Major Sporting Events and Human Trafficking? The Unfortunate Debate

by Vins
Published: Last Updated on

Many are aware that human trafficking is a global problem, with more than 40 million victims across the world, according to a 2017 report from the International Labor Organization. Less well known is the debated connection of human trafficking to large sporting events, such as the Super Bowl and the World Series. These events bring thousands of visitors to one city every year, increasing local demand for manual labor and prostitution. As Terri Luttrell reported for ACAMS Today, “The Super Bowl has historically seen a huge increase in HT [human trafficking], particularly for sex trade targeting the spectators. As a result, the Super Bowl is often called the largest HT event in the world.”

Law enforcement works with affected industries before each event, training, for example, hotel staff on how to spot the warning signs of trafficking, while the US Department of Homeland Security distributes stickers to be placed in restrooms with the phone number of the trafficking hotline.

Leading up to the 2017 Super Bowl in Houston, about 750 trafficking suspects were arrested nationwide in the largest sweep since 2004, when such operations began. About 100 of those arrests were in Houston. During the same sweep, 86 adults and six minors were rescued. The next year, a local effort ahead of the 2018 Super Bowl in Minneapolis resulted in 94 arrests. Law enforcement had placed fake sex ads in the city and received 1,560 calls over an 11-day period.

The connection received some establishment news coverage. An ESPN story from January 2019, for example, says large sporting events create an ideal environment for trafficking and notes that a number of industries and organizations recognize this, citing a Twitter campaign by the National Center on Sexual Exploitation and an in-flight video PSA by Delta Air Lines. However, other corporate news sources including CNN, Rolling Stone, Fox, and ABC dispute the connection, implying that law enforcement and activists are hyping the idea despite an absence of proof. Brandon Bouchard, spokesman of anti-human traffic group Polaris, attributed “the boost to heavier promotion of the hotline, not an increase in the prevalence of human trafficking on Super Bowl weekend” in the 2019 CNN article.

Whether or not the connection is inflated, the debate itself highlights how the Super Bowl and similar events are ideal opportunities to focus journalistic attention on human trafficking, – a dark underbelly of many industries, not just professional sports. Human trafficking is a $150 billion annual industry worldwide, one that can operate at the Kentucky Derby or in our backyards, and is a threat to the health and safety of individuals all over the world.

Source:  Terri Luttrell “Human Trafficking and Major Sporting Events: The Dark Side of the Super Bowl,” ACAMS Today, March 28, 2019,

Student Researcher: Olivia Howard (Frostburg State University)

Faculty Evaluator: Andy Duncan (Frostburg State University)