Inside security preparations for Super Bowl 54

Jan. 31, 2020
Former federal agent discusses how law enforcement, private security are gearing up for the big game

As Super Bowl 54 gets underway this Sunday at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami, the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and San Francisco 49ers will not only mark the culmination of yet another NFL season but also what has been nearly a year of planning and preparation by federal, local and state law enforcement as well as private security to keep the big game and its associated events safe.

While mitigating attacks against high-profile public events has taken precedent in the U.S. in the wake of 9/11, the Super Bowl has long been a premier terror target. In the 1977 movie “Black Sunday,” based on a book of the same name, the Goodyear blimp is used as part of an attempt to detonate a bomb inside the stadium where the game is taking place. Though the plot may seem far-fetched, the fact is that potential acts of international and/or domestic terrorism remain the primary concern for those charged with protecting the Super Bowl.

Designated as a National Special Security Event (NSSE) by the Department of Homeland Security, security for the Super Bowl is placed under the auspices of a lead federal coordinator – usually the agent in charge of the local U.S. Secret Service office or DHS Investigations head for that city ­­– who is charged with delegating security responsibilities among the law enforcement agencies involved.      

James Hayes, the former Special Agent in Charge for U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) New York office who helped with the security planning for Super Bowl 48 in New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium, says that in one respect, law enforcement is putting on a show of deterrence for the game.

“There’s going to be hundreds of uniformed officers all over Miami throughout this week. The Coast Guard has setup a protective zone in the waterfront there and Customs and Border Protection and the Coast Guard are assisting the FAA with no-fly zones. That’s first and foremost,” says Hayes, who now serves as Vice President of Sports and Entertainment at security consulting firm Guidepost Solutions “You have this event that really is designed, through sheer amounts of force protection, to be a deterrent to attack.”

However, given how recent attacks, such as the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017, have shown a shift in tactics on the part of terrorists to attack patrons leaving a venue rather than inside an event itself, Hayes says authorities have to be ready counter these types of plots as well.  

“They’re now looking to attack where people aren’t protected. They’re thinking about it more critically and saying, ‘well, maybe we can attack when the event is over,’ as opposed to disrupting the event itself,” he explains. “The security apparatus doesn’t end when the clock strikes zero at the event. It’s going to go on well into the night to make sure people who are there – whether it is just enjoying the event and going home or going to activities scheduled after the event ends – are protected.”

The Role of Private Security

While law enforcement will have a heavy manpower presence in and around Miami to create the deterrent effect for the Super Bowl, the role of private security in keeping the game safe is also paramount.  For example, private security is typically tasked with carrying out screening at the stadium itself and they also monitor and maintain the various security systems, such as video surveillance and drone detection, that are critical in protecting an event of this magnitude.

“They work hand-in-hand with law enforcement and they are part of the meetings. They are cleared and vetted by law enforcement and they go through extensive background (screenings),” Hayes says. “That’s an important part of being selected as one of those private security companies is having people like myself who have held top security clearances and who are vetted and trusted for those positions.”   

According to Hayes, these firms will be brought into the planning process about six months ahead of the game to ensure that they can run through tabletop exercises and work with law enforcement to mitigate threats.

Cracking Down on Crime

Aside from terrorism, there’s a plethora of other concerns that Hayes says law enforcement and security need to be aware of during a Super Bowl. Chief among these are individuals and organized crime syndicates that look to prey upon people out of their normal environments through such schemes as selling bogus tickets and counterfeit merchandise.

“You worry about the (criminal) organizations, even small organizations, that see a large gathering as a great opportunity to take advantage of peoples’ vulnerabilities,” Hayes says. “When we were managing security in terms of people coming to the event in New York, we made a lot of arrests of people who were selling counterfeit tickets – they were advertising them at the time on Craigslist as well as other sites. We worried about counterfeit merchandise, which a lot of people don’t think is a big deal, but materials used to make counterfeit clothing, hats and things like that can actually be dangerous to the human body.”

Of course, there’s also the concern that human and sex trafficking rings will also look to take advantage of an event like the Super Bowl. “What I’ve found in my experience is that we have seen prostitution organizations taking advantage and setting up in those cities and in New York during 2014,” he says.  

Tech Trends

The proliferation of drones has added yet another layer of complexity to security preparations for the Super Bowl. During the week of the Super Bowl last year in Atlanta, Hayes says that there six drones that were intercepted and confiscated by authorities.

“We haven’t seen any violence, it’s mostly people that have a drone and think it would be cool to take a look from the air at the Super Bowl setup but it’s certainly not something that is welcomed or encouraged,” he adds.

Aggregating data via social media monitoring is another technology tool that has had big impact for authorities in keeping tab on potential threats in the lead up to and during the game.  “We can now take a look at what people are putting on the Twitter, Instagram, even Facebook to a lesser extent, about an event and analyzing whether or not there’s a threat based on that,” Hayes says.     

Joel Griffin is the Editor-in-Chief of and a veteran security journalist. You can reach him at [email protected].