Glendale not cheering Super Bowl

Anyone who questions the economic benefits of the NFL poses an existential threat. Mark Matcho for ESPN the Magazine

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EVERY YEAR CITIES across the country battle for the chance to host the Super Bowl, pledging great sacrifices in exchange for a prize of dubious worth. This municipal dogfight reminds me of my favorite reality show, The Bachelor, which also features overeager contestants vying for the heart of a demanding suitor. Much like the women on The Bachelor, host cities adhere to an invisible script. The Super Bowl is an honor, they say, a fount of riches -- which is why I was surprised when Jerry Weiers, the mayor of Glendale, Arizona, recently told me he doesn't expect a windfall when his city hosts the big game in February. In fact, he says, "I totally believe we will lose money on this."

The NFL thrives on the perception that football is a powerful economic stimulus; anyone who questions that poses an existential threat. Unsurprisingly, Weiers' bluntness has not endeared him to the league. When the mayor said last year that Glendale lost more than $1 million when it hosted Super Bowl XLII in 2008, Arizona Cardinals president Michael Bidwill was furious. "Was it the most favorable thing I could have said? Not really," Weiers deadpans. In August, Bidwill called the stated losses "a bunch of malarkey," claiming that the Phoenix suburb had previously said it reaped $13 million in "media exposure" from the game.

Bidwill has accused Glendale's leaders of shortsightedness and incompetence; he has said that "the city hall people have done nothing" to support the game. The Cardinals' president was especially vexed when Glendale's hotels wouldn't guarantee a rate for Super Bowl visitors. "I'm not gonna demand that our hotels discount any more than I'm gonna demand that the NFL discount Super Bowl tickets," says Weiers.

The sight of a city official standing up to a league bigwig is so unusual, it's a little startling, like witnessing a dog walking on its hind legs. But Glendale is no ordinary city. It's a place that has given a great deal to sports, reaping little in return. Since 2000, Glendale has helped build three stadiums, including the Cardinals' field, a silvery dome that sits in the desert like a docked UFO. When the recession struck, tax revenues plummeted and plans to turn the dusty suburb into a retail oasis dissolved. Glendale now pays more than $40 million a year in interest on its stadiums and other expenses.

And the actual benefits of a Super Bowl bonanza are unclear. A study funded by Arizona's Super Bowl committee found that visitors spent $218 million around the 2008 game, but some economists say the actual profits were much lower because football fans crowded out other tourists. Little of that money aids the city directly. Glendale said it 
spent $3.4 million in 2008, mostly on public safety, and earned only $1.2 million in taxes from direct spending at places like hotels and restaurants. (Tickets are not taxed.) One former councilwoman, Joyce Clark, who voted against hosting the 2015 game after witnessing the city's losses seven years ago, scoffs at the idea that the publicity was worth it. "There has not been any corporation that moved to Glendale because the CEO came to the Super Bowl," she says.

The city expects to spend slightly less this time around, but it also anticipates lower sales, largely because the NFL has relocated its three-ring circus to Phoenix. The big parties have moved downtown; most of the fans and celebrities will stay there too. The same thing happened last year, when host city East Rutherford, New Jersey, was eclipsed by New York. East Rutherford's mayor, James Cassella, says the "arrogant" NFL was dismissive toward his town. "They pretty much said, 'You should be honored that the game is here,' " Cassella says.

Weiers says centralizing the revelry makes sense, but it also means Glendale needs help. After projecting losses of more than $3 million on the game, Weiers endorsed a bill last spring that would have enabled Glendale to be reimbursed by the state. It died in the Senate.

On The Bachelor, Prince Charming usually turns out to be a toad. For cities, this epiphany often comes too late. "This Super Bowl was promised before I became mayor," Weiers says. "There wasn't any backing out." In other words, the game must go on, even if Glendale loses again.