Super Bowl shuffle: What it would mean to bring the big game to the suburbs

The mere mention of the phrase strikes fear in the heart of even the most hardened Super Bowl host city.

“At no cost to the NFL.”

As momentum builds for Arlington Park becoming the future home of the Bears, a multibillion-dollar domed stadium anchoring the site is the next logical thought. The goal would be to bring the biggest concerts, NCAA Final Four basketball and, yes, Super Bowls to Arlington Heights.

But between skyrocketing hosting budgets and the lengthy list of freebies demanded by the National Football League, a Bears bid for a future Super Bowl could cost from $70 million to $100 million.

Recouping that would be a challenge, especially if visitors flocked to Chicago hotels, restaurants and tourist sites instead of spending their money in the suburbs. Past organizers, however, say that with crafty planning and an eye toward future benefits, the entire region can reap the rewards of a successful Super Bowl.

“It’s kind of lit another entrepreneurial fire underneath people as they dream about how to capture the excitement of this possibility,” said Jon Ridler, executive director of the Arlington Heights Chamber of Commerce. “We want to use this as an opportunity to enhance the entire region.”

While there is plenty of grief in the process, the opportunity for glory exists. And it has local planners eyeing a vast array of possibilities for the future.

Open arms

Heather Larson, president of Meet Chicago Northwest – the convention and visitors bureau for Arlington Heights, Elk Grove Village, Itasca, Rolling Meadows, Roselle, Schaumburg, Streamwood and Wood Dale – said she knows the region will step up.

Its footprint boasts 64 hotels. Restaurant and retail choices abound. There’s also a marketing team that will spend $500,000 this year making sure the necessary players know what the area has to offer.

“That’s what we do all day long,” Larson said. “Most of the advertising we do is not in the Northwest suburbs. We advertise in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, Indianapolis, Detroit. We’re already focusing and know how to attract people to our destination. We’re pretty sophisticated with the way we market ourselves.”

The trick, in the case of a Super Bowl, is drawing those visitors away from the bright lights of Chicago. Once they land at O’Hare Airport from around the world, getting them to spend time and money in the Northwest suburbs might be challenging.

Frank Stephenson, chairman of the Accounting, Economics and Finance Department at Berry College in Georgia, co-wrote a study evaluating hotel occupancy for recent Super Bowls. What he discovered is not good news for Arlington Heights and the surrounding suburbs.

When Santa Clara, 50 miles from San Francisco, hosted the 2016 Super Bowl, an area within a 30-mile radius of the stadium had a hotel occupancy boost that was only 10% of what other recent hosts such as Houston and Minneapolis enjoyed. The study found that many of the fans spending $1,000 for a game ticket chose to stay in San Francisco’s luxury hotels.

Many of the accompanying events and sites surrounding Super Bowl week, including the parties and fan experience center, were in San Francisco. The exterior shots on TV focused on the Golden Gate Bridge and trolley cars as opposed to the sites in Santa Clara.

Stephenson questions whether Arlington Heights and the surrounding suburbs can draw the economic activity and attention away from Chicago.

“The Santa Clara and San Francisco example I think would be a big concern here for Arlington Heights,” Stephenson said. “Arlington Heights may have some premium hotels, but most of them are in Chicago. It won’t be zero traffic, but most of the traffic will be downtown.”

That doesn’t mean the suburbs wouldn’t benefit from a Super Bowl, but organizers need a clear plan and realistic expectations, especially in the short term.

College of Holy Cross Professor Victor Matheson, a noted sports economist, cringed while reading the many financial regulations the NFL imposed in the Minneapolis-St. Paul bid book for hosting the 2018 Super Bowl.

More than 100 times he saw the phrase “at no cost to the NFL” in an agreement that stipulated the host pay for everything from security to an entire hotel for each competing team and a week’s worth of usage at various facilities. The league paid no rent for stadium use while receiving every dime of ticket sales, parking revenue and just about everything else.

