Banking on the Bowl
As a million visitors flood the Twin Cities for the Big Game, residents find ways to cash in on the out-of-state crush—ethically or otherwise
illustration by Michael Iver Jacobsen
Many visiting Minnesota for the Super Bowl, in search of a nice Minneapolis home base, will turn to today’s biggest hotel competitor: an online short-term rental service, such as Airbnb.com, where anybody can rent out their house or apartment for a day or five.
But it’s a jungle. The webpage of Airbnb listings promises swanky oases mere blocks from U.S. Bank Stadium, replete with exclamation marks, superlatives, and four-digit figures: a “3 Story Modern Super Bowl Pad” with a “sleek modern feel perfect for families” at $4,000 a night, or a “SUPERBOWL ready- luxourios [sic] apartment downtown,” flaunting out-of-focus photos of an unfurnished galley kitchen and a living space complete with view of the neon Hilton sign, $1,799 a night. The latter, touting zero reviews, lacks a rental track record, on the market since just October.
Airbnb was more than ready for the boom in renters; it provided the push. A year ago, the San Francisco-based company announced “Project 612,” aiming to double the number of Twin Cities Airbnbs by Super Bowl weekend. Hotels filled months before February—the NFL itself requiring 19,000 rooms, outstripping downtown’s 10,000-room capacity. The objective proved reachable. Twin Cities Airbnbs have doubled, to about 2,000. Week by week, their nightly rates build to a climax: An ordinarily $300-per-night space wants $5,000 the weekend of the big game, banking on huge demand even as supply keeps pace.
Adding to that supply, St. Louis Park resident Trisha Hubers has managed four metro Airbnbs for about a year now. Unlike other newcomers to the rental business, she and her mom run Clean Slate, a deep-cleaning, painting, and staging service for owners putting their houses on the market. Her parents started thinking about retirement investments a few years ago, when Trisha suggested property. Showing her mom a downtown duplex, “I just said, ‘Hey, you should Airbnb it,’” she says—it was near the Convention Center and U.S. Bank Stadium, “and the Super Bowl is coming,” she added.
City regulations in place since December have come down on Airbnb’s former Wild West of inspection-less, one-off rentals; Trisha had a city inspector deem her properties safe, but she says she’s stayed in surprisingly lax Airbnbs before (one that didn’t have a fire detector, for example).
It took the influx of Super Bowl visitors for Minneapolis to put through an ordinance forcing Airbnbs to apply for municipal licenses and renew them annually—the way regular bed-and-breakfasts have operated for years. Airbnb says the ordinance violates federal law, holding an online platform accountable for third-party users’ actions. And, the company says, it limits private-property owners from innovating how they make money. Some residents spin registration as another tax grab by the city. For lodging competitors, though, the ordinance helps check the advantages unregulated Airbnbs have so far leveraged.
Months before the game, on the corner of 35th and Nicollet in Minneapolis, a small sign forced into the frozen turf implies you could rent out your home for $10,000 if you call a 1-800 number. It connects to an Arizona-based business, SuperBowlRent.com—a 2014 start-up rental service tapping those ephemeral markets that materialize when out-of-state fans descend on a host city. Pitched as an Airbnb.com for sporting events, the service tackles two of the platform’s prime nuisances: It sends a professional photographer (in lieu of smartphone snapping) to capture rental spaces in 360 degrees. And renters can pass off management to a representative to deal with back-and-forth emails and odd-hour calls. Some California properties have, in fact, gone for $10,000 a night. In Minnesota, prices aren’t as steep. But one otherwise off-the-market Stillwater mansion is chasing a Bowl-size goal: $10,000 for three nights, or $20,000 for the week.
Opportunistic entrepreneurs dream of big money but shouldn’t count on it. When Houston hosted the Super Bowl last year, drivers from neighboring states flocked to Texas with Uber and Lyft stickers. One Texas driver bemoaned the surge cap Uber places on rider fees so they don’t ratchet up too high as demand peaks. (Some drivers boycotted Uber during the Super Bowl in Santa Clara, California, two years ago to protest fare caps over the traffic-heavy weekend.) The Texas driver, who worked in Houston, describes last year’s chaos: Shuttlers new to the city got lost, congested roads, and slept in their vehicles overnight (one strategy Minnesota newcomers Ubering or Lyfting in February will likely have to forgo).
Not all enterprisers are playing by the rules, either. Minneapolis police will use a new online portal to connect with 20 other law enforcement agencies so they can better crack down on expected sex trafficking. Meanwhile, the NFL’s deployment of 10,000 volunteers chafes against the state’s labor laws, since the unpaid thousands will assist a for-profit organization—without even getting complimentary tickets. No one has taken legal action against the NFL, but the league’s billionaire owners surely could have splurged on paying these folks from 500 Minnesota cities and 42 states, who will greet visitors at MSP Airport, lend a hand at events, and give directions on the street. (Expressed reasons for volunteering include getting close to the Vikings and demonstrating “Minnesota Nice” to the wealthy legions potentially arriving with superiority complexes.)
All the money grubbing has scoured unexpected corners of the city. Minneapolis’ kitsch-iconic mural of Jesus—painted in pastels on a brick building that overlooks I-35W—has stood on the West Bank for decades, the Lord open-armed in front of a rainbow, between “LOVE” and “POWER,” where bubble hearts replace the “O”s. But the lease is up on Love Power Church, and the landlord wants to charge early-February rent.
If we’re being maudlin, Jesus’ bought-out, crumbling façade symbolizes locals’ concerns: In what state will this extravaganza, and all the tourists, leave the Cities?
“We’ve had people in town for weddings and concerts and Zombie Pub Crawl,” says Trisha, “and the worst I’ve had is glitter, to be honest.” Not a huge deal—though she did ban it. “I’m hoping it stays that way,” she says, “for the Super Bowl and beyond.”