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The Woman Who Shined the Super Bowl Spotlight on Minnesota

The NFL doesn’t often put its biggest game in a city whose temperatures regularly sit below freezing in February. Maureen Bausch, the CEO of the Minneapolis Super Bowl Host Committee, is working to make sure that Super Bowl LII will be remembered for more than just the cold.

Getty Images/Ringer Illustration

More than 18 months after its construction, U.S. Bank Stadium still stands out from the Minneapolis skyline. Crossing the Mississippi River on the Interstate 35 West bridge, one sees the sun glinting off the side of the stadium; a drive down Chicago Avenue offers a glimpse of the 160-foot long “Legacy Ship” (a replica of a longship with a 55-foot-tall video board in place of its sail); and standing in the Portland Avenue Commons, it’s impossible to miss the stadium’s northwest wall — made up of the largest pivoting glass doors in the world. But perhaps the best view comes through the window in Maureen Bausch’s office, on the 11th floor of U.S. Bank Plaza’s north building, half a mile northwest of the stadium.

From her desk, the structure looms a few blocks in the distance, shaded by clouds on an August afternoon. The western video board is straight ahead, flashing purple and blue, showing the giant block letters “LII” surrounding an image of the Lombardi Trophy. For Bausch, it’s a constant reminder of what her committee is working toward: making sure the Minneapolis-hosted Super Bowl LII makes as much of an impression as the stadium hosting it.

“We’re doing things that no other states have done that have hosted a Super Bowl,” Bausch said. “I hope people realize that and walk away … going, ‘Wow, I’d like to go back there.’”

Bausch is the CEO of Minnesota’s Super Bowl Host Committee, the group that has made Super Bowl LII a reality in the Twin Cities. She and her team are responsible for planning the week of events surrounding the game, and for making sure that the city is prepared for an influx of potentially more than a million people. (According to an Arizona State University study, in 2015 more than 1.5 million people came to Phoenix and Scottsdale for Super Bowl week.)

Her role on the SBHC is largely big-picture — instead of getting bogged down in the day-to-day minutiae of planning an event so large (she said when she does get too caught up in the details, it ends in “disaster”), her job is to “step back and look at where we have issues, what should we be worried about, what needs a little extra care.” Her eyes are on everything — she communicates with hundreds of organizations on a weekly basis and oversees 29-plus committees — ensuring that all the pieces fit together to create a cohesive, safe, and fun experience.

Minneapolis last hosted the Super Bowl in 1992, when Washington beat Buffalo 37–24 — the second of the Bills’ four straight Super Bowl losses. The NFL doesn’t generally favor cold-weather Super Bowl locales, and Minnesota in February tends to redefine the word “cold.” Average low temperatures for the Twin Cities in January hover around 8 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chills often making it feel much colder. (Near the time of publication, the Weather.com forecast for February 4 showed a high of 12 degrees and a low of minus-1.) Snowstorms — like the one that left the metro area blanketed in 12 inches of snow earlier this week — can hit so hard that even an airport well equipped to deal with winter weather like Minneapolis–Saint Paul International airport is forced to shut down for hours at a time.

Unlike a game in, say, Miami or New Orleans, it was always going to be an uphill battle trying to plan a massive, weeklong event in Minneapolis in the middle of winter. And in the three years since Minneapolis won the bid, Bausch has been working to create an event that will have a legacy beyond the cold and snow.

In May 2014, host committee cochairs Richard Davis and Marilyn Carlson Nelson presented Minneapolis’s Super Bowl bid at the NFL owners meetings in Atlanta. With Nelson and Davis waiting for the owners’ decision in a room next to the New Orleans contingent, Minneapolis was considered a long shot.

“All the TV cameras and print press reporters had stationed themselves outside the little reception room that New Orleans was in,” said Nelson. “And [when] we won the bid, it was a scramble. They had to all move over in the hall outside and get outside of our room.”

Minnesota’s soon-to-be-built billion-dollar stadium was the main draw of its bid, but Bausch said that the committee’s presentation to the NFL owners was aided by a bit of coincidence. The presentation took place on the birthday of Bud Grant, the Vikings coach who led the team to three Super Bowl appearances during the 1973 to 1976 seasons. According to Bausch, teams are given exactly 45 minutes to present, and at the 44:30 mark, Davis and Nelson used Grant’s 87th birthday to their advantage.

