How the NFL stripped Arizona of the 1993 Super Bowl, and how it could happen again
When the Super Bowl comes to town, it brings revenue, prestige and a good time. It also brings a searing spotlight, an opportunity for the host city to showcase its greatness … and a chance to point to where changes could be made.
Super Bowl LVII marks the 30-year anniversary of one of the NFL’s most overtly political acts, stripping the Super Bowl from a state — Arizona, the site of this year’s game — over its refusal to acknowledge a holiday honoring Martin Luther King Jr. It was an uncharacteristic, even unexpected move for a league that has spent its existence holding to a pose of neutrality, and that made the league’s act such a significant one.
“Big entities like the NFL and other powerful groups, like the IOC and FIFA, are loath to engage in politics unless they absolutely have to,” said Dr. Jules Boykoff, a professor of political science at Pacific University. “The business model is flourishing, and they don’t want to put a dent in that.”
Leagues don’t often pull major sporting events out of communities over political matters, for multiple reasons. The financial impact on the community losing the event is significant, often in the hundreds of millions of dollars. The league’s decision to take sides in a political battle automatically puts it at odds with a segment of its fans. And there’s the overriding question of whether the drastic step of moving events has a major impact at all.
“It does galvanize attention and lead to questions about policies and legislative actions that are problematic,” said Dr. Michael Butterworth, Director of the Center for Sports Communication & Media at the University of Texas. “That’s good. At the same time, does it lead to long-term structural changes? It’s hard to say it’s entirely ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ entirely ‘successful’ or ‘unsuccessful.’”
Still, this has happened on multiple occasions — in Arizona, in North Carolina in 2017 and in Georgia in 2021 — and as American partisanship increases and the walls between sports and politics crumble, it's likely to happen again.
Arizona loses Super Bowl over MLK Day
On Nov. 2, 1983, President Ronald Reagan signed into law a bill honoring King with a federal holiday on the third Monday in January. The law took effect three years later, and soon afterward, most states approved their own version of the law (New Hampshire was the last state to recognize the King holiday, doing so in 1999).
In Arizona, outgoing Gov. Bruce Babbitt used an executive order in 1986 to establish a state holiday honoring King. Later that year, Evan Mecham won the governorship by running, in part, on a platform that included revoking the holiday’s status. Days after his inauguration, he removed the holiday. He was impeached and removed from office less than two years later on charges of obstructing justice and misusing public funds, and the MLK Day issue went before voters in 1990.
That same year, just two years after the Cardinals began playing in Arizona as the “Phoenix Cardinals,” the NFL awarded the 1993 Super Bowl to Arizona. Then-Eagles owner Norman Braman protested the decision, saying at the time that the league should remove the game if the 1990 referendum to codify the holiday failed. Two separate measures on Arizona’s ballot to establish an MLK holiday — one to remove Columbus Day, one to combine Lincoln and Washington’s birthdays — failed, with neither topping 49%. Many in the state blamed the NFL’s outside pressure as the tipping point. In March 1991, the NFL stripped the 1993 Super Bowl from Arizona and awarded it to the Rose Bowl. (The Cowboys annihilated the Bills 52-17 in that game).
“I do not believe playing Super Bowl XXVII in Arizona is in the best interest of the National Football League,” then-commissioner Paul Tagliabue said. “Arizona can continue its political debate without the Super Bowl as a factor.”
“I think it’s tragic for the people who worked so hard to get the game there,” Braman said at the time. “But I think it would be an affront to our public and our players if the game was played there.”
Reaction in Arizona was swift and fierce, crossing party lines. "We have nothing to apologize for," Paul Johnson, then the mayor of Phoenix, said at the time. "I think the NFL has plenty to apologize for and should be ashamed of their actions."
Then-Sen. Dennis DeConcini accused the NFL of a “double standard” for having its offices open on MLK Day. "It’s all right for the NFL not to honor Dr. King," DeConcini said at the time, “but it’s not all right for Arizona."
However, the NFL and then-Gov. Fife Symington reached a compromise: If the state approved the holiday at a 1992 referendum, the 1996 Super Bowl would come to Arizona. And two years after rejecting the holiday, Arizona voters approved it, so in March 1993, the NFL awarded the 1996 Super Bowl to Arizona. (Dallas won that game as well, defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers).
For more than two decades afterward, politics and sports ran on largely separate paths in the public consciousness. By the mid-2010s, though, the increased connectivity of the social media age, the increasing access of marginalized groups to larger platforms and the increasingly vocal partisanship that followed both those changes intertwined sports and politics on a day-to-day basis at a level not seen before in American history.
