Even as momentum continues to build against Arizona's controversial bill that would allow businesses to deny service to gay couples on religious grounds, the NFL on Wednesday morning began investigating the necessary steps to move next season's Super Bowl from the Phoenix area, if the proposal becomes law, a source close to the situation confirmed.
The Tampa Bay area finished as the runner-up and was the only other finalist in the bidding for Super Bowl XLIX, which was awarded to Arizona in October 2011, and would in all likelihood be the NFL's first option for relocating the game at this relatively late date. Next season's Super Bowl is scheduled to be played at University of Phoenix Stadium in suburban Glendale, Ariz., but the religious rights measure known as Senate Bill 1062 might jeopardize the area's host duties.
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer has until the end of the day Saturday to veto the bill, sign it into law, or ignore it. While a host of Arizona business leaders this week have urged Brewer to veto the proposal, the NFL is taking seriously the possibility that it will become law, likely prompting the league to pull the plug on an Arizona Super Bowl for the second time in its history.
The NFL moved its 1993 Super Bowl from the Phoenix area to the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, Calif., in reaction to Arizona voting down the effort to establish a state holiday in honor of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in the fall of 1990. After the King holiday measure passed in 1992, the NFL awarded its 1996 Super Bowl to Tempe's Sun Devil Stadium.
Could history be repeating itself in Arizona's always hotly contested political climate? The NFL remains hopeful of the bill's demise, but the league's senior level staff has begun grappling with the daunting logistical scenario of moving its showcase event elsewhere less than a year before the game is played, and after 28 months of planning have already gone into the Arizona effort.
"No one wants to do this, but if the league's hand is forced, it would have to begin preparing for that process,'' the source close to the situation said. "If this doesn't get vetoed, it has to know, what has to be done next? That discussion has begun.
"Two weeks ago no one would have been discussing who finished second in the 2014 Super Bowl bid process. So that's what changed. The NFL has to know the possibility, however remote, that it would have to move the game and begin preparations to do that. It would be imprudent not to begin that process.''
As in the awarding process, the final decision to move the Super Bowl would fall to NFL team owners, and 24 of the 32 ownership groups would have to vote in favor of such an option. The Tampa Bay area has hosted four previous Super Bowls, with the most recent in 2009, the year after the game was last played in Arizona. A second ballot was needed before Arizona prevailed in the voting in October 2011, with neither bid gaining the necessary three-fourths vote on the first ballot. Arizona won on a simple majority vote on the second ballot.
The role of hosting a Super Bowl has grown to a monstrously sized operation and the logistics of moving the game at this point would be considerably more complex than they were when the NFL stripped the game from Arizona in the early '90s. The first of hundreds of steps would be making sure there are no conflicts with the use of the new stadium site next winter -- Tampa's Raymond James Stadium -- and ensuring the area's community and political leaders are open to pinch-hitting on such short notice.
The league has begun reviewing the details of Tampa Bay's host bid of late 2011 and will take steps to put an accelerated relocation plan in place, should Arizona's SB 1062 become law and the league's owners vote to move the game. Tampa Bay is seen as the league's first option for the substitute host duties, but it is by no means the NFL's only potential site.
"It's a big undertaking and one the league would very much like to avoid,'' the source said. "It'd be incredibly logistically challenging to pull it off and no one's even sure if it's possible. Some expert would have to make a decision on that at some point, but the game's going to be played somewhere next year.''
The NFL has not taken a public stance for or against the bill, other than issuing a statement this week that pointed out its "policies emphasize tolerance and inclusiveness, and prohibit discrimination based on age, gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, or any other improper standard.'' But the league feels confident that its message to Gov. Brewer has been conveyed by both the Arizona Super Bowl host committee, and the management of the host club, the Arizona Cardinals. Both issued statements of opposition to the bill in recent days.
Those two local entities certainly represent the league's sentiments, and for now, with the bill still on Brewer's desk, the NFL does not want to appear to be exerting any overt pressure on the governor's decision-making process -- other than starting to identify the next steps in the what-if scenario of moving the game.
Losing the Super Bowl would actually represent a double whammy for Arizona, because the NFL is leaning toward holding its all-star game, the Pro Bowl, in the same city as the Super Bowl next winter. No matter where the Super Bowl is played. Though no final decisions have been made -- and there's still a shot the game could return to its near-annual home in Honolulu -- the Pro Bowl will probably be played in Glendale the Sunday before the Super Bowl, as a more high-profile kickoff to Super Bowl week. The league tried that format in early 2010, in South Florida, the week before the Saints beat the Colts in Super Bowl XLIV.
With the league encouraged by the improved competitiveness and quality of play in last season's all-star exhibition, played in Hawaii in January with a new draft format for the rosters, the Pro Bowl is likely to continue -- a fate that seemed uncertain two years ago when commissioner Roger Goodell discussed doing away with the event. But the NFL has said the Pro Bowl held in South Florida four years ago was its highest-attended all-star game of recent vintage, with better sponsorship and some Super Bowl week buzz created by an actual game, rather than just the two Super Bowl teams arriving and deplaning the previous Sunday.
With the Pro Bowl in Arizona likely, the NFL hopes the game serves as yet another carrot at the end of the stick for Arizona as the Super Bowl host, in that the all-star game would generate that much more in tourism dollars and exposure for the Phoenix area. Many Arizona business leaders have come out strongly against the bill, believing it would deal a significant blow to economic growth in a state that has been hit hard by unemployment in recent years. The estimated economic impact of the Super Bowl being played in Arizona in 2008 was more than $500 million, according to Cardinals team president Michael Bidwill, who has said he expects even greater Super Bowl-related economic impact in 2015.