Who Paid For Sarah Sanders’ Six Figure Super Bowl Extravaganza?

A TPM investigation.
Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders and her husband, Bryan Sanders. (Photo: TPM Illustration/Getty Images/Instagram)
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Taylor Swift was not the only high profile Kansas City chiefs fan to enjoy incredible access to the Super Bowl in Las Vegas earlier this month. Like the pop megastar, Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R) watched the game from a luxury suite and celebrated on the field. However, unlike Swift, who is dating one of the team’s star players and broke all kinds of records with her ongoing multibillion dollar tour, it’s not quite clear how (or if) Sanders and her family paid for tickets to the most expensive football game of all time. 

So, TPM set out to figure out just how exactly the governor ended up with such exclusive access to such an exclusive event. Chasing Sanders’ splashy Super Bowl trip was a confounding journey. A combination of brazen spending, stonewalling from the governor’s office, and Sanders’ successful efforts to erode transparency laws left us sure of nothing except the fact a state official somehow managed to enjoy a big night out that almost certainly cost more than her annual salary. 

On one level, Sanders was not at all shy about her very lavish evening with the victorious Chiefs. She posted a series of smiling pictures on Instagram that suggested  an extraordinary amount of access to the game. But when her selfies provoked real questions about the blatantly obvious ethical implications that come along with a civil servant enjoying virtually the same amenities as a billionaire pop star, Sanders and her team shut down. 

The easiest way to find out how the Sanders clan ended up on the field at the big game would be simply asking the governor. However, for nearly two weeks, Sanders’ office has not responded to questions from TPM about how much her tickets cost, whether she bought them on her own, or whether she received them as a gift. Her staff also won’t say whether any state resources, such as a plane or security detail, were used for the trip. Sanders also did not answer how she accomplished any official business for the people of Arkansas by cheering on a team from another state. 

These things are important because, this was, quite literally, a big ticket item. Getting into this year’s Super Bowl was almost cartoonishly expensive and, as governor, Sanders’ ability to receive far smaller gifts is regulated to avoid bribery and corruption. And, a little over a year after taking office, she’s also already come under fire multiple times for her questionable use of taxpayer funds. 

Amid that scrutiny, Sanders has tried to cover the governor’s mansion in a veil of secrecy. Last year, Sanders called a special session of the legislature as she pushed for changes that would gut the state’s Freedom of Information Act. The moves were so radical that, even with her party enjoying large majorities in both Houses, Sanders’ first two attempts to change the open records law were rejected. The assault on transparency inspired a broad coalition of vocal opponents to speak out including Nate Bell, a former Arkansas legislator who was a Republican before becoming an independent as the party embraced Donald Trump in 2015. 

“We had the most eclectic and diverse group of Arkansans show up to oppose that bill that I have ever witnessed in 40 years of political involvement,” Bell said, adding, “We had people who hated each other, who were not on speaking terms, who in some cases had sued each other within the very recent past, sitting in a room together aligned to defeat that bill.”

The motley crew helped thwart Sanders’ most drastic proposed changes to FOIA. However, Sanders was able to get enough support to restrict access to records related to her travel and security — the exact information that could help confirm what went on with her Super Bowl extravaganza. 

As the FOIA fight raged, Bell helped found an organization called Arkansas Citizens for Transparency. The group is currently working to put a constitutional amendment on the ballot in November that would block attempts to restrict public access to government records. Naturally, Bell has some questions of his own about the Sanders clan’s time at the big game. 

“It’s great for a family to be able to do something like that. The question is, obviously, who paid for it and does it have any influence on the decisions that are being made in state government?” Bell asked in an interview with TPM. “And I think, at this point, given the level of opacity that this governor has forced into place, it’s difficult to know.” 

One thing is clear: The Super Bowl trip was almost absurdly expensive. Beyond that, there are no easy answers. 

Picture It After All These Days

Sanders, who served as White House press secretary under former President Donald Trump, didn’t just take in the game. She and her family enjoyed incredible access to nearly every aspect of the NFL championship. They even got to meet the mother of Swift’s boyfriend, star Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. 

