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What it’s really like to go to the Super Bowl

For many people, attending the Super Bowl is likely a dream unrealized — Sunday’s game might be the most expensive one yet, with average ticket prices nearing $10,000.

That doesn’t mean NFL fans will stop fantasizing about what goes on inside the stadium: What is it really like in an arena teeming with mega-fans, hobnobbing corporate execs, people there just for the spectacle and celebrities wanting to be seen? Are the halftime shows as impressive in person? And what’s a Super Bowl without constant cuts to its hotly anticipated commercials?

If you’re one of the over 100 million Americans tuning in to watch the Kansas City Chiefs versus the San Francisco 49ers on Sunday, but wonder what it’s like to attend in person, take it from the people who’ve been.

There’s the first-time Super Bowl attendee who’d never been to a NFL match in her life — and who watched the Big Game in the thick of the pandemic. Two Super Bowl spectators scored tickets through their employers, but only one of them came away with happy memories. And one lifelong fan is grateful he saw his team win, but he’d never go again.

These Super Bowl veterans both loved and loathed their time at the biggest game of the year. Here’s what they learned from their frequently surprising, often expensive and occasionally overwhelming — for better or worse — stints at the Super Bowl.

The person who attended the Super Bowl nine times

Mike Quackenbush has been to the Super Bowl nine times — but he didn’t personally pay for tickets because, technically, he was there on business.

The NFL Players Association, the labor union that represents the league’s players, was a client of the firm where Quackenbush worked as a CPA in the ’90s. Quackenbush happened to be the union’s main point of contact. This connection allowed him and his friends to attend numerous Super Bowls throughout the decade.

His first Super Bowl experience was in 1992, when his hometown team — then the Washington Redskins — faced off against the Buffalo Bills. He got tickets to various private parties leading up to the big event, snuck into a private box during the game and ultimately saw his team crowned champions.

In the years after, though, he didn’t have a team in the Super Bowl. Going to the game is still a great experience, Quackenbush said, but the vibe is not what people might expect. He estimates only about half of attendees are avid fans rooting for their teams, while the other half couldn’t care less about the outcome.

“It’s sort of a letdown,” he said. “The most fun for me was attending parties that lead up to the game.”

Going to these events gave him stories and experiences he’ll never forget, like the time he was waved into famed quarterback Peyton Manning’s private event. But these days, he doesn’t have much interest in going.

“When you have to pay $10,000 for a ticket or whatever the going rate may be, that’s a lot of money for a game like that,” he said. “If you don’t have a team, it’s not worth it. But if your team’s in it, go and experience it. It’s a great event and I was super lucky to go all those years.”

The first-time Super Bowl attendee who went during the pandemic

Chelsea Bear was all smiles at the 2021 Super Bowl. - Courtesy Chelsea Bear
Chelsea Bear was all smiles at the 2021 Super Bowl. - Courtesy Chelsea Bear

The 2021 Super Bowl, between the Chiefs and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, was unusual for a few reasons. It was the first time a team had played the Big Game in their home stadium. And due to the Covid-19 pandemic and social distancing policies, it was one of the lowest-attended Super Bowls, too.

This made Chelsea Bear’s first-ever professional football game an especially unique experience. The South Florida resident scored last-minute tickets to the match in Tampa from her sister Chloe, a Bucs cheerleader in her rookie season. The two of them sat in a crowd of mostly cardboard cutouts, with some fans scattered between the flat figures. The muted atmosphere wasn’t terrible, she said, and actually cut down on some of the Super Bowl’s notorious wait times.

“I joke that we were spoiled, because I remember easily going to the restroom or grabbing a drink and not needing to worry about missing a lot of the game,” Bear told CNN.

Bear, who has cerebral palsy and sometimes uses a wheelchair, couldn’t choose her seats and ended up in a section that wasn’t wheelchair accessible. But climbing a few steps wasn’t too bad, she said, since she got to spend the once-in-a-lifetime moment with her sister.

“It was a small sacrifice I was happily willing to make to get to experience it,” she said.

