In 2013, the Vikings went 5-10-1, started three different quarterbacks and had the worst-scoring defense in football. Five months after that season ended, the NFL announced that Super Bowl LII would be played in Minnesota’s new $1.1 billion stadium in February 2018.
The NFL can’t predict how good or bad the future host team will be years down the road, but in 51 tries they’ve been fortunate—a franchise has never played for a Super Bowl title at its home stadium. That luck may be running out this winter.
The Vikings are making history—and a headache—for the NFL as it preps for its 52nd iteration of the biggest annual sporting event in the country. No Super Bowl host has ever played a divisional-round game at home, but Minnesota will do just that on Jan. 14. To top it off, the Vikings have a chance at hosting the NFC title game should top-seeded Philadelphia lose the same weekend.
Even after considering the obstacles of moving around the Vikings to begin Super Bowl prep at U.S. Bank Stadium, there’s the very realistic hurdle of seeing another first: What if the Vikings are in Super Bowl LII?
“We’re watching it closely, no question about it, and we have been for a while,” Peter O’Reilly, the league’s senior vice president of events, told me last month as he prepares for his fourth Super Bowl in this role. “The good thing is there is a really detailed contingency plan in place that hasn’t had to be rolled out before, but is in place. We’ve been talking with the Vikings and the host committee throughout the back-half of this regular season on a regular basis on all the different scenarios. It adds another factor for sure, but we feel good about the planning in place.”
Only seven times in the Super Bowl era has the host stadium’s team been in the playoffs before this season. Four of those teams played a home playoff game—the 2016 Texans and the 1978, ’94 and ’98 Dolphins—and all lost in the divisional round on the road.
“It’s tough to describe but I know when we went through it, I never really panicked because I was never really worried,” says Jim Steeg, the NFL’s senior vice president of special events from 1979-2005. “OK, if Miami gets in, they have to win two road games to get there. OK. The chances of that happening are not too great.”
Even with the Texans in the playoffs last year, the Super Bowl hosting committee didn’t have to worry much. No. 4-seed Houston beat Oakland in the wild-card round on Jan. 7, but with the No. 6-seed Dolphins losing, there was no chance at them hosting a playoff game before the Super Bowl.
Usually, as soon as the regular season ends, the league will go to the stadium hosting the Super Bowl to start preparations. So what exactly needs to happen in the Super Bowl host stadium before the big game?
Booths for international broadcasters will need to be built out. So, too, will the auxiliary press box, usually in an upper-level corner of the stadium, which could impact ticket sales in a conference title game. Special lighting elements for the halftime show have to be installed and rigged. There will need to be locker room setups and buildouts for the large press conference areas.
Then consider the exterior of the stadium. The league must build out the security perimeter around U.S. Bank Stadium that will likely absorb hundreds of parking spots as well as making room for the additional television trucks needed to broadcast a playoff game.
“[There are] a number of things we’ll end up waiting on until that last playoff game is played and then start the work then,” O’Reilly says. “It’ll cause us to probably increase our manpower and everything that goes into that, but we have each of those scenarios laid out and are confident in our ability to get the work done.”
O’Reilly says that those working to prepare the stadium for the Super Bowl won’t be stepping on Vikings’ toes as they continue to prepare for the playoffs, but the deeper Minnesota goes in the playoffs, the more difficult it will be to see that optimism translate into reality.
But the elephant in the room is the one the league has never had to address—home-field advantage. Twice before the league has hosted a Super Bowl at a stadium located close to one of its participants, but never anything like this. The 1979 Los Angeles Rams lost Super Bowl XIV to the Steelers at the Rose Bowl, just 15 miles from L.A. Memorial Coliseum. And the 1984 49ers won Super Bowl XIX against the Dolphins at Stanford Stadium, 30 miles from Candlestick Park.
Some hurdles were easy. The host team usually gets 15% of the tickets, but the NFL split that up between both teams. Both the Rams and 49ers, after initially saying they would stay at home rather than a hotel, were in their hotels by Wednesday of Super Bowl week, Steeg says. But the league also blocks out hotel rooms for visiting fans, and in Super Bowl XIV, Steeg says “we lied like hell” in advertising and marketing to convince Steelers fans that Irvine was close to Pasadena. In reality the two cities are 55 miles apart but hey, the league had hotels they had to get sold.
Then there’s the question of competitive (dis)advantages. In Super Bowl XIX, the two practice facilities were at Candlestick and Oakland Coliseum. Bill Walsh opted to stay at home and the league allowed it. The Rams also practiced at home during the team’s Super Bowl week.
“The other team can be upset but they have their own problems to worry about,” Steeg says. “In [Don] Shula’s case, I’m going to worry about myself I’m not going to worry about what they’re going through and what they have to do.”
For Super Bowl LII, the NFC champion is assigned to practice at the University of Minnesota’s indoor facilities, while the AFC winners will be at the Vikings’ Winter Park facility. But should the Vikings reach Super Bowl LII, that will flip, allowing Minnesota to practice at its home facility.
“We are very focused on making sure that the two facilities are equitable, and our football operations side takes a lot of time to make sure the two facilities that we’re delivering to the two Super Bowl teams have equivalent facilities in terms of space, opportunity for meeting rooms and access to facilities and weight rooms,” O’Reilly says. “A lot of time and energy goes into that. If you’re in your own facility it’s what you know and you’re comfortable with that.
“We stress everything that we do, whether that’s hotels or otherwise creating equity between the two participating teams and that would continue to be the lens through which we would look should this scenario play out.”
O’Reilly and the NFL have experience firing off a plan never before used. Last year they saw their first-ever Super Bowl overtime. The rules and operations of overtime were easily spelled out, but what about the coin flip?
Former president George H.W. Bush flipped the coin at the beginning of the game. He saved the commemorative coin for his library, and when it became clear the Super Bowl may go to overtime, O’Reilly knew they couldn’t ask the 41st President for the coin back. So they got on the radio, calmly located the backup special coin and used that one for the overtime flip.
“The contingency worked there,” O’Reilly says, “and then we feel confident in the plans we have in place should it come to fruition here.”