As activists gained more power and audience, they began looking for ways to force change. If the carrot of persuasion didn’t work, they theorized, the stick of losing a prized sporting event might. Opponents of a given change, whether because of political views, financial interests or pride in their team and sport, have responded with volume.
“Things are so hyper-polarized already that it’s inevitable that people who oppose the move are going to phrase it in terms of ‘caving to the hyper-woke,’” Butterworth said. “There’s an old line about how it’s not a question of whether people are comfortable with politics in sports. It’s a question of whether it’s politics they like.”
“That term ‘woke’ is thrown around as a derisive term with great abandon and not a lot of precision,” Boykoff said. “The NFL wants to avoid being called ‘woke’ by its own fan base. The owners are not exactly a bunch of progressives. Fortunately for [NFL commissioner Roger] Goodell, a lot of the perceptions of fans are the same as the owners.”
But when there is enough “movement in the streets,” as Boykoff puts it, “the owners in the suites have to make a statement.”
Political pressure has moved other games
The Super Bowl was the highest-profile example of a league responding to activist concerns and flexing its muscle as a political cudgel, stepping outside the bounds of professed “apolitical” business to endorse a particular point of view. It’s rare, but it has happened on several occasions since the 1993 Super Bowl:
In 2015, the NCAA considered moving its headquarters out of Indiana after then-Gov. Mike Pence signed into law a “religious freedom” bill that critics said allowed for discrimination based on sexual orientation. A subsequent law amended the “religious freedom” bill to block discrimination, and the NCAA remained in place.
The NBA stripped the 2017 All-Star Game from Charlotte after the state passed a so-called “Bathroom Bill,” which reduced LGBT protections and required transgender individuals to use a bathroom corresponding to the gender on their birth certificate. The law drew heavy condemnation from across the entertainment industry, including the NBA, and portions of it were later repealed. The NBA played the 2019 All-Star Game in Charlotte even though many of the bill’s provisions remained in effect.
More recently, Major League Baseball stripped Atlanta of the 2021 All-Star Game, one in a series of whiplash political events in Georgia after the U.S. Senate tilted Democratic in 2020 and Georgia Republicans tightened voting regulations in response. Fair Fight, a grassroots activist organization created by two-time Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams, had protested the new voting laws, though Abrams herself lost gubernatorial elections to Brian Kemp in 2018 and 2022.
The MLB All-Star game provides an interesting case study, given that it’s the most recent in the current political climate. Overall voting turnout in Georgia’s 2022 midterm elections, the first major election since MLB moved the event, was roughly the same as in the 2018 midterms. However, the disparity of turnout between white and nonwhite voters grew significantly. A Brennan Center study of the Georgia elections noted that a variety of factors, from weather to polling resources to the voting law that MLB protested, could have been responsible for the disparity.
"Georgia voters sent a clear message after Democrat Stacy Abrams led the charge to move the MLB from Atlanta by overwhelmingly supporting Governor Kemp and keeping Republican majorities in the State legislature,” Ryan Caudelle, executive director of the Georgia GOP, said in a statement to Yahoo Sports. “Liberal ideologies have caused harm to Georgians, not the conservative values the Georgia Republican Party support that make this the best state to do business and raise a family." (Fair Fight did not respond to multiple requests for comment.)
Abrams said “there should be no silence from the business community when anyone in power is trying to strip away the right to vote from people. There should be hue and cry.” But Abrams also advised MLB not to move the game, contending that boycotts and event removals can harm the very people they’re intended to protect. But MLB commissioner Rob Manfred pushed forward regardless, releasing a statement that read in part, “I have decided that the best way to demonstrate our values as a sport is by relocating this year’s All-Star Game and MLB draft. Major League Baseball fundamentally supports voting rights for all Americans and opposes restrictions to the ballot box. Fair access to voting continues to have our game’s unwavering support.”
The Georgia GOP’s statement highlights the sharp divide between political parties on the matter of change via sports. In broadly general terms, progressive sports fans accept and even welcome the political element of sports, while conservative sports fans tend to want sports to exist in their own space, free from political concerns. This, experts say, is why most of the desire for change comes from the progressive side of the aisle.
“When you’re looking at challenges coming from voices often pushed to somewhere outside the mainstream, challenges to the norm, the established culture of pro sports is a more comfortable space for conservative politics,” Butterworth said. “Sports organizations and sports media organizations are more explicitly trying to welcome groups that have historically been marginalized, and that has caused pushback.”
