Seattle and Super Bowl could be a good match in near future
Tourism officials believe the city is more ready than ever to host the big game, but several hurdles remain before they can make a bid.
Seattle Times staff reporter
GLENDALE, Ariz. — Talk to Tom Norwalk about Seattle hosting a Super Bowl, and he clearly understands that it’s about more than numbers.
As CEO of Visit Seattle — the umbrella group representing hotels, restaurants and all things local tourism — Norwalk knows about the numbers some say disqualify Seattle from Super Bowl consideration. Not enough hotel rooms, too little convention space, and a stadium that isn’t big enough are just a few hurdles thrown around by naysayers.
But Norwalk also knows about the problems here for this year’s Super Bowl, as the city of Glendale and the NFL have feuded publicly over the lack of hotel rooms set aside at league rates to prevent gouging.
Beyond having the numbers to land a Super Bowl, Norwalk realizes cooperation and accommodation — literal and figurative — are things the NFL undoubtedly will monitor.
“That’s something that can tarnish a city’s reputation certainly, and the whole experience very quickly, if it makes news,’’ Norwalk said. “I think we would not have trouble at all generating commitments on those rooms. And I think the whole effort, before it even takes place, there has to be an underlying commitment and understanding about how pricing would be set by hotels based on historical numbers and some reality. It’s not a free-for-all.’’
The NFL has Super Bowls booked through 2018 but is expected to soon start taking new bids. Norwalk said bidding on 2020 or later likely makes the most sense because construction on the waterfront tunnel project should be complete.
But Seattle is closer than ever to meeting the NFL’s numbers requirements for the big game, he adds. The Seahawks plan to boost seating capacity to about 69,500 next season, right around the 70,000-seat minimum a Super Bowl typically requires.
Norwalk said the 3,000 to 4,000 hotel rooms being added the next five years in Seattle, the Eastside and near Sea-Tac Airport will take the total to the 25,000 the NFL would want. The NFL wants Super Bowl hotel rooms to equal 35 percent of stadium seating capacity and be within an hour’s drive of the game.
Also, a convention center expansion — planned for nearly a decade — should be finalized this year and add 300,000 to 400,000 square feet of space about a block north of the current venue. Throw in light-rail expansion, which could hook up the downtown to the University of Washington and create more potential Super Bowl event space, and the city should boast numbers with which the NFL can work.
And it will have to. As seen by problems in Glendale and complaints by the mayor of last year’s host site in East Rutherford, N.J., the NFL is increasingly insistent on calling as many Super Bowl shots as possible.
“I think more and more so over the last several years, the NFL has been very aggressive about extracting as much money as possible out of all these venues,’’ said Victor Matheson, an economics professor at Holy Cross University who authored a 2009 paper called “Economics of the Super Bowl.”
“Last year, they made it a violation of the agreement for taxis to drop people off at the stadium. So fans had to buy the overpriced NFL bus ticket just to get to the stadium. That’s the sort of thing where the NFL says, ‘Fine, if you don’t do it there’s 30 other cities where we can put the game.’ ’’
The NFL typically insists upon a set amount of hotel rooms at a fixed rate for employees, players’ families and fans. Arizona’s Super Bowl host committee had asked Glendale to join other communities in the Phoenix area in blocking off up to 20,000 rooms so visitors wouldn’t feel gouged.
When Glendale hotels were slow to respond, the league pulled its popular NFL Experience event and Super Bowl headquarters from that city and moved them to downtown Phoenix.
Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill has complained that Glendale was “a poor partner’’ in Super Bowl planning. But Glendale Mayor Jerry Weiers countered that his city is getting stuck with sky-high Super Bowl security costs while other municipalities benefit from revenue-generating events preceding the big game.
For all the NFL strong-arming, economist Matheson warns that potential economic benefits of hosting the game often are “far overhyped’’ by the league and local sports boosters. Despite claims that cities will see between $300 million and $500 million in gains from a Super Bowl, Matheson said his research shows it’s more like $30 million to $130 million.
“Compare that to the $50 million it costs to host one of these events now, and that’s not great,’’ he said. “You could easily be spending a lot more in host funds than you could hope to get back.’’
That’s because a lot of the money generated by Super Bowls is simply displaced economic activity. Local fans spending money to attend Super Bowl events would be spending the same funds on other things if the game were someplace else.
Matheson said Seattle would have an advantage over the past two Super Bowls because the game would be played in the city and not in a distant suburb. In other words, Seattle would reap most of the economic gains to offset being forced to absorb most of the event costs. That wasn’t the case this year in Glendale or last year in East Rutherford, N.J.
Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission, agrees that one advantage of a Super Bowl at CenturyLink Field is that events would be close to the game. University of Phoenix Stadium is about 30 miles from downtown Phoenix, with limited public transportation making it a challenge for anyone taking in both the game and events. Other events are held in Scottsdale, another Phoenix suburb.
Morton said the key to any successful Super Bowl is “walkability’’ and getting to events with ease. In Seattle, he added, visitors would be able to walk to the game and most events, or hop on light rail.
Seattle would host the big-revenue Super Bowl events. And many of the major infrastructure changes within Seattle — such as light-rail expansion — already have been approved.
“All of the infrastructure stuff that we’re planning only enhances what we would eventually put together,’’ Norwalk of Visit Seattle said. “You take that plus the great run we’ve been having from a sports perspective, certainly from the Seahawks, I think there’s momentum, there’s excitement and I’m pretty optimistic and confident that we could do it.’’
Weather remains a Super Bowl hurdle. Last year’s outdoor Super Bowl in New Jersey was viewed largely as a positive for Seattle, because the NFL waived its average temperature requirement.
Seattle’s average February temperature is right at the 50-degree requirement. That’s far milder than New Jersey, which had frigid temperatures before the game and a blizzard right after it.
The Phoenix area this week has been plagued by wet weather, and temperatures weren’t much warmer than in the Pacific Northwest.
Weather is something no host city has control over. The Dallas suburb of Arlington, Texas, hosted the 2011 Super Bowl indoors, but the week’s events preceding it were plagued by freezing weather that caused logistical and transportation nightmares. The 2007 Super Bowl in Miami was hit by torrential rain.
Morton attended last year’s Super Bowl to get a feel for challenges faced by staging events in a large city such as New York. He’ll attend this weekend’s events as well, and he remains upbeat about Seattle’s chances.
“There are so many things that are happening that are positive,’’ he said. “From the macro, as with transportation, down to Tom Douglas opening more restaurants. When you look at what makes a Super Bowl great entertainment, it’s that you’re going to have a great time.’’
Morton worked on the host committee for Super Bowls in New Orleans in 1997 and 2002. He said that city didn’t need NFL-sponsored events for visitors to enjoy themselves. He sees similarities with Seattle.
“You didn’t have to create 43 different events to make it an entertaining destination,’’ Morton said. “We have the restaurants. We have the entertainment. And there are a lot of things that we’re going to do to enhance that. I think it’s an intriguing place. There are a lot of people who haven’t been here, and we have a lot of people we can put on a great show for on TV.’’
Geoff Baker: 206-464-8286
On Twitter @gbakertimes