“[Davis] said, ‘I just want you to know, it’s Bud Grant’s birthday,’” Bausch said. “And [Nelson] didn’t miss a beat — this is how quick [she is] — she’s like, ‘And I know what he wants for his birthday.’ So of course [the owners] are all his contemporaries. Bud is a legend. So that’s how we won the bid.”

U.S. Bank Stadium
U.S. Bank Stadium
Photo by AaronP/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images

U.S. Bank Stadium was built to host events like this. A rundown of facts and figures about the then-theoretical stadium from 2013 says it has the “capability to host more events than any other large stadium in the world, including NFL football and a Super Bowl, MLS soccer, NCAA basketball and baseball, high school sporting events, motocross, concerts, conventions, marching band competitions,” and the first clear roof on a stadium in the United States.

But getting the stadium built was a legislative and civic roller coaster. Proposals for the Vikings’ new home saw the planned location move from downtown Minneapolis to Arden Hills — 10 miles northeast of the city — back to Minneapolis and the site of the Metrodome, where it now sits. The plan eventually approved by the Minnesota Legislature and later the Minneapolis City Council estimated that the stadium would cost $975 million, with roughly half of that money coming from taxpayers. That’s less than what Atlanta and Las Vegas pledged to build their new football stadiums — about $700 million and $750 million, respectively, in public funding — but even after the plan was approved, local groups continued to fight against it. A lawsuit filed by three petitioners over a sale of public bonds intended to finance part of the stadium made it to the state Supreme Court, but was eventually thrown out. Up the stadium went.

It’s largely served its intended purpose. Minneapolis won the Super Bowl LII bid, and the stadium will host the NCAA Final Four in 2019. It’s an appealing building, inside and out, and so far it’s been a draw for the city.

“The stadium is bold, and they won the [Super Bowl] bid based on the fact that they had a bold new stadium,” Bausch said. “Everybody likes to play in a new stadium.”

The stadium’s design also served as the inspiration for Super Bowl LII’s slogan: “Bold North.” Bausch worked with Wendy Blackshaw, senior vice president of marketing and sales for the SBHC, to create a campaign that would set Minnesota apart from the Midwest, and they got an initial idea from Eric Dayton, son of Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton. The younger Dayton had been traveling through Scandinavia and found similarities in the way Scandinavians and Minnesotans seemed to revel in harsh winters. He came back with the notion that Minnesota was not really part of the Midwest — it was a separate entity: the North.

“[Dayton had] been on USA Today, he’d been on CNN talking about the whole North movement, and so we liked that idea,” Blackshaw said. “And when we were thinking about how to position our Super Bowl and our market to the rest of the world, Maureen said, ‘Well, what about Bold North?’ And I was like, ‘Oh, I just don’t think that’s a very good idea. I really don’t like that.’ OK, it’s now become iconic.”

It helped that the phrase “the North” was already being thrown around in popular culture, thanks to Game of Thrones. That wintry, northern imagery has been associated with the Minneapolis Super Bowl from the start, and the color scheme — a blend of blue and purple — was designed to conjure the northern lights. Its 10,000 volunteers will be wearing those colors during the lead-up to the games, and even the SBHC’s offices are painted a deep shade of purple. The NFL has also gone full Game of Thrones in its recent playoff commercial, titled “The Will to Survive,” showing players like Saints receiver Michael Thomas, Broncos pass rusher Von Miller, and Texans receiver DeAndre Hopkins making their way across a landscape not unlike that which lies beyond the Wall in the show, trying to reach U.S. Bank Stadium.

And as that imagery has started to resemble reality in Minneapolis, the host committee has embraced it, planning a number of winter activities for fans and media to experience next week. A “Bold North Zip Line” has been set up next to the Hennepin Avenue Bridge where daredevils can zip 100 feet in the air over the Mississippi River. The 200-foot American Birkebeiner International Bridge was brought in from Hayward, Wisconsin, and set up over Ninth Street on the 12-block retail and entertainment district known as Nicollet Mall for visitors to ski, tube, or skijor across. Ford is sponsoring a sleigh ride, and a 150,000-pound LII-shaped ice sculpture will loom over Nicollet Mall for the week.

But one of Bausch’s primary focuses of the past few years has been working with communities around the state to use the Super Bowl’s influence for some home improvement. The NFL gives the host city $1 million in grant funding for charitable projects, and the city is expected to match that total by raising its own money, too. Bausch’s committee went beyond that minimum by setting up the Super Bowl Legacy Fund — a nonprofit organization that provides funding to communities and programs that promote health and wellness for children around the state. Through the Legacy Fund, Bausch’s group created a 52 Weeks of Giving program, which gave a grant to aid a new community each week for a year. By Super Bowl Sunday, the Legacy Fund will have given out 52 grants across the state, totaling $5.5 million.

