Big Game: The Ryder Cup, the Final Four, and Super Bowl Come to Town

A run of huge sports events are headed to the Twin Cities. Are their benefits as big as boosters claim?

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Phil Mickelson will make his 11th Ryder Cup appearance at Hazeltine

Photo by Chris Otsen, courtesy Callaway Golf Club

When the Ryder Cup Tournament finally gets underway later this month at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, some 50,000 fans, a third of them traveling from Europe, will crowd their way into the bucolic country club’s galleries for six straight days of white-trousered revelry. As more than a decade of planning at last culminates in what organizers call “the Super Bowl of golf,” it won’t simply be the single largest golf tournament Minnesota has ever seen. It will also be the starting gun for a rush of enormous sporting events careening toward the Twin Cities over the next three years. The Ryder, X-Games, men’s basketball Final Four, and in 2018, of course, the big one: the Super Bowl. Of football.

Whenever a city chooses to court events of this magnitude, it invites skeptics to a sort of dance of the civic balance sheet, the moves of which are as predictable as the hokey-pokey. The boosters take the lead, announcing big, bold plans and revealing a dazzling economic impact study: in the case of Minneapolis’ Super Bowl LII, a jolt of $338 million,1 mostly from out-of-state guests shelling out for hotel rooms, car rentals, shopping, food, and entertainment. Unimpressed, the skeptics whirl back with questions about the cost. “What about all the security?” they say. “And traffic management? And U.S. Bank Stadium itself? That wasn’t exactly cheap.”2 The boosters, undeterred, cite an incalculable boost to the region’s national reputation.

For the 2018 Super Bowl, the dance is done. The venue is built; the date (February 4) is saved; the NFL’s wish list has been granted;3 and an economic windfall predicted. The skeptics, meanwhile, have plenty to chew over, as evidenced by such headlines as “Super Bowl Host Cities Always Lose the Money Game” (MarketWatch) and “Your City Will Never Get Rich Hosting the Super Bowl” (Mother Jones). Victor Matheson, a professor of economics at the College of the Holy Cross and an expert in the business of the Bowl, says that, contrary to studies that predict the impact of future Super Bowls to be as high as $400 million, actual data from past games have found their true economic boon to be range of $30-130 million.

“That is not nothing,” Matheson says. “But it is roughly one-third to one-tenth the amount being claimed.” Furthermore, he says, while every Super Bowl host city commissions an impact study before the big game, few4 follow up afterward to check the numbers. “A cynic might say that is because they typically don’t want to hear what it would say.”

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U.S. Bank Stadium, future home of the 2018 Super Bowl

photo by Jeremy Nelson

When it comes to big-time sporting events, as with the stadiums that hold them, cynics abound. Jake Miller isn’t one of them. A stocky Indiana native with an easy smile and the shoulders of a former football player, 34-year-old Miller has spent the last 13 years traveling to America’s greatest golf courses and preparing host cities for premier golf tournaments, including the biannual Ryder Cup. Pitting a team of American professional golfers against a team of Europeans, the Ryder Cup is what happens when you decide to make golf a team sport and put continental pride on the line.

Since its inception in 1927, the two competing sides have traded hosting duties each tournament. That means the tournament only comes to America once every four years, bringing with it a tide of European tourism—and a friendly Old-World-versus-New-World rivalry that tends to erupt into a soccer-stadium-level frenzy. “It’s sportsmanship at its best,” Miller says. “When you hear that crowd, especially on the final day—it just gives you chills.”

The 13 years that Miller has spent traveling with the Ryder Cup nearly equal the amount of time Hazeltine has spent anticipating the tournament (it was awarded to the golf club way back in 2002, around the time it hosted its first PGA Championship). Unlike the Super Bowl, the Ryder Cup is not subject to a bidding process. Instead, the PGA chooses from a shortlist of interested clubs, triggering a quadrennial barrage of thousands of European fans, many of whom inevitably make the tournament part of a larger American holiday. Little surprise, then, that Minnesota golf enthusiasts and hospitality professionals have been eagerly awaiting—and prepping for, by figuring out where to set up the 48,000-square-foot merchandise tent, and swapping out brown bunker sand for white—the tourney’s arrival for so long.

