The Super Bowl is the most-watched sporting event in the United States. Each year, millions of fans don their jerseys to enjoy the fierce competition, clever ads and flashy halftime show. In recent years, the Super Bowl has also drawn attention for its connection to human trafficking.
Awareness campaigns and police operations run in Super Bowl host cities have garnered lots of media attention. But does the Super Bowl truly lead to an increase in instances of human trafficking?
Based on current data, it is difficult to determine if the Super Bowl leads to an increase in human trafficking cases.
The Institute for Sport and Social Justice analyzed human trafficking data and found a spike in reports in the beginning of the year when the Super Bowl is typically held. For example, 450 reports of trafficking were made in January 2019, and 540 reports were made in February of that year. In March 2019, the number of reports dropped to 140 (Source: ESPN).
According to Polaris spokesperson Brandon Bouchard, the U.S. National Human Trafficking Hotline does see a slight increase in calls during Super Bowl weekend. However, the organization believes the uptick is due to an increase in promotion of the hotline and not an increase in trafficking cases (Source: CNN).
The McCain Institute conducted an analysis of online ads for commercial sex in Super Bowl host cities. East Rutherford New Jersey, where the Super Bowl was held 2014, saw an increase in ads on Backpage.com from 2014 to 2015, including in the days leading up to the event. Phoenix, which hosted the game in 2015, also saw an increase in ads from 2014 to 2015.
Researchers concluded that demand for commercial sex overall had grown, stating, “The Super Bowl itself does not create the condition in which sex trafficking flourishes, but rather traffickers will bring their victims wherever there is demand and money is to be made.” (Source: McCain Institute).
A similar study conducted at Carnegie Melon University looked at online ads for commercial sex between October 2011 and February 2016. They found an increase in ads around large events, including the Super Bowl; however, other events had more significant increases in ads than the Super Bowl (Source: arXiv).
In recent years, many arrests have been made during the Super Bowl. Nearly 170 people were arrested in Atlanta in the days leading up to the 2019 Super Bowl. Of these arrests, 26 people were alleged traffickers, and 34 people were accused of trying to exploit minors. Law enforcement also rescued nine youth victims and identified nine adult victims (Source: APNews).
During the 2020 Super Bowl in Miami, a man transported two women and a teenage girl from Connecticut to engage in commercial sex. Evidence showed that he also planned to bring them to New Orleans during Mardi Gras and to Chicago during the NBA All-Star Game to take advantage of those events. He was recently sentenced to 25 years in prison for his crimes (Source: U.S. Department of Justice).
The 2021 Super Bowl in Tampa saw 75 total arrests, with three men arrested for trafficking and five people charged for traveling to a hotel with the intention of meeting a juvenile for sex. Six victims, including one teen, were recovered (Source: ABC Action News).
These arrest trends could be due to an increase in coordinated stings and law enforcement presence at the Super Bowl, not necessarily due to an increase in instances of human trafficking (Source: Reuters).
“The reality is that sex trafficking happens during the Super Bowl with the same frequency as it does every single day, in every single city in America” (Polaris).
Human trafficking can occur at any large event, not just the Super Bowl. For example, during the 2019 NCAA Final Four in Minneapolis, 47 people were arrested for soliciting minors, and 11 people were arrested on trafficking charges. Twenty-eight victims, including one minor, were rescued by investigators (Source: MN Department of Public Safety).
Large events of every kind bring an influx of visitors, many with discretionary income, to a specific location. These circumstances can result in a higher demand for commercial sex, and traffickers strive to capitalize on this demand.
It is also important to note that labor trafficking can be an issue during large events. Many temporary, low-wage workers are enlisted—and sometimes exploited—to work at these events.
This Super Bowl season, we appreciate the efforts of hotel workers, Uber drivers, airline and airport staff, fans and the football players themselves who are striving to raise awareness of human trafficking. Along with other anti-trafficking groups, O.U.R. wants to stress the importance of fighting for this cause all year long.
We echo what the team at Polaris had to say on the subject, “While the Super Bowl and other large events have been used by traffickers during their marketing for commercial sex, it’s important to note that the victims are likely facing exploitation before and beyond Super Bowl weekend” (Source: Polaris).
To better educate yourself on the signs of human trafficking, we invite you to take our free training course.