The night was nearly perfect, though she expected a bit more from the famed halftime show. The Weeknd, an artist she loves, performed in a hall of mirrors for the first few minutes, so she watched it on the stadium’s screens above an empty field. It was somewhat underwhelming until he finally appeared with a crowd of identically dressed, red-suited dancers.

Everyone she met at the stadium was gracious and buzzing with excitement in spite of the pared-down theatrics and extensive distancing, she said. Many of them were local health care workers and lifelong Bucs fans. So when the Bucs, led by quarterback Tom Brady — in his first season on the team — ran away with the game, it felt all the more special.

“To be part of such an emotional and happy collective celebration after they won was something I’ll never forget,” she said.

The casual fan who was less than impressed

San Francisco-based investor Judy Abad went to the Super Bowl twice, in 2006 and 2008, in her early 20s. The Big Game was a work obligation then, but she had high expectations based on what she’d seen on TV — roaring crowds, electric atmospheres and excitement aplenty.

“I was expecting it to be incredible and the best time of my life!” she told CNN via email. “Maybe that contributed to it being totally underwhelming.”

While the games themselves were fine, if relatively uninteresting to a casual fan, the experience of watching it surrounded by corporate employees looking to schmooze made it feel less like a celebratory game and more like a networking event, she said.

“When you attend for work, you also get a much better sense of how all of it is very corporate-y and catered towards companies with big marketing budgets,” she said. “Everyone wants something from you.”

Many of the attendees who were there with their companies were more concerned about getting invites to the best parties, scoring the coolest swag and spotting the most famous celebrities. “So much of it is for status — a ‘see and be seen’ mentality,” she said.

There was just too much of everything at the Super Bowl for Abad’s taste: The food, drinks, merch and tickets were expensive — even on an expense account, Abad felt like she was being “ripped off,” she said. The traffic getting in, around and out of the stadium was overwhelming. Emotions ran high, too – when the New England Patriots narrowly lost in 2008, many of their adult fans in attendance openly wept, which surprised her.

“In that moment, it just felt like some people’s identities were way too wrapped up in this thing they had no control over,” she said. “I felt deeply I did not fit in nor did I ever want to.”

Abad has never returned to the Super Bowl, especially not for work. She still recommends employees go if they’re given the chance — their experience might turn out more fun than hers, especially if they go with family and friends or their team is playing.

She added, though, that she might one day take her child, currently 9 months old, if he becomes a huge football fan.

The diehard fan who spent most of the game in misery

Friends Mike Ryan and Chris Jeter cheer while attending the 2020 Super Bowl. - Courtesy Mike Ryan
Friends Mike Ryan and Chris Jeter cheer while attending the 2020 Super Bowl. - Courtesy Mike Ryan

In 2020, when the Chiefs clinched their first Super Bowl appearance in 50 years, lifelong fan Mike Ryan swore he’d pay whatever it cost to be there in person.

Ryan, an entertainment writer at Uproxx and a Kansas City native, bought two tickets to the game in Miami and convinced his childhood friend to come. They paid $7,000 each for seats in the lower bowl, behind the endzone. This could be the only Super Bowl the Chiefs ever attend in our lifetime, he thought. It would either be an amazing experience — or, if the Chiefs lost, at least a notable one, if not a waste of money.

The Chiefs won, but the first three-and-a-half quarters of the game were miserable for Ryan.

“It’s an incredible memory,” he said. “But while I was doing it, I was not having fun.”

The Chiefs were down for nearly the entire game, and quarterback Patrick Mahomes wasn’t delivering on the promise he’d shown all season. Perhaps even worse, Ryan and his friend were surrounded by 49ers fans who started congratulating themselves before the game had even ended.

Not even J. Lo and Shakira’s writhing halftime performance could cheer him up — that is, until the final eight-or-so minutes of the game. With half of the fourth quarter gone, the Chiefs turned on the magic, scoring three touchdowns in a row. Ryan finally started to have fun but was still on edge.

“You are betting so much money,” he said, that you’re hoping it’s going to be the greatest weekend of your life. “But it’s a 50-50 proposition.”

His gamble was ultimately worth it, he said — he got to watch his team win the Super Bowl in person (and not the last — they won again last year).

“I’d never go again,” he said. “I put my money on the table, I won, I’m taking it.”

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