Miller, meanwhile, is busy planning something even bigger in his new role as Vice-President of Operations for the Super Bowl LII Host Committee. His experience with Ryder has given him firsthand knowledge of the risks and rewards that a city takes on with such endeavors. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s firmly in the “rewards” camp. He looks to his hometown of Indianapolis, home of Super Bowl XLVI in 2012, as inspiration. “It’s a similar sized city, with an urban stadium, just like Minneapolis,” Miller says. “The Super Bowl really revived the Indianapolis market and made it a premiere travel and convention destination. They’ve seen a 20 percent increase in conventions since they hosted the Super Bowl.”5

Miller points out that the Super Bowl isn’t just a one-day event. In addition to the 100,000 people who will visit downtown Minneapolis on game day, he expects an additional 1 million visitors in the 10 days leading up to it.6 The Host Committee plans to install fan experiences at the newly renovated Mall of America and will turn Nicollet Mall into “Super Bowl Boulevard,” in addition to syncing its schedule with other popular events such as the St. Paul Winter Carnival and the City of Lakes Loppet, in order to entertain the throng. Considering those numbers, Miller doesn’t think the $338 million projection is unrealistic. He also believes 2018 poses a real opportunity to showcase Minnesota to the world, and that’s a story that’s unusually close to his heart: After schlepping his family from city to city while working for the PGA, Miller says he and his wife have become so smitten with Minnesota that, even after the Super Bowl circus comes and goes, they’re staying for good.

“It’s a great place to live, a great place for business, the schools are amazing, it’s affordable,” he says. “People don’t know how incredible this place is, and I’m the perfect example. I’ve lived all over the country and we chose to make this our home.” What kind of price tag can you put on a story like that?

You hear it again and again: The benefits are incalculable. The gains uncountable. But if that’s the case, how is it possible to know when the expenses piling up on the other side of the balance sheet become too much?

And are we Minnesotans—usually so reticent—really ready for the world’s immeasurable gaze? What if we trip? What if there’s a blizzard?

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1992 Superbowl fans

Photo by Brian Peterson / © 1992 Star Tribune

We’ve been here before.

Between 1991 and 1992, the lucky stars of two Minnesota teams and the demigods of various local bid committees aligned to bring an historic number of sports events to the Twin Cities. In addition to the Twins’ World Series win and the North Stars’ appearance in the Stanley Cup Finals, those 24 months also saw the area play host to the NCAA Final Four (men’s and women’s), the NCAA Frozen Four, the Special Olympics, the PGA U.S. Open, and, in its northernmost incarnation ever, the Super Bowl.

“No community had ever hosted so many sporting events for so many visitors in so short a time as we did then,” recalls Dave Mona, the now-retired founder and chairman of the PR firm Weber Shandwick and current co-host of “The Sports Huddle” on WCCO. As part of the marketing team that helped guide the national media’s coverage of the Twin Cities during those early-’90s events, Mona says it would be an overstatement to say they introduced the world to Minneapolis. “We were already on the map,” he says, with the bravado of a longtime pitchman. Still, “it was a great opportunity to showcase the community and show everyone that we’re not just flyover country.”

Eight major tournaments in two years will do that. But then, as now, only one could make a true global impact. The Super Bowl was the biggest ball of all, the one the whole world watched.7 Minneapolis was its debutante, the rest of it just curtsy practice, and for one full week in January of 1992, the city happily bent itself into whichever position the camera called for.