The fund has given grants to modernize playgrounds and build skate parks; funded a trailer that will deliver healthful food to more than 177,000 children through Second Harvest Heartland; provided a grant for a food truck for Minneapolis Public Schools that will distribute healthful, free meals to students under 18; and given a grant to the Prairie Island Indian Community to create a community gathering place. Bausch said it focused on affecting communities across the state, and on projects that would be sustainable for seven to 10 years.

“In the beginning we said, could we afford to give 52 grants? We aren’t as big a market as far as financially as … California,” Bausch said. “In the back of our mind we kept saying, ‘Could we do 52 grants? That would be really cool.’” Bausch’s team contacted the Minnesota departments of health and education for ideas on how they could help, and the committee just so happened to receive exactly 52 grant suggestions in response. “We were like, ‘Oh my god, that’s karma.’”

DigitalGlobe satellite image downtown Minneapolis and U.S. Bank Stadium - home to Super Bowl LII.
A satellite image of downtown Minneapolis and U.S. Bank Stadium
Photo DigitalGlobe via Getty Images

It’s late August, and Bausch’s daughters, Heidi, 32, and Elle, 24, are at Minneapolis’s City Center interviewing to become Super Bowl volunteers. The process to apply to volunteer for the Super Bowl is extensive and includes a background check, a face-to-face interview, and orientation trainings once you’ve been approved. Still, more than 30,000 people applied for the 10,000 available spots, including more than 9,000 people who signed up within the first 48 hours.

The City Center, two blocks from Target Center in Central Minneapolis, serves as the base of operations for Crew 52, the name of the volunteer team. In January and early February, the space is a sort of home base/warming center for volunteers, but in the summer it’s where applicants have their face-to-face interviews. The first step when the potential volunteers arrive is a group introduction and an informational film. Bausch and I are there to follow her daughters through the process, so we settle in at the back of the holding area, and Bausch types on her phone as the host introduces himself. He hits play on the video, and Bausch’s face fills the screen. As soon as she hears her own voice — thanking the potential volunteers and giving them an idea of what they’re in for — Bausch looks up from her phone, takes off her glasses, smiles, and glares at the screen. She recorded this video, but she’s never watched it before.

After a few minutes the video ends — with the screen paused on an image of Bausch she deems unflattering — and the volunteers are seated for their interviews. Bausch sneaks up to the tables her daughters are seated at — first Elle’s, then Heidi’s — performing her motherly duty of embarrassing her kids in a professional setting. On Heidi’s table sits three candy bars brought in by an earlier volunteer: a Milky Way, a Snickers, and a 3 Musketeers. Taped to the bars are Post-it notes detailing the history of the candy and how each was created by Frank C. Mars, a Minnesotan who founded Mars Inc. Bausch smiles and tells the interviewer that, actually, as fate may have it, her family legend says that her great-aunt Florence was married to a Mars. (It’s unclear whether he was a Mars himself or just the right-hand man of Forrest Mars Sr., Frank’s son.)

Throughout the afternoon, it becomes clear why Bausch was chosen for her position. She moves through interactions with ease, making small talk with everyone she comes across. She seems to have an answer for every question and solution for every problem, and an air of authority — one that she doesn’t have to wield. People describe her with a kind of deference — the fact that she’s loosely related to Minnesota royalty is really just chocolate on the nougat.

“Maureen had all the qualities and experiences we were looking for,” Nelson said. “She also seems to be indefatigable. … And … she’s warm and enthusiastic and extremely creative.”

Bausch was hired in November 2014 by Davis and Nelson, who served as the committee’s CEO for the 1992 Super Bowl, held in the now-demolished Metrodome. The cochairs were looking for someone who could market Minneapolis, St. Paul, and Bloomington.

Before accepting the job leading the Super Bowl Host Committee, Bausch spent 24 years working in marketing for Minnesota’s greatest attraction: the Mall of America. She was hired as the director of public relations in 1990, two years before the mall opened, and over the decades she worked her way up to become the executive vice president of business development — a position she held for eight years.

