McFeely: Fans getting a real Minnesota Super Bowl experience

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MINNEAPOLIS—The Minneapolis Convention Center provided shelter from reality Saturday, Feb. 3 while a real Minnesota winter raged outside. Just enough snow fell to make streets and sidewalks slick, slushy and dangerous. The Nicollet Mall a few blocks away featured ice sculptures and wind-blown streets that had people bundling and grumbling. And the traffic around the Twin Cities with the weather the way it was? Don't ask.

Welcome to the Super Bowl, New England and Philadelphia fans. Your reward for qualifying for the NFL's championship game was a trip to the frozen tundra, the nearest palm tree about 1,500 miles thataway.

"The only reason the Super Bowl is here is because of a brand new stadium," said Phil Hansen, the former North Dakota State and Buffalo Bills star who played in the big game the last time it was in Minneapolis in 1992. "The NFL can try to convince me otherwise, but I'm not sure I'm buying it. If the stadium was still the Metrodome, would the game be here?"

The dumpy old Metrodome is where Hansen and the Bills lost to Washington in their second of four straight Super Bowl losses. So the answer to Phil's question would be no, and everybody knows it. The NFL awarded this game to the Wilf family that owns the Minnesota Vikings, who helped build the $1.1 billion palace known as U.S. Bank Stadium where the Eagles will play the Patriots today.

The committee charged with hosting this game has done everything it can to embrace winter in Minnesota and use it as a marketing tool. And it did a great job, considering the weather forecast for today's game calls for a high of 6 degrees.

The Mall of America in nearby Bloomington was the suburban headquarters for the game, funneling people downtown for concerts, outdoor events and the massive Super Bowl Experience at the convention center.

That's where Hansen and his son spent the day walking and checking out the 475,000 square feet of NFL immersion and commercialism. From the Bridgestone Punt, Pass and Kick to the Under Armour 40 Yard Dash to a 50-foot video screen tower for the Vince Lombardi Trophy display, the Super Bowl Experience was an ode to the popularity and financial might of the NFL.

Anybody who says the NFL is failing should've been in downtown Minneapolis this week. Thousands of fans—many clad in Minnesota Vikings, Eagles and Patriots gear—wandered through the displays. Some were happily drinking $9 beers or $4 bottles of water, or eating $20 chicken tenders.

They included Timmy Parks of south Philadelphia, who drove to Minneapolis with a couple of buddies to cheer on the Eagles. They were standing in line waiting to try and kick a field goal through an indoor goal post off artificial turf.

Parks was wearing an Eagles jersey with No. 11 on it, the number of former North Dakota State star quarterback Carson Wentz.

"It's a cool experience. I'm glad I came," Parks said when asked what he thought of Minneapolis. "It's cold. It's snowing. But I've pretty much been inside the whole time, either at that mall or down here. It's in a part of the country that I've never been to before. Maybe it's helped me get tickets. If it was in a warmer place like Miami or something, maybe a lot more people would've wanted to come."

Wentz, although he's not playing because of a knee injury, was well-represented at the Super Bowl Experience. A glass-encased locker filled with his jerseys and equipment was part of the NFL Locker Room area that gave fans a behind-the-scenes glimpse. Prominently displayed on the shelf in each locker were products by Head and Shoulders, Gatorade, Crest and Old Spice—all corporate partners of the NFL. Minnesota Vikings receiver Adam Thielen from Detroit Lakes, Minn., had a similar display.

Bill Crowther of Cape May Court House, N.J., also wore a No. 11 Eagles jersey. Crowther was watching workers from Wilson Sporting Goods make footballs, which were then being sold as souvenirs. Footballs displaying the Super Bowl LII logo were selling for $150.

"It's cold, I'll say that," Crowther said. "But it's a blast. I came with two of my buddies and we're having a great time. The Super Bowl was something that was on my bucket list and I wasn't going to miss it. It doesn't matter where it is. This Eagles team is a team of destiny."

Despite the hype and hoopla—and no matter how many positive reviews this game receives—there's a very good chance this is the last Super Bowl the Twin Cities will see in a long time. Maybe until the Vikings get another new stadium.

Minneapolis Star Tribune sports columnist Jim Souhan covered the 1992 game and has been busy writing about this one, too. He said the game and the circus surrounding it weren't as big 26 years ago and that led to decent reviews. This Super Bowl is a different animal, Souhan said. The organization and logistics are better, but the weather and traffic are worse.

"The first Super Bowl in Minneapolis felt like an experiment; this one feels like a gift to the Wilfs," Souhan said. "Both were bad ideas, but now that the game and the week have grown to these proportions, cold, snowy Minneapolis is a terrible place to try to fit everything."