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The Price for Super Bowl Volunteers

Jan 28, 2014 / Media Coverage / The New York Times — Tom Pedulla

Use of Volunteers Questioned as N.F.L. Revenue Soars

Volunteerism has become as much a part of the Super Bowl as the Roman numeral identification of games, allowing those who cannot attend the games to be a part of the festivities by welcoming those who can.

When the Super Bowl was last played in a cold-weather city, with the Giants edging the New England Patriots, 21-17, in Indianapolis to close the 2011 season, members of both teams were left with a warm and fuzzy feeling. They received blue-and-white scarves that were knitted by members of the community and that featured a logo patch sewn on by inmates at a local prison.

Alfred Kelly, the chief executive of the New York-New Jersey Super Bowl Host Committee, estimated that 9,000 residents of the metropolitan area would serve as volunteers in the days leading to Sunday’s N.F.L. title game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. That is far fewer than the 20,000 who were initially contemplated, leaving the committee to scramble to cover 80 locations, some with multiple posts. And the feel-good interaction between volunteers and chilled visitors is somewhat overshadowed by current and potential litigation.

The N.F.L. opted to hire temporary paid workers for positions in which volunteers had typically been used. The decision was an apparent response to a class-action suit brought by the firm Outten & Golden, which is based in Manhattan, against Major League Baseball, which did not pay volunteers at the All-Star FanFest at Javits Center in July.

“We are aware of the ongoing litigation against Major League Baseball,” said Brian McCarthy, an N.F.L. spokesman. “Due in part to the size and complexity of the Super Bowl, we determined that it was advisable to use paid staff in certain roles this year. We have hired 1,500 temporary paid staffers who will perform specific functions at N.F.L. events.”

With about $10 billion in annual revenue, the N.F.L. certainly has the wherewithal to pay workers. In fact, the N.F.L. is paying several thousand security workers to patrol Super Bowl Boulevard in Midtown Manhattan and has hired many vendors to provide other services. But in bidding to host the games, cities and teams put together a package of enticements, from hotel rooms to convention centers, and they often promise volunteers as a way to provide logistical support and local enthusiasm.

That help will be used at Super Bowl Boulevard, a 13-block stretch of Broadway from Herald Square to Times Square that has been turned into an outdoor festival. Paid workers will also be present at the media center and at various game-day events. It is unclear whether such staffing will become part of the cost of doing business for what is, by far, the most prosperous American sports league.

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Jose Francisco, 25, a volunteer from North Bergen, N.J., said volunteers were reminded several times at a mandatory three-hour orientation session that they had been accepted for unpaid positions. All were required to sign a waiver in which they agreed not to be part of a class-action suit seeking payment. The host committee estimated that the Super Bowl would attract 500,000 visitors who would pump $600 million into the local economy, although economists have expressed skepticism about those numbers.

Justin M. Swartz, a lawyer with Outten & Golden, said the N.F.L. might be vulnerable, despite the signing of waivers by volunteers in which they agreed not to be paid.

“The fact that the N.F.L. is paying some of its workers is laudable, but it also raises the question of why it is not paying all of its workers,” Swartz said. “The extra steps the N.F.L. is taking to protect itself make me even more suspicious.”

He said his firm was investigating the league’s use of volunteers at recent Super Bowls.

He said about 11,000 people answered the N.F.L.’s call to “join the world’s biggest huddle” and donate their time, a tradition that goes back to the first Super Bowl, after the 1966 season. The number dropped this year when not all of them signed up for shifts, which typically last four hours, and a few failed security background checks.

Despite that, Kelly said, the response ensured there would be enough friendly faces and helping hands at major sites like airports, hotels and various transportation hubs. Volunteers were out in full force Tuesday despite the bitter cold, from the media day in Newark to landmarks in New York City. They are not, however, used at the game.

Numerous volunteers said the host committee contacted them recently via email to ask whether they would devote additional hours. “People must be dropping out,” Francisco said. “It must be the cold weather.”

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