DETROIT - So for Super Bowl XL, the NFL actually chose to come here. “I never imagined Detroit would ever get a Super Bowl,” said Steelers center and one-time Detroit Lion Jeff Hartings.
And really, who would have?
Super Bowls are about so much more than the game. It’s the parties leading up to the game, and the selling of the city as a place to play for a week.
Many things come to mind with the Motor City, especially downtown Detroit, but few say “Party!” — at least, not in the way Super Bowl revelers think.
Yes, Hell has frozen over (OK, so it was Hell, Mich., a small town just northwest of Ann Arbor, and for the record, the average February temperature in Hell is 26 degrees).
“There’s no doubt Detroit has had its image issues and its problems — and it still has its problems — just like every big city does,” said George Zimmermann, a senior vice president for Travel Michigan and a member of the Super Bowl XL host committee. “But there has been so much done that has been positive in the last five years.”
There is a good reason the Super Bowl has come to Detroit, and it will be on display Sunday. Ford Field is a gorgeous new stadium and it’s domed to keep out the bad weather. The NFL loves it when one of its teams gets a new stadium, and the practice of late — no matter how the NFL likes to deflect the idea — is that if you build it, a Super Bowl will come.
This is the most important lesson to be learned, a notion driven home this week in the blustery cold of Detroit.
It’s not exactly following up a murderer’s row of Super Bowl cities, either. Two years ago the Patriots and Panthers battled in Houston. Last year, the Patriots and Eagles went to Jacksonville, Fla.
Both those cities were OK — and would collectively cringe if they knew they were being compared to Detroit — but there is definitely an excitement that the game will finally move to Miami next year and Arizona the year after that.
That, in some ways, has helped Detroit, too.
“I think people’s expectations were probably pretty low,” Zimmermann said. “And I think we will far exceed them.”
Sure, there were going to be the cheap shots, mentions of condemned buildings and burning cars. The city girded for the onslaught in different ways. Columnists for the local papers went on the preemptive defensive, apparently hoping if they threw out all the Letterman-esque oneliners, other writers wouldn’t.
Meanwhile, those working for the host committee have made sure at every turn to offer a smile and pleasantry for every visitor they have come across.
“One writer accused us of being too nice, or going out of our way to be nice,” Zimmermann said, “but that’s a nice problem to have.”
A confession of sorts, in the interest of full disclosure. I was born in Michigan, in a suburb of Detroit, and most of my relatives still live here. I’d rather see the city pull this off than not.
That said, it’s been people I know locally and not my fellow cynical journalists who have been the most harsh in judging whether Detroit is Super Bowl-worthy.
I mean, it’s never a great thing when the mayor decides to give native son Jerome Bettis of the Steelers a key to the city, only to have it pointed out that Detroit also once gave a key to the city to then-Iraqi president Saddam Hussein (back in 1980, when the U.S. still considered him on our side).
“I don’t know if I’ll be sharing that with Saddam,” Bettis said, laughing. “I think they canceled his key.”
There are real issues, of course. It only took a short route about a mile from the downtown convention center to see a bunch of boarded-up buildings and empty lots. One onlooker couldn’t believe an area so close to the heart of the city seemed like a ghost town.
And after talking about embracing the winter, the city can’t even get any snow for its Winter Blast event, making the area less inviting in some ways.
“I don’t think Detroit was on that destination list that a lot of people have,” Bettis said.
That will likely remain true, even after the Super Bowl is over.
At least the effort was there.