Super Bowl casts light on secretive CEO junkets

Supers Bowl fans mingle outside of University of Phoenix Stadium.
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Supers Bowl fans mingle outside of University of Phoenix Stadium.

Among the more than 100,000 visitors who flocked to the Phoenix area for Super Bowl XLIV were a group of very special guests: about 70 hand-picked high-level executives from around the country.

These VIPs were invitees of the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee, and the latest example of how sporting events can double as junkets for politicians, executives and policymakers—a controversial practice that has more than its share of critics.

The CEOs were guests of the Arizona Commerce Authority and other local and regional partners who created the event to pitch the benefits of locating or expanding business in the Grand Canyon State.

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Organizers did not respond to CNBC's requests for comment on exactly which companies sent emissaries to the biggest sporting event of the year, citing confidentiality. Still, sponsors defended the invitations as legitimate.

"We had a very specific target list of companies across a number of different industries, revenue profiles, employment levels and technology positions," said Chris Camacho, president and CEO of the Greater Phoenix Economic Council, one of the forum sponsors.

"We scrutinized them heavily up front as to whether they had West Coast operations, or interest in the West Coast before making a targeted invite," he said.

Amid football and golf, hopes for business growth

For those who made the cut, dinners, hikes, golf, valley tours (including one to Luke Air Force Base, a VIP reception with Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey and seats at the Super Bowl game were part of the package.

For years, government watchdogs have been critical of the practice of mingling business, leisure and public policy, citing conflicts of interest and the potential misuse of taxpayer dollars. It's also a great perk for attendees, especially when the price of a Super Bowl ticket alone can easily top $10,000—busting the budget of the average Joe.

Yet the event, officially called the CEO Forum, wasn't just a big party, organizers insisted.

Forum participants met with program sponsors, Arizona business leaders, elected officials and other Arizona advocates and attended a policy forum put together in partnership with The McCain Institute for International Leadership. Panels covered everything from U.S.-Mexico relations to disrupting cancer care.

And while the Super Bowl was certainly a big draw, the formal and informal interactions that took place throughout the weekend "is what really will sow the seeds for economic growth in the future," said Brian Roberts, director of the Visiting CEO Program at the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee.

In spite of the controversy, the model yields results, some say.

"Whether it's the Super Bowl, the Final Four or the Olympics, using these high-stature events as a catalyst for future business is something cities do all the time," said Ralph Morton, executive director of the Seattle Sports Commission.

"The investment is probably relatively small when you think of the potential benefit of someone doing business in your community not just for a year but for years to come," he added.

Based on the results of the CEO Forum held during Super XLII in 2008 with 20 visiting CEOs, event organizers are confident they'll yield a solid return on this year's investment of both time and money. According to data provided Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee, the 2008 program resulted in more than 1,000 jobs and over $280 million of capital investment in the state.

"We expect to have similar results from this event," said Camacho, "and in fact have a couple of announcements around the corner."

—Harriet Baskas is the author of seven books, including "Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can't or Won't Show You," and the Stuck at the Airport blog. Follow her on Twitter at @hbaskas . Follow Road Warrior at @CNBCtravel.