Just days before the Super Bowl was due to kick off across the river, an NYPD operation busted a huge sex-and-drugs ring a few blocks from the NFL's newly opened "Super Bowl Boulevard" in Times Square. According to cops, the gang was offering prostitutes for up to $1,000 an hour, who'd deliver the drugs -- usually cocaine -- in the bargain.
Police Commissioner William Bratton called it a "one-stop-shopping drug and prostitution ring."
The operators specialized in sex-and-drug parties and had been gearing up to make a huge profit during the Super Bowl, according to multiple media reports. The gang used text messages, public access television and the Internet to reach out to their client base.
Such tech-savvy enterprises are part of the vast underground economy taking shape (like it does every year) around the sports mega-event – nationwide in scope, not so easily quantified, and this year centered in NYC and East Rutherford, N.J., where the game will be played at MetLife Stadium.
From prostitution and drug dealing to counterfeiting tickets, housing sublets and illegal betting, the black market economy generates trillions of dollars nationwide, according to a recent University of Wisconsin-Madison report: $2 trillion in 2012, up from $1 trillion in 2009.
“I think there are a number of different kinds of goods and services that will be traded during the Super Bowl,” said Sudhir Venkatesh, a Columbia University professor and author of "Floating City: A Rogue Sociologist Lost and Found in New York’s Underground Economy." None more so, Venkatesh noted, than the sex trade.
The Super Bowl and the sex industry have been uncomfortably linked for decades, but the extent of the activity has only come to light in the past few years, after Texas Attorney General Greg Abbot said, just before the 2011 Dallas Super Bowl, “It's commonly known as the single largest human trafficking incident in the United States.” And with this year's event a two-state affair, law enforcement in New Jersey and New York face a huge challenge.
Republican Rep. Chris Smith of New Jersey and co-chairman of the House anti-human trafficking caucus, who recently led a congressional subcommittee, said a few weeks ago: “One Super Bowl after another after another has shown itself to be one of the largest events in the world where the cruelty of human trafficking goes on for several weeks.”
But some people think these figures are way overblown.
Sienna Baskin, co-director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, told the International Business Times in a statement that the numbers are wrong. “While we commend efforts to raise awareness about human trafficking, allegations that large sporting events, like the Super Bowl, increase the number of persons trafficked into prostitution are simply unfounded. Investigations from past Olympics, World Cups, and Super Bowls, have not found large numbers of persons trafficked to these locations by force to engage in commercial sex.”
Yet the testimony of sex-trafficking survivors paints a very dark and different picture. Clemmie Greenlee, now 53, says she was first trafficked at 12 years old and went to a number of Super Bowls in the 1980s. She managed to escape her pimp when she was 30, but not until she joined an outreach program during the 2013 New Orleans Super Bowl did she appreciate the scale of the problem facing host cities.
“What I saw when I went out to do outreach on what we call the “ho’-stroll” was terrible,” Greenlee said. “I was able to talk to several women and let them know I was here and I was opening up a program called Eden House and I was here to help them get in and change their life, like I did. And when I went back to speak to them just a couple of weeks before the Super Bowl, the street was clean.”
But that didn't mean sex trafficking magically disappeared. When counterforces show up, the trade just goes deeper underground to evade law enforcement efforts.
“These people have already made appointments, like a doctor’s appointment. They had me at the hotel, they didn’t have me in the door or on the street like a whore, and they already had the number of quotas that you were gonna get – 25-50. They already had these 25-50 men, they already had their money and got the time they gonna be there, arrival and date already decided.”
She claims that millions of dollars change hands during the Super Bowl and that the networks the pimps build are vast and highly effective.
Danielle Douglas, another survivor of Super Bowl sex trade, echoed Greenlee’s claims. “The Super Bowl is a huge, huge arena for sex trafficking,” she said. “Some visitors are coming to the Super Bowl not even to watch football: They are coming to the Super Bowl to have sex with women, and/or men or children.”
While much of the trade and appointments appear to be set up via sordid websites such as Backpage.com, Venkatesh said that the many different underground economies in New York are inextricably linked. For example, some bars, says Venkatesh, often try to fill up with hired women and they or the bartenders will solicit patrons. Additionally, unlicensed cab drivers, known as “gypsies," who themselves come out in force during major sporting events, have been known to solicit sex, and sometimes that’s their main purpose -- to be a customer collection service.