On Feb. 12, the day after the Super Bowl, Sanders posted a set of photos showing her and her husband enjoying the Chiefs victory with their three young children. Sanders’ husband, Bryan, is a Kansas City native and the governor has previously been vocal about the family’s ardent Chiefs fandom. 

Over the course of Super Bowl weekend, they were pictured at a pre-game party posing with “Mama Kelce,” who has become something of a star in her own right, particularly since the beginning of her son’s relationship with Swift. During the game, the family took selfies next to the field and watched the action from a luxury suite. They were on the field for the halftime show featuring R&B crooner Usher. Sanders and her family also made it to Chiefs events where they posed with Kelce’s brother, Jason, a Philadelphia Eagles star weighing retirement. 

It’s The Best Seat, In The Best Room

Though Sanders and her team might be dodging questions about her Super Bowl spending spree, there are a number of factors that helped TPM calculate how much it might have cost for Sanders or anyone who might have given her the tickets: First, luckily for us, she couldn’t resist indulging in the time-honored millennial pastime of bragging on social media. Her Instagram activities provided plenty of clues about the family’s access, including  the lanyards they wore with their halftime show tickets and field passes. 

Furthermore, the game, in a way, happened on my home turf since it was played in the Las Vegas Raiders’ stadium. Your humble TPM correspondent is, much like Hunter S. Thompson, Ice Cube, and the legendary “Violator” is a proud member of Raider nation. That means I come to the table with a healthy distaste for the Chiefs and I know exactly who to call about tickets in Sin City.   

Ken Solky is president of LasVegasTickets.com, which bills itself as “the number one agency for the most sought-after tickets in Las Vegas and around the world.” Solky has been buying and selling tickets in the city for about thirty years and was described by Forbes as “one of the most influential and called-upon resources in the sports and entertainment world for tickets to major events.” We showed him the pictures of Sanders’ big night and he helped provide an informed estimate of how much cash was involved. 

“It definitely looks like a suite … not just a suite but a pretty damn good suite,” Solky said when he saw the Instagram video of Sanders and her family watching the game. 

Allegiant Stadium, or, as it’s known to us in Raider Nation, “The Death Star,” has a reputation for having some of the most expensive tickets in the NFL. The high prices come thanks to Vegas’ status as a tourist destination and, obviously, the sick Raider vibes. And they were even higher for the Super Bowl. 

According to Solky, suites for the Super Bowl went for a minimum of $750,000. Some, which had better positioning along the field, sold for upwards of $1 million. The suites contain seats for 20 fans meaning, at a minimum, the face value of Sanders’ suite tickets was $37,500 each. And, of course, Sanders’ family had at least five tickets for her, her husband, and their three children. That puts Sanders’ minimum tab for the tickets to the game at $187,500 — and those suite seats were just one part of the family’s lavish Super Bowl experience. 

But even these six figure suite tickets don’t come with the kind of amenities Sanders and her family enjoyed. Most people who aren’t Taylor Swift are not able to get near the grass or party with the Kelces. Solky said the pictures showed off a “mixture of access” and that each pass Sanders and her clan showed off had a price. According to him, that combined figure was likely $3,000 to $10,000 per person.  

Based on that estimate, the Sanders family’s Super Bowl trip would conservatively be worth a cool $202,500. 

Of course, most Super Bowl tickets and passes were sold at a steep premium on the secondary market — and there are indications that Sanders and her family had some that were not available on the open market. 

How do we know? Earlier this month, CBS reported that, for the Super Bowl, “face-value tickets, which are expensive to begin with, are rarely made available to the general public.” Instead, the majority of seats at the game went to NFL players, coaches, league insiders, and their corporate partners. Many of those tickets were then sold via ticket brokers with steep markups. Other tickets — including access to the pre-game parties, halftime show, and field — were sold to the public through a company founded by the NFL called “On Location.” However, based on photos, the field passes displayed by Sanders and her family were not those made available through that service. Solky said the Sanders clan’s passes, which bore the Chiefs logo, were those given to the team. That means Sanders and her family likely obtained their passes through the Chiefs, one of the team’s partners, or via a broker, which would add substantial cost. 

