10,000 volunteers needed for Super Bowl LII – but should they be paid?

The use of volunteers could be questionable under Minnesota labor laws, given that it's ultimately in support of an event run by the for-profit NFL.
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The Super Bowl arrives in Minneapolis next year, and organizers have put out the call for 10,000 volunteers. They'll be asked to give up their time to help run the 10-day extravaganza of events leading up to the big game.

But the use of those volunteers – which is being issued by the nonprofit Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee – could be questionable under the state's labor laws, given that it's ultimately in support of an event run by the for-profit NFL.

What volunteers will do

The committee is asking for volunteers who can work a minimum of three 4-6 hour shifts in the days leading up to the Super Bowl at U.S. Bank Stadium.

They'll be tasked with greeting visitors at MSP airport, providing directions on city streets, and helping man the many Super Bowl-related events taking place in the Twin Cities.

They will get a uniform and a "once-in-a-lifetime prize, the chance to be part of the Minnesota Super Bowl LII Host Committee's Super Bowl festivities." But no access to the Super Bowl game itself, or any money for their time.

Why aren't they being paid?

The 10,000 volunteers are being hiredby the nonprofit Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee – not the NFL.

And that makes a difference. A Minnesota Department of Labor and Industry spokesperson told GoMN that under the state's Fair Labor Standards Act, nonprofits can solicit or use volunteers.

For-profits can't.

The NFL has been a for-profit since 2015, but it's the Super Bowl Host Committee that's raising private funding to put on 10 days of events before the Super Bowl, and liaising with city planners to help handle the estimated 1 million fans expected to come to town.

The Host Committee says it's responsible for everything going on in the lead-up to the game.

The NFL will be responsible for the game itself and a few other events, which will be staffed by paid employees.

Volunteers used in an NFL-run event?

NFL VP of communications Brian McCarthy told GoMN: "We pay all staff members at league-controlled events and facilities in the Super Bowl host city. This includes NFL Experience, the media center, the accreditation center and at the stadium. I would refer you to the local Host Committee for information on its volunteers and their role."

However, Host Committee spokesperson Michael Howard initially told GoMN that unpaid volunteers would be involved "inside the NFL Experience" – that's the above-mentioned NFL-run, ticketed event described as "pro-football's interactive theme park."

This apparent merging of volunteers and paid staff at the NFL Experience would potentially mean these volunteers should be classed as employees of the NFL – and therefore should be paid.

But when asked later to confirm this would be happening, Howard backtracked, saying: "The NFL controls access and staffing for their own events, including the NFL Experience – not the Host Committee."

He added: "The Host Committee recruits volunteers to help with Host Committee-related events and outreach."

Lawyer says the arrangement is 'incredibly unfair'

Even if volunteers aren't involved in NFL-run events and work only at the behest of the nonprofit Host Committee, there could still be a question of whether the for-profit NFL is benefiting from free labor.

Attorney Rebekah Bailey, an employee and consumer rights specialist at Nichols Kaster in Minneapolis, called the arrangement "incredibly unfair" when she spoke with GoMN.

Bailey said the NFL benefits from the volunteers' service, since they help visitors who are in town for the festivities – people who are likely to spend money on merchandise and events like the NFL Experience.

"The NFL profits greatly from this event," she said. "The least they could do is provide minimum wage to their workers."

Whether that argument would stand up in court is a different matter. While there's a case that the NFL benefits from the volunteers, the NFL could argue the Host Committee is a separate entity that is allowed to hire the unpaid help.

When asked to describe their relationship, the Host Committee described itself as acting "as the liaison between the community and the NFL" in coordinating events during the festival.

Neither the NFL nor the Host Committee responded to further questions from GoMN about the legal implications of the arrangement, and the committee also didn't respond when asked to provide an explanation as to how the NFL does not benefit from the use of volunteers.

How much would it cost?

The NFL League Office – which is responsible for deciding on league rules, referees, the college draft, the Super Bowl and furthering the football brand – generated revenue of around $327 million in 2012-13, MotherJones reported, and up until two years ago it enjoyed tax exemptions that dated back to 1942 as it was designated a nonprofit.

If 10,000 volunteers averaged 20 hours of work during Super Bowl week, to pay them the Minnesota large business minimum wage of $9.50 an hour would cost $1.9 million(plus admin expenses).

That is less than half the $5 million it cost to buy a 30-second commercial during Sunday's Super Bowl between the Patriots and Falcons, according to the Dayton Daily News.

A Forbes story in 2016 said the NFL was expected to make $620 million from Super Bowl 50, but McCarthy, of the NFL, took issue with this. He said it suggested the NFL benefits from the ads sold (which actually go to the broadcasters), and that the merchandise figures are overstated.

As well as spending more than $125 million to put on the Super Bowl and other events in host cities, McCarthy said the Super Bowl accounts for "hundreds of millions in economic impact and values the host cities generate from hosting the largest sports entertainment of the year."

Between the NFL and its 32 teams, the league was expected to surpass $13.3 billion revenue generated in 2016, Forbes reported last February.

What's happened at previous Super Bowls?

The NFL has actually run into problems with this before. In the 2016 Super Bowl in San Francisco, the league ended up paying 500 volunteers who were taking part in the halftime show after being questioned about the legality of using them, by ABC 7.

However, more than 5,000 people who volunteered outside of the game still went unpaid.

The Houston Chronicle reported last year that many volunteers attending a hiring session in Houston didn't mind they wouldn't be getting paid or tickets to the game, saying the environment was like "a pep rally for a high school team headed to the state championship."

And the New York Times reported that in 2014, the number of volunteers hired in the days leading to the Super Bowl in New Jersey was reduced to 9,000 from the 20,000 originally planned. It came after a class-action lawsuit was brought against Major League Baseball for using volunteers during the All-Star Break in 2013.

The NFL used temporary paid workers for positions previously filled by volunteers that year, the newspaper notes.

The Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee did not respond for comment when asked about what process it went through with the NFL to ensure they were both complying with Minnesota labor laws.

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