Anyone wondering what downtown Minneapolis was like when the Super Bowl came to town would do well to seek out the book Contesting the Super Bowl by Dona Schwartz, then a faculty member at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. With the help of a team of photographers, Schwartz set out to document what she describes as a city “getting dressed for television.” The picture that emerges is a frenzy of pomp and flash. Banners hung from every perceivable facade—light poles, skyways, churches. Oversized inflatable Coca-Cola and Budweiser cans dotted downtown’s roofs. Corporate mascots roamed the streets. Campbell’s created the world’s largest bowl of soup. The Vikings cheerleaders got their own Guinness record by leading the world’s largest “outdoor exercise event.” The mannequins at Saks Fifth Avenue wore football helmets. Much of Schwartz’s photography feels like it belongs in an early-’90s time capsule:8 Zubaz and Rollerblades, mullets and bangs. Other photos prove that some things never change: Activists lined the streets outside the Metrodome to protest racism in sports (the Washington Redskins won that year). Inside, Donald Trump signed autographs in the stands.

Schwartz recalls being stunned by how little of the fuss had to do with the actual game of football. “It was such a small piece of this much larger constellation of activity,” she says. “It makes you truly appreciate the complexity of an industry that arose around a thing that used to be very simple, a game on a field.” Some of that may be attributed to overzealousness on the part of a host committee keenly aware that a Super Bowl had never been hosted this far north before.9 The skyway was vacuumed, purged of panhandlers, and filled instead with jugglers and magicians. The national press was shuttled to the Lafayette Club, where they rode snowmobiles and tried their hand at ice fishing.

In the end, after the cameras were turned off and the hotels emptied out, Schwartz cast around for evidence that the Super Bowl had improved the city in any meaningful way. She didn’t find much, though she did note that Carlson—the Minnetonka-based hospitality corporation whose chairwoman, Marilyn Carlson Nelson, had been instrumental in bringing the Super Bowl to Minnesota—had seen a bump in profits. “Yes, the spotlight was on Minneapolis for a brief moment,” she says. “But then the light goes out and goes somewhere else.”

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Members of the Washington Redskins carried coach Joe Gibbs off the field after the 1992 Super Bowl

Photo by Brian Peterson / © 1992 Star Tribune

A lot changes in 25 years, of course. Social media has reinvented the way people watch and digest sports. To fully appreciate what we can expect from this new golden age of Minnesota sports events, there are more recent events that may serve as evidence.  

As I write this, Major League Baseball’s All-Star festivities have just begun with the Home Run Derby, the annual vanity slug-fest that is held each year before the actual game. According to Twitter, Giancarlo Stanton is in the middle of making Derby history.10 Now, I’m a baseball fan. I follow the Twins as much as my digestive constitution allows. I’m no diehard, but the fact that I know who Giancarlo Stanton is makes me suspect I’m a bigger baseball fan than a majority of people reading this. And even as I follow along online, I have no idea what city is hosting the All-Star Game this year. None.

In 2014, when Target Field was the site of the All-Star Game, Minnesotans were told to expect the usual bounty from the baseball gods, both in hard cash and the softer currency of national esteem. As much as $75 million was projected to stream into the local economy as a result of the game—a number that Meet Minneapolis afterward lowered to $50 million.11 Our take in the esteem department was likely a fraction of what was promised as well, and yet, at the time, amidst the glitz of a thousand visiting camera lenses, it did feel as though the whole world was watching. Surely the millions of baseball fans who tuned into the game came away favorably impressed with, if not necessarily scrambling to book flights to, our fair city. Every establishing shot of the skyline at dusk, every cutaway to the Hennepin Avenue Bridge, every B-roll shot of a loon bobbing pleasantly on a lake—that all has to add up to some goodwill, right? Maybe they won’t have an impression of the schools, or the state budget surplus, or even where Minneapolis is on a map. At least they’ll know it’s on the map. But if that were the case, wouldn’t I know where this Homerun Derby was happening right now?12

No one expects Super Bowl 2018’s television audience to make its vacation or relocation plans based on a few glimpses of Minnesota in February. It’s the fans inside the stadium who are the real prize. In part, for their tourism spending (game tickets alone can run thousands of dollars), but more for the chance to woo this elite group. If they’re impressed by the Twin Cities, they might spread the word to their influential friends, or make a business decision favorable to us.13 That value certainly isn’t nothing. But how much something will it be? No one really knows.

If that is an unsatisfying answer, there are, thankfully, a couple of tangibles in all this.