Butterworth notes that the idea that sports can be “apolitical” is itself a false premise. “We operate with the assumption that sports exist in a neutral space to begin with,” he said. “So if a league says, ‘We’re going to pull our event because of certain legislation,’ that act is what is seen as being political, rather than seeing the act that brought the judgment [to move the event] in the first place as political and polarizing.”
He points to the accusation that MLB “politicized” the All-Star Game by deciding to move it, contending that politics were at work long before the game was awarded to Atlanta. “The decision to locate the game had been made based on economic incentives, the franchise had moved to a facility outside downtown, the [controversial Atlanta chant and] mascot – there are a host of political questions already embedded in the event,” he said.
The MLB decision deeply divided Georgians, and not just along political lines; an Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll in May 2021 found that 53.5% of respondents opposed the removal of the game, while 35.7% supported it — this just months after the state elected two Democratic senators from a historically Republican state.
Boykoff notes that the leagues tend to be trailers rather than leaders in pursuing political agendas, remaining silent until activists raise the volume enough that it’s impossible to ignore. At that point, a league’s power and reach become force multipliers.
“If a league makes a statement on an issue, it might not immediately lead to change,” Boykoff said, “but it sends a message subtly to an enormous number of fans that this issue matters.”
Super Bowl remains the focus of controversy, activism
Super Bowl LVII is scheduled to kick off Sunday evening in Glendale, Arizona, but like its predecessor three decades before, it has drawn scrutiny for political reasons from both sides of the aisle. In 2021, a grassroots campaign sought to pressure the NFL to follow MLB’s lead and pull the Super Bowl from Arizona unless the state backed away from post-2020 laws governing voting. But Arizona’s new laws remain in place, and the Super Bowl, obviously, remains in Arizona.
More recently, Kari Lake, the Republican nominee for governor in Arizona’s most recent election, took the fight to the NFL. She indicated that if she won the governorship, she would brand illegal immigration into Arizona an “invasion,” even if that meant upsetting corporate interests and possibly losing the Super Bowl.
"I don’t answer to the @NFL
I answer to the people of Arizona.
If the NFL wants to play chicken over the 2023 Super Bowl, I can promise you that I win that game." pic.twitter.com/8KtnIk28io
— Kari Lake (@KariLake) October 24, 2022
“You want to tell me that a bunch of football teams owned by billionaires are OK with fentanyl pouring across our border at a record level, killing our young people?” she said during a local television interview. “If the NFL is OK with that, then they’ve got to do some soul-searching. I don’t think the NFL is that stupid … If the NFL wants to play chicken over the 2023 Super Bowl, I can promise you that I win that game."
Lake lost her election, though she has refused to concede and has filed a lawsuit to protest the electoral results.
Could future events be moved?
Lake’s declaration daring the NFL to act was one of the most provocative from the conservative side of the aisle since former president Donald Trump repeatedly attacked the league while Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem in 2017. Generally, politicians tend to avoid ruffling feathers of major corporations and leagues, but Lake’s defiance cast the NFL in the role of meddling outsider — and, implicitly, against the interests of the people in Arizona. It’s a message that resonates with many … and it’s also a message that indicates there’s no way to keep sports and politics entirely separate anymore.
With that in mind, could future sporting events be targets, both for activists looking to spur change and politicians looking to prevent it? Such a drastic move would require the convergence of a number of factors — a compelling reason to change, a league willing to make the change, business interests, politicians willing to sign off on the change and media willing to amplify the message of change — but it could absolutely happen again — and soon.
“Whether people want to acknowledge it publicly or not, we’ve moved beyond any notion that sports are somehow isolated from politics,” Butterworth said. “It’s always a possibility that a major sporting event could be a site for a major [demonstration]. There’s plenty of proposed or passed legislation that, presumably, any of these organizations that govern sports could respond to.”
Forthcoming Super Bowls are scheduled for Nevada and Louisiana, MLB All-Star Games for Washington, Texas and Pennsylvania, and NBA All-Star Games for Utah and Indiana. Future NCAA basketball Final Fours for both men and women are scheduled for Arizona, Florida, Indiana, Ohio, Oregon and Texas. Moving any of those would be a drastic upheaval, but the possibility is there.
“If the 2016 election taught me anything,” Butterworth said, “it’s that predicting anything in this political climate is dangerous business.”
Contact Jay Busbee at email@example.com or on Twitter at @jaybusbee.