — both in terms of realized public revenues and collateral costs — can differ significantly from boosters’ claims. Such events can also leave a residue of infrastructure changes that alter the host community in ways that are little-discussed when the bids are submitted.  

How much public money will be placed on the line for the 2018 Super Bowl? What long-term changes to the metro area will result? And ultimately, are the costs of hosting large-scale events like the Super Bowl worth it? These are issues that need to be carefully examined — particularly now, in the aftermath of the winning bid.

Public expenditures

Recently, Doug Belden of the Pioneer Press asked pertinent questions about public assets pledged to the Super Bowl effort. To date, officials of the Minnesota Sports Facilities Authority have categorized bid data as “nonpublic” until after the 2018 Super Bowl event has ended.   

To enable true public oversight, more disclosure is required. Without information about the actual amount of pledged assets, the public will have no clear baseline from which to evaluate the financial outcomes of the event. To help bring clarity to this matter, my organization (Public Record Media) has submitted data requests [PDF] to both the Stadium Authority and several municipalities to seek details about public funds pledged to the 2018 Super Bowl endeavor.

Security grants inflate economic claims

The Super Bowl is distinct from other large-scale public events in that it is classified by the Department of Homeland Security as a “National Security Special Event,” or NSSE. NSSEs also include presidential inaugurals and national political conventions. Such events are complex and costly, and draw down substantial amounts of federal funding to help support security efforts.

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Because of this, past claims about the economic benefits of NSSEs have frequently been inflated, since local boosters have counted influxes of federal security grants as part of the financial windfall associated with the event. For instance, Tampa officials made repeated claims that the city would see nearly $200 million in economic development as a result of the 2012 Republican National Convention (RNC). In analyzing the figures, the Tampa Tribune reported that the claimed impacts included $50 million worth of congressionally appropriated security funding — reallocated tax money, as opposed to increased restaurant and hotel revenue. Closer to home, security grants and other federal appropriations were likewise characterized as part of the total “economic impact” figures cited in connection with the 2008 RNC in St. Paul.  

Networked cameras, armored vehicles, and more

The influx of federal money associated with NSSEs raises a second set of issues for host cities to consider.  

Doubtlessly, the scale and profile of such events entails real security risks that require additional security assets and intra-agency assistance. How that security is delivered continues to be a source of debate. One only need recall the paramilitary police posture adopted during St. Paul’s RNC event, and its attendant controversies.

As seen with the 2008 RNC, the heavy federal involvement in NSSE security planning and underwriting tends to accelerate security trends that might not otherwise develop in a locality left to its own devices. For instance, the vast majority of municipal security cameras that are now spread across St. Paul were funded by federal grants provided in advance of the RNC.  

Industry literature from St. Paul’s private surveillance camera vendor — Elert and Associates — notes that RNC monies expanded the city’s limited initial network to first cover “half of downtown,” and then other parts of the city. Elert also notes that the St. Paul network is now shared with the city of Minneapolis, the state of Minnesota, the Capitol police, and the University of Minnesota.  

Elsewhere, federal funds have underwritten any number of purchases that municipal departments might not otherwise make on their own. Many of these purchases have served principally to bolster the paramilitary-style techniques and capabilities available to the city’s police, continuing a long-term trend of merging police and military cultures.

Looking again to Tampa, a 2014 Department of Justice audit [PDF] of federal spending on the 2012 RNC shows that federal funds underwrote the purchase of 47 new vehicles, including an armored SWAT truck. The truck, the audit notes, was purchased despite the existence of two related vehicles.

What will federal funding for the 2018 Super Bowl event bestow upon the Twin Cities?  Drones (UAVs) are a distinct possibility, given current agency dynamics. In 2013, Public Record Media received information from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) which indicated that the agency had been coordinating UAV operations on behalf of Minnesota law enforcement agencies. BCA correspondence indicated that the agency was utilizing federal Border Patrol drones, since the agency lacked it own UAV assets. Given this apparent demand, municipal requests for such technology are may come once funding is available.

Facial recognition technology

Another possible federal request would be for the addition of facial recognition software to the Twin Cities’ now-integrated network of surveillance cameras.  

For over a decade, the Super Bowl has been a test site for facial recognition technology.  According to a 2002 ABC News report, “Facefinder” facial recognition software was tested at the 2002 Tampa Super Bowl, and was used to compare video footage of 100,000 stadium visitors against a consolidated police database. ABC also reported that Facefinder was deployed in the community at large, by tying the software into a system of networked cameras monitoring Tampa’s nightlife district.

More recently, the New York Times has reported that the Department of Homeland Security has been experimenting with a facial recognition application developed by Electronic Warfare Associates, with the intent of deploying it at domestic venues. Will one of those venues be the Twin Cities?

Questions ahead

With the event almost four years away, there is still time to ask questions about just what the Twin Cities has purchased with its Super Bowl bid. It is now up to civil society to press for more details, and to ensure that this “public-private partnership” truly benefits the public that will bear its costs.

Matt Ehling is the president of Public Record Media, a nonprofit organization that seeks out and publishses government documents for the benefit of the public.


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