A 2002 study out of the University of Maryland, Baltimore County showed that, while hosting the Super Bowl does almost nothing to boost the average annual income of a city’s residents, there is one factor that does: If a city’s NFL team wins the Super Bowl, its average per capita income rises by about $140.14

And according to Victor Matheson, the economist who specializes in Super Bowl impact: New research shows that hosting a mega event like the Super Bowl does have one positive effect on a city’s residents: It tends to increase their overall happiness.

That’s got to be worth something.  

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The Ryder Cup trophy

Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images


1. Per Kenneth McGill, chief economist at Rockport Analytics, who dutifully points out in his study that previous Super Bowl impact studies are often accused of exaggeration and his, therefore, is on the conservative side.

2. Nearly half of the stadium’s $1.1 billion bill was footed by the state of Minnesota and the city of Minneapolis after NFL officials and Vikings owner Zygi Wilf hinted that the football franchise could move to Los Angeles unless a deal was reached.

3. The NFL’s list of demands of a Super Bowl host city is 153 pages long. These demands include: 35,000 free parking spaces, suites and police escorts for NFL team owners, millions of dollars in sales tax rebates, free hotel suites, free access to local golf courses and bowling alleys, and all revenue from the game’s ticket sales. Plus: The Vikings must play one of their home games during the 2017-18 season in London instead of Minneapolis.

4. At least one city has gone back to do the accounting. Following the 2014 Super Bowl at MetLife Stadium, the Chamber of Commerce of East Rutherford, New Jersey, citing $7.5 million in sales tax rebates demanded by NFL and lost hotel revenue from fans opting to stay in New York instead of New Jersey, voted to never host another Super Bowl again.

5. Indianapolis also lost money on the Super Bowl—about $1 million. City officials considered it a small price to pay for the media exposure the city received, and in 2014 they bid for the game to return to Indianapolis. They lost to Minneapolis.

6. The Rockport Analytics study estimates 125,400 non-resident visitors to Minneapolis for the Super Bowl. Miller explains his seemingly sky-high projection as including regional and outstate visitors as well as national and international travelers who will attend the various subsidiary events throughout the city in the 10 days leading up to the game.

7. About 80 million people watched the Super Bowl in 1992. Last year: 114 million.

8. For a particularly cringe-worthy trip down memory lane, watch the 1992 Super Bowl Halftime Show on YouTube. Titled “Winter Magic,” it featured Dorothy Hamill and Brian Boitano, the 1980 Olympic hockey team, Gloria Estefan, 30 gymnasts, 375 dancers, a 60-piece symphony orchestra, ballroom dancers, stilt walkers, and four 30-foot inflatable snowmen dancing to a rap version of “Frosty the Snowman.” Quoth TV Guide: “A more appropriate title would have been ‘Winter Tragic.’” Nielsen ratings plummeted a full 10 points during the performance, and the following year the NFL booked Michael Jackson to perform, thus reinventing the Super Bowl Halftime Show into the pop music spectacle it remains today.

9. Of the 25 Super Bowl games prior to 1992, 23 were played in Florida, Louisiana, or California.

10. 61!?

11. The Minnesota Department of Revenue, having examined the tax data, estimates it was even less: $21 million.

12. Fine, I looked it up: Petco Park in San Diego. This has not improved my impression of the city of San Diego. Nor, to be fair, has it diminished it. I’m sure San Diego is lovely, and I regard it the way most Minnesotans do when confronted with a city whose climate is demonstrably more beautiful than our own: I tell myself, “It’s probably too hot in the summer.”

13. The NFL estimates that up to 65 percent of Super Bowl tickets go to corporate decision-makers. A big part of their pitch to host cities comes down to a simple equation: Show those ticket-holders your city can do events, and they’ll bring more events (and business) to your city.

14. In case you’re curious: Vegas puts the Vikings’ chances of winning the Super Bowl this year at 18-to-1. Skol Vikings!

Are you going to watch, or even attend, the Ryder Cup? Check out our spectator’s guide.

Watch this: Top 10 Ryder Cup Matches