Super Bowl excess is back. After being hobbled by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, a sputtering economy and concerns about corporate greed the last two years, the National Football League championship game in Houston next Sunday will ooze a Texas-size lode of wealth and glitz.
Luxury suites at Reliant Stadium are selling for $175,000 on the Internet. Ticket brokers are charging fans $2,000 for a basic seat and $7,750 for a 50-yard line seat. For those who have them, tickets have a face value of $400 to $600.
Hotel rooms are available — 50 miles outside of town. Local steakhouses are booked from lunch until midnight. Hundreds of private jets are cleared to arrive in Houston this week, according to the NFL.
The corporate marketing fest is gearing up as well. Cadillac is flooding the streets with 400 vehicles for NFL VIPs and flying in partygoer Paris Hilton to schmooze with guests. Coors is co-hosting a giant party called Circus Maximus on a ranch. Budweiser, Nike, Pepsi, America Online and dozens of other NFL sponsors and non-sponsors are laying siege to the city.
Current and former astronauts will be on hand. So will the Clydesdales, Houston native Beyonce Knowles, Kid Rock, Willie Nelson, Janet Jackson and Tim McGraw. Playboy, Maxim and FHM magazines have planned big parties. Former Pittsburgh Steeler Franco Harris is throwing a bash at the Houston Palm Restaurant. In all, the NFL and Houston business community expects 120,000 visitors and $300 million in spending in southeast Texas this week.
"It's the ultimate collision of sports and entertainment and music and marketing," said John Collins, NFL senior vice president for marketing and sales. The only possible damper on the fun is what is expected to be a huge contingent of security officers who will check and re-check guests at events throughout the city to prevent a terrorist incident.
The last two years were more somber. Super Bowl XXXVI in New Orleans in 2002 was suffused with tension and sadness over the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Last year, following a succession of reports of corporate greed and waste, some companies pulled back, and good hotel rooms in San Diego were available right up to the game. Some called it the "Frugal Bowl."
This year, things are different.
"There's more of a comfort zone," said Anthony Ponturo, vice president of global media and sports marketing for Anheuser-Busch, which has bought $20 million in "in-game" Super Bowl television advertising — the top-price period between kickoff and final whistle. "In New Orleans right after 9/11, it was still a very sensitive time. This will be the third Super Bowl since that time, and I think everyone is willing to enjoy themselves a little more. The bigness is starting to come back."
The television commercials are big, too, costing $2.3 million for a 30-second spot — the pre-9/11 rate. The broadcast will reach about 130 million Americans.
"People sit back and say, '$2.2 million, $2.3 million, when can this end?' " said Len Short, executive vice president for brand marketing at AOL, which is spending $10 million on commercials and sponsorship of the Super Bowl halftime show. "It gets to be more of a cultural phenomenon every year . . . a great place to launch something."
Very few of the 50,000 hotel rooms in the eight-county Houston metropolitan area are still available, according to the Greater Houston Partnership. Latecomers are being directed to Galveston, about 55 miles south of the city.
"If you could find me a 1,500-room luxury hotel, we would gobble it up," said Jim Steeg, NFL senior vice president for special events and the Super Bowl "operations czar."
The NFL and the Houston Super Bowl host committee have a little more time to catch their breath and prepare for last-minute problems this year because of a two-week stretch between the NFL conference playoffs and Super Bowl XXXVIII. Only one week separated the events the last two years.
Each of the two teams — the New England Patriots and Carolina Panthers — receives 11,000 tickets for friends, family, employees and VIPs. The NFL reserved 575 hotel rooms for each team to distribute, but New England has pushed beyond 1,000 rooms.
"The demand is tremendous right now," Steeg said. "The Panthers organization is searching for rooms, and we found them something 45 miles out of town."
Security will be heavy, with up to 5,000 uniformed and private security forces patrolling the Houston area and Reliant Stadium, including local police and agents from the FBI, Secret Service, Postal Inspection Service, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms, and U.S. Customs Service, according to the NFL. Fans will face multiple screening points and metal detectors, and they will be encouraged to get to the stadium several hours before kickoff. There will be temporary airspace restrictions over the stadium, while barricades will surround the facility on the ground.
"While security will be substantial, it hopefully will seem seamless to the fans and will not override their game-day experience," said Milt Ahlerich, vice president of security for the NFL. "That's our goal and we have met that in the past two Super Bowls, so we have every expectation of meeting it for this Super Bowl."
Houston is also hoping for a comeback of sorts this week, planting 20,000 trees and showcasing a light-rail system that began operation Jan. 1. The sprawling oil town and port, the fourth-largest city in the country, has been associated with one blow after another the last few years, from the Enron corporate meltdown to the breakup of the Columbia space shuttle to the story of Andrea Yates, who drowned her five children.
"In the last several years, our bad news had been loud and our good news has been quiet," said Mayor Bill White. "This will be some loud, good news. It will be an opportunity for us to showcase what Houston has to offer to the corporate community."
Corporate hospitality always has been a key Super Bowl ingredient, and this year is no different. The NFL's corporate village had planned for about 3,500 guests and well-heeled fans at $500 a pop this year, but the league has blown through that and is searching for more space. Reliant Arena and the Reliant Astrodome are within 100 yards of the stadium and will be filled with corporate sponsors and fans. The league is expecting around 25,000 fans for a pregame party in the Astrodome on Super Bowl Sunday. In all, there are about 350,000 square feet — enough to cover 25 football fields — reserved for NFL sponsors and non-sponsors.
Cadillac, which is the official car of this year's game, is importing heiress and TV star Hilton, sportscaster Jimmy Kimmel and actors Jessica Alba, David Arquette and Anthony Anderson to appear at Cadillac-sponsored events. The dealers will get tickets to the game for themselves and their guests. The luxury carmaker even has a celebrity go-carting event planned and is giving the game's most valuable player the pick of any Cadillac in its lineup.
The automaker is flying in its top 200 dealers for business meetings, strategy sessions and pep talks from former NFL quarterbacks Phil Simms and Boomer Esiason. "We're taking over the town, baby," said Jeffrey Kuhlman, Cadillac's director of communications. Simms will be in town anyway, since he will be providing color analysis during CBS's broadcast of the game.
Coors Brewing Co. is co-sponsoring a tailgate party sprawling across a 16-block area in downtown Houston's historic district, which is expected draw hundreds of thousands of fans over five days. The company is flying in its trademark "Coors Light Twins" — two blondes who appear on TV ads — to push the brand, and company spokesman Kid Rock will be performing during halftime. Coors Light, Sony Computer Entertainment, Dodge Trucks and Maxim magazine for young men are sponsoring the Circus Maximus three-ring party next Friday, where hundreds of celebrities, sports stars and corporate types will take over a large ranch outside Houston. Maxim is billing the event as "a twisted version of the classic western spectacle."
Anheuser-Busch, which has an agreement with CBS that prohibits any other beer companies from advertising during the game, was ousted by Coors last year as the league's "official beer" when the Colorado brewer signed a reported five-year, $300 million deal with the league. Nevertheless, fans won't be able to move much around Houston without running into a Budweiser promotion. In addition to five minutes of new commercials debuting during the game, the beer giant will be sponsoring two free concerts at Minute Maid Park (formerly Enron Field), home to the Houston Astros, and will be entertaining about 200 customers during the week.
"We think that as the NFL's largest sponsor across everything they do, that we should be a very warmly invited guest," Anheuser-Busch's Ponturo said.