NFL: Super Bowl LI-Houston Host Committee Handoff Ceremeony
Maureen Bausch
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

In the early ’90s, Bausch’s challenge was turning the newly opened mall into more than just a 4.2 million-square-foot shopping center — it needed to become a destination. As she climbed the corporate ladder, she helped grow the mall’s reach until it attracted more than 40 million annual visitors, and she continued to aim for growth into the 2000s. She brought in Nickelodeon to sponsor the mall’s 7-acre indoor amusement park in 2007. She helped formulate the marketing plan for the mall’s $350 million expansion in 2015; Dan Jasper, the mall’s vice president of communications, said they plan to go off of that blueprint in communicating the mall’s next major project — an expected $500 million expansion. She also worked closely with the Vikings beginning in 2009  on another kind of sponsorship deal.

The team was still playing in the Metrodome at that point, and the Minnesota Twins were leaving after the 2009 season to play across town in their new stadium. The Vikings had an opportunity to rebrand their field, and the team presented an idea to Bausch to get the mall involved. Bausch ran the idea past the mall’s ownership, and by the start of the 2010 NFL season, the Vikings’ home turf officially donned the easily digestible name “Mall of America Field at the Hubert H. Humphrey Metrodome.”

“It was one of the best decisions we ever made,” Bausch said, “because we were heading into a recession. We didn’t know the extent. We ended up increasing our sales during the recession, and we credit that deal, because it got us into the sports arena — no pun intended. … I don’t think I would have this job without the Vikings. They recommended me, and it was because of my experience with them that I got to know the power of the NFL brand.”

Many of Bausch’s old hires and teammates still serve in leadership roles at the mall, and Jasper said it was a surprise when she called him into her office and shared the news that she was moving on.

“She’d been here forever. She was a Mall of America institution,” Jasper said. “[But] even in that first meeting when she told us, she was talking about the possibilities that the Super Bowl puts Minnesota in the spotlight for the entire world.”

The NFL has never had a team play in a Super Bowl at its home stadium, but the 2017 Vikings appeared to be something special. After quarterback Sam Bradford went down with a mysterious knee injury and sensational rookie running back Dalvin Cook tore his ACL in Week 4, backup quarterback Case Keenum and running back Latavius Murray — both free-agent signings in the offseason — took over on offense, with Jerick McKinnon sharing the rushing load. The team won their next eight games, and Minnesota finished the regular season atop the NFC North with a 13–3 record, good for second overall in the NFC.

Minnesota earned a first-round bye and then hosted the Saints in a divisional round game. The Vikings sprinted out to a 17–0 lead at halftime — the first scoreless half for New Orleans in more than three years — but the Saints rallied back, and with 25 seconds to play, kicker Wil Lutz hit a 43-yard field goal to put New Orleans up 24–23. Then, just as the Vikings were running out of hope, this happened:

Keenum and receiver Stefon Diggs connected for a 61-yard walk-off touchdown that was quickly dubbed the “Minnesota Miracle,” and it looked like the Vikings’ dream of playing at home for a Super Bowl was destined.

“It was a brief moment of excitement, to be real honest, because we weren’t expecting it,” Bausch, a lifelong Vikings fan, said. “And then after [the divisional round] game, it was like, ‘Oh my god, it’s within reach! We can get there, we can get there!’”

But the Vikings went into Philadelphia for the NFC championship game on Sunday and got throttled. They lost 38–7, putting zero points on the board after their opening drive. The home Super Bowl curse continues, and the Eagles will meet the Patriots on February 4 to play for the NFL title.

So the Vikings will not be playing two Sundays from now, and somehow the hometown narrative has been shifted onto the face of one of the most dominant sports dynasties in history, Tom Brady, whose mother grew up in Browerville, Minnesota, and who said he grew up “fishing in the summer, ice fishing in the winter, and [milking] the cows” on his grandparents’ farm there. But though the purple and gold may be limited around the Twin Cities next week, and the Skol chants few and far between, the event has already affected communities and groups across the state.

After the NFC championship game, Bausch said she logged onto Facebook to check the activity on the Crew 52 group page. There, volunteers can ask questions, post messages, and connect with one another. She said she found hundreds of messages from volunteers encouraging one another to mourn the loss of their team, yes, but to still help rally behind putting on the Super Bowl. One message in particular, from a volunteer named Keith Martinson, stood out.

“He said, ‘OK, the Vikings lost. We all knew this was a possibility. It’s OK to be sad, angry, and depressed for a bit. I totally get it. But remember: We have a job to do. Let’s represent Minnesota, the host committee, and the Super Bowl in the best way we know how — by being friendly, helpful, and respectful to every guest out there. Let’s dust ourselves off, hold our heads high, and show the NFL that picking us to host the Super Bowl was a perfect decision.’”

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