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Super Bowl
Big Game's Starting Lineup: Shovels, Plows

January 21, 2006; Page P4

DETROIT -- Two weeks before Super Bowl XL, Paul Ridgeway is worried about his opponent's ability to pile up, block running lanes and make passing nearly impossible. Mr. Ridgeway isn't a player or coach. He's the National Football League's man in charge of transportation. His foe: snow.

For the first time in 14 years and only the fourth time ever, the NFL is holding the Super Bowl north of Georgia, and if history is any indicator, Mr. Ridgeway had better bring his mittens. The NFL brought its showcase event to chilly Michigan once before, in 1982. Ice storms, gridlock and a wind chill of minus 27 almost made some players late for kickoff and kept many paying fans from getting there at all. "It was like an ice village," says Pat Summerall, who broadcast the game.

Ford Field in Detroit

So, this time around, the hosts are jumping through hoops to be sure the NFL's big gamble pays off come rain, shine or snow. The game will be played indoors, but the real concern is making sure ticketholders -- and the players -- can make it there. A brigade of more than 500 people will respond around the clock to commands from a state-of-the-art weather center. To clear areas that the several hundred pieces of snow-removal equipment can't get to, organizers are training 200 athletes from nearby Wayne State University as volunteer shovelers. And in the event of an emergency -- say, one of the team buses gets stuck en route to the stadium -- a "hit" squad of six plow professionals who normally clear snow from the track at Michigan International Speedway will swing into action.

Of course, Feb. 5 might well bring sunny skies and nary a flake. But Detroit's snowfall since Nov. 1 is more than seven inches above average, according to the National Weather Service. And it's snowed in Detroit on Feb. 5 in four of the last six years.

Despite the NFL's longstanding preference for warmer spots like Miami and New Orleans, the league gave Detroit this year's game even after 1982's weather problems. The main reason: Ford Field, a snazzy, $500 million enclosed stadium that opened in 2002. To encourage new stadiums -- and the money they generate -- the NFL often rewards cities that build brand-new facilities with its biggest event of the year.

Jim Steeg, who ran the Super Bowl when Detroit was given the game, says the city fell into the category of host cities whose selection "was important for the development of the league." An extra incentive in Detroit: The region's auto makers are among the NFL's biggest advertisers.

But for people making the trip, the Super Bowl isn't just a football game -- it's a weeklong party, a junket where the big shots of the sports and corporate worlds wine, dine and make deals. And there are some signs that the potential for ice in places besides cocktails is deterring some of the very bigwigs the event is meant to woo.

"People just don't want to come and stay in Detroit for three nights," says John Leggett, a partner in On Point Sports, a sports travel firm. He says about 90% of clients this year have booked trips of three nights or less; typically, Super Bowl travelers purchase packages of four nights or longer. And one trip that is selling fast -- a "high-roller" package that jets fans in and out of the city just for the game -- isn't exactly a ringing endorsement for the charms of a long stay in the Motor City.

Other travel companies have reported significant declines in business so far this year. David Lord, chief executive of RazorGator, whose PrimeSport subsidiary sells corporate hospitality packages for the Super Bowl, says several clients have opted to scale back their plans for this year's game and send a larger group next year to Miami. One of those clients, a major bank that Mr. Lord declined to identify, is bringing only 50 people to Detroit, compared with its usual 120 to 150.

TSE Sports and Entertainment this year has booked at least 100 fewer Super Bowl trips for corporate clients than the normal 450 to 500, and company president Robert Tuchman says many people are opting instead for Super Bowl-themed trips to Las Vegas or the Caribbean. One possible deterrent for the corporate crowd: The Super Bowl's traditional charity golf tourney has been replaced this year with an indoor pastime, bowling.

The stakes are huge, not only for the NFL, but even more so for Detroit. The Super Bowl and its accompanying media spotlight arrive smack dab in the midst of the hometown auto industry's most serious downturn in years. Both General Motors and Ford Motor are shedding thousands of jobs and facing grave financial problems. These are fresh blows to a city still working to recover from a history of crime and racial unrest going back decades.

"Detroit has had a bad rap nationally and internationally," says Al Fields, the city's interim chief operating officer, "and it all stems from things that have been happening since the '70s. We've been focusing on this as the carrot that drives permanent change in this city."

Regardless of whether some high rollers are skipping the trip, the Super Bowl is expected to bring more than 100,000 visitors. That could pump more than $300 million into the economy, according to a study by Lawrence Technological University in Southfield, Mich. It also puts the city in the global media spotlight. A good showing -- particularly in the face of adversity like a game-day blizzard -- could help Detroit shed its troubled image.

Other northern locales hoping for a Super Bowl payday will be watching closely what happens here. "If we do a good job here, which we will, it will open the doors to other markets," says Marc Koretzky, director of operations for the Super Bowl XL Host Committee. Indeed, the league already dangled the 2010 Super Bowl in front of New York to garner support for a new stadium in Manhattan for the Jets. And there has been a successful Super Bowl up north: The 1992 game, in frosty Minneapolis, went off pretty smoothly.

If the weather does get frightful, the burden of making the city and the league look good -- or at least avoid embarrassment -- falls on the Michigan Intelligent Transportation Systems Center in downtown Detroit. There, the state Department of Transportation and the NFL are transforming a conference room into a command center with communications equipment and a bank of television monitors that will deliver live, 360-degree views of every mile of roadway leading into Detroit, says Tony Kratofil, who's leading the state Department of Transportation's snow-removal effort.

Everywhere teams and media members travel while they're in town has three different routes mapped out in a 500-page binder, says D.J. Mackovets, the snow-removal manager for the NFL's transportation team. As weather data filter in, the people in the command center will determine which roads can be easily cleared for travel, where snow needs plowing and where that snow can be dumped.

Still, the city is embracing its climate and hoping for the best. The Motown Winter Blast, an outdoor festival winding through downtown Detroit, will feature ice skating, snowshoeing, dog sledding and a 200-foot-long snow slide. "We wanted to make it fun, where they go and expect to be cold and expect to see snow," says Susan Sherer, executive director of the Detroit Super Bowl XL Host Committee.

Write to Russell Adams at russell.adams@wsj.com

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