“There’s no real reason to believe Arlington Heights is going to make a ton of money,” Matheson said. “You’re on the hook for some potentially large money without many ways to make it back. All the things that Arlington Heights could make money on, the NFL says, ‘No, we’re going to make that money instead.’”

Minnesota, though, had little trouble recouping the $50 million it invested. Officials estimate a $450 million jolt came to the local economy, 266,000 hotel room nights were booked during that week, and the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport set a one-day record for passengers.

Matheson said it’s unrealistic for the suburbs to bank on a similar financial windfall during Super Bowl week. The goal, he said, is for the area not to be coaxed into a false sense of investment for new hotels and other projects.

“How many hotels do you want to build for one event?” he asked. “The answer is none. Your hotel has to be 65% full year-round, year after year, or that hotel goes out of business.”

Winning game plan

Kevin Phelps, city manager of Glendale, Arizona, knows all too well the costs associated with hosting a Super Bowl and how to overcome the pitfalls. He joined the city staff in 2016, but he’s familiar with the Super Bowls held in 2008 and 2015 at State Farm Stadium, and the expenses that rose from $13 million to $30 million in only seven years.

Phelps estimates Glendale’s next Super Bowl in 2023 will cost more than $50 million.

“It’s not good enough that you just give people a place to sleep,” Phelps said. “You need to give them something to do while they’re there, and we’ve really focused on providing that.”

Similar to an Olympic committee team, a Super Bowl bid team consists of a group of local leaders who put together the event and raise a lot of money to make it happen. Whether it’s company CEOs, celebrities or experienced political players, the key is attracting a mix of people adept at success.

Phelps said even the barricades around the stadium cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, but future organizers for a Bears Super Bowl bid shouldn’t be intimidated by the rabbit hole of spending. If executed correctly, a suburban bid team can develop a plan that works, he said.

“There are customized Super Bowl packages they could sell to companies for $200,000 apiece, so there are many ways to do this.”

The ‘Bold North’

Super Bowl LII Committee CEO Maureen Bausch insists Minnesota’s $50 million bid investment for 2018 was worth the cost, and not only because the event was fully financed with private money. In a survey of visitors for Super Bowl week, 83% said they’d return to the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

That’s impressive considering the early February event proved to be the coldest Super Bowl in history. Game-time temperature was 2 degrees and about a foot of snow fell during the week.

Similar temperatures and snowfall are possible in an Arlington Heights Super Bowl, but Bausch and her team embraced the idea by terming the location “The Bold North” and seizing the narrative as a positive. Bausch believes the Bears committee also could seize the narrative of a cold-weather Super Bowl.

In the dead of winter, when hotel occupancy and tourism slows to its lowest levels of the year, Super Bowl week is an opportunity for a massive boost.

“It’s a bit more complicated in cold-weather markets, but it is well worth every single bit of energy put into it,” she said. “I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

‘World stage ... at your front door’

Bausch said success for a suburban Super Bowl bid will start by defining goals and shaping a strategy around those goals. For Minnesota, part of the success meant highlighting the state as a year-round tourist destination and using corporate exposure to attract highly skilled employees.

In a strategy known as “The Traveling CEO,” the Glendale bid committee earmarked part of its budget to fly in CEOs from across the country with the lure of Super Bowl perks. Once the CEOs were in Arizona, local officials used the time to persuade them to move their business there. Phelps said the strategy worked as several companies wound up relocating to the area.

Bausch said exposing the benefits of the region is an essential long-term strategy.

“I can tell you many communities see this as a five-day event, in and out, and I feel bad when they miss the opportunity with the spotlight on them,” Bausch said. “The world stage is going to be at your front door.”

Many hurdles remain in the Bears moving to Arlington Heights, and many more beyond that to host a Super Bowl. But it’s never too early to start dreaming, and planning.

And while we’re dreaming, maybe the Bears actually will play in the game.

“If a Super Bowl happens here in Arlington Heights, the hotel rooms are going to be booked and restaurants are going to be busy all the way out to Cary,” said Ridler, the Arlington Heights Chamber executive director. “I think everybody benefits.”