While sex is undoubtedly one of the more dangerous and troubling elements of the Super Bowl’s unseen economy, another element that's gaining ground -- thanks in part to the Internet -- is the real estate market.
“Unexpectedly one of the most lucrative underground economies is real estate,” according to Venkatesh. “There’s quite a considerable market that’s opening up for rental apartments. Much of it, probably most of it, is occurring in an underground way either through VRBO, Airbnb or other exchanges. That is a worry for New York State and the hotels association, which has tried to shut that down.”
According to the NFL, the Super Bowl will see around 400,000 people descend on New York and areas of New Jersey, many arriving up to a week ahead of the Feb. 2 spectacular. For many of those people, staying in hotels is just too expensive. Enter Craigslist. The community for-sale site has around 1,300 entries listed under the search term “Super Bowl” in New York and New Jersey, listing rooms for as little as $50 in Brooklyn. An entire Queens apartment is listed for $350. For visitors looking for a bit more space, there's a Staten Island mansion listed for $28,000 for the week. The average nightly lodging, according to Craigslist data, is around $1,500. You can even rent out parking spaces on people’s driveways, complete with electrical sockets if you're coming in your RV.
Some people have even been attempting to exchange a weekend in their apartment for Super Bowl tickets, and with very cold weather expected, many single tickets have appeared on websites like Stubhub and SeatGeek at prices from a couple of thousand dollars all the way up to around $30,000. Suites for two dozen people are going for up to $1 million.
Owner-to-owner website Airbnb offers as many as 33,000 rooms in New York on any given day. While it’s unclear how much will be made out of the N.Y./N.J. sub-lease business during the Super Bowl, Airbnb said in a statement to International Business Times that it expects bookings to increase by 25 percent in the New York and New Jersey area as a result of the Bowl, and that bookings over this period are predicted to double from last year.
The state and the hotel associations are worried. According to Venkatesh, they've tried numerous times to shut it down the Airbnb business. It was only four months ago that the whole New York operation nearly came crashing down, as a court case threatened the legality of short-term leases in New York. This battle was overcome after the court ruled that short-term leases were legal provided that someone who holds the lease or mortgage is present in the apartment during the rental period.
When that legal fight failed, the Attorney General of New York, the Mayor’s office and the tax office pounced on Airbnb to sort out the issue of taxing earnings made by users from the website. This issue is far from resolved, but it hasn’t quelled the demand for property in New York -- especially during Super Bowl week.
But the Bowl brings out scammers in force. At the 2012 event in Indianapolis, two people paid $450 and $5,500, respectively, only to find that the properties didn’t exist. Similar scams were found out at the New Orleans Super Bowl a year later.
Venkatesh doesn’t expect to see a huge upturn in drug dealing around this year’s Super Bowl, partly because New York City’s underground economy was subdued during the former mayoral administration of Michael Bloomberg, but he also thinks there will be a major influx of people who are drug takers.
“Drugs, sex, gambling, etc. A lot of this was pushed indoors, and a lot of it was made more efficient by the availability of information technology so people didn’t have to expose themselves on a street corner buying drugs, taking bets,” Venkatesh said. “They could just order it via text. So for some of the classic underground economies, the ones that are often called “criminal,” they became more efficient and more hidden, but they grew.”
And that has been one of the many issues for those trying to police the illegal activities: They've moved online, gone indoors and are now hidden from view.
While New Jersey has allowed sports betting inside its Atlantic City casinos, New York hasn’t made the same concessions, but you’d be surprised how many people are still gambling illegally and don’t even know it. From $1 office pools that seem to be commonplace, even by people who have no interest, to the thousands of dollars that change hands with barroom bookies, $380 billion is bet illegally in America every year, according to the American Gaming Association. The Super Bowl is no different and this year will see $100 million change hands legally compared with around $8 billion illegally with around half of the U.S. population gambling in some way on the game, most illegally, according to Danny Sheridan, veteran sports writer and promoter.
“This includes bets with U.S. and offshore bookmakers, wagers made over the Internet, office pools, person-to-person bets, and Super Bowl parties. And I think the legal wagering in Nevada will exceed last year’s $87.5 million handle,” Sheridan said.