“It’s not free and it definitely has value,” Solky explained. 

The Chiefs communications team did not respond to a request for comment about how much the tickets cost or whether Sanders and her family were guests of the organization. 

New Money, Suit And Tie

There are several glaringly obvious reasons why Sanders’ expenses as a public official matter. First, if her bill for the game was footed by someone else, it would be a major gift that could put the giver in a position to influence the governor or curry favor with her. For this reason, Sanders and other public officials in her state are subject to rules laid out by the Arkansas Ethics Commission that prohibit them from receiving gifts in excess of $100. Anything above this amount would need to be reimbursed — that includes the tickets for other members of Sanders’ immediate family. 

With Sanders seemingly having passes that were only available for the Chiefs or via brokers, she either got them at a steep markup or via an insider. Even if the tickets came from someone who got them for free rather than paying a broker’s premium, they still count as an extremely expensive gift for regulatory purposes. 

The Arkansas ethics rules specifically include children and spouses and they note “tickets to sporting events and shows” are considered gifts that “are valued at their face price.” There is an exception for suites that are leased. Super Bowl suites, which were separate from regular season tickets, are unlikely to fall under this category, however, even if they were, the rules dictate that “the value of a ticket obtained pursuant to a lease shall be the price of the highest individually priced ticket for the event.” In the case of the Super Bowl, that would be $9,500, which would mean, with the most generous possible calculation, Sanders’ seats at the game cost, for the purpose of state ethics rules, about $47,500 — not necessarily including the passes. 

Sanders theoretically could have paid for the big game herself, but she doesn’t appear to be super rich. 

Her salary as governor is approximately $160,000. She made a little more than that as White House press secretary, a position she held until 2019. White House financial disclosures she filed show that, before joining Trump’s team in 2017, Sanders made about $550,000 as a political consultant including an approximately $205,000 salary from the Arkansas firm Second Street Strategies where she was a partner. While her White House disclosure displayed a multimillion dollar IRA account, she described that to me as an error at the time and the same document only listed minimal interest coming from the account. Sanders’ financial disclosures in Arkansas provide a far smaller level of detail, but they show that she maintains investments in Second Street Strategies while her husband, Bryan, is earning income from a local communications firm and a real estate company

It’s all a nice chunk of change, but none of it screams six figure Super Bowl suites. And even if Sanders paid her own way, there are still ethical questions about her enjoyment of such an extravagant evening. 

If she received tickets that were not available to the general public, they would need to be disclosed as a gift even if she paid whoever gave them to her. And if Sanders used state resources to travel somewhere like Vegas, taxpayers might want to know how much of the bill they footed. At every turn, despite flaunting her extraordinary football spending, Sanders has been equally brazen about dodging scrutiny of her expenses. 

Trouble, Trouble Trouble

Another thing TPM noticed in the course of our investigation: The Super Bowl isn’t the first time Sanders and her family enjoyed a VIP experience at a Chiefs game. A past game they attended is even more interesting to unpack since it theoretically should have made it on to disclosure forms filed earlier this month — and, yet, is nowhere to be found. 

There is one exemption to the prohibitions on gifts for public officials in Arkansas. Regulations note “a public servant may accept a gift conferred on account of a bona fide personal, professional, or business relationship independent of his or her official status.” In those cases, regulators would evaluate “such factors as when the relationship began (i.e., before or after the public servant obtained his or her office or position), the prior history of gift giving between the individuals, whether the gift was given in connection with a holiday or other special occasion, and whether the same gift was given to other public servants.”

Graham Sloan is the director of the Arkansas Ethics Commission, which is responsible for evaluating complaints about potential violations of the rules on gifts. He explained that gifts from close friends and relations are permitted “unless they’re acting as an intermediary for a third party.” 

“If it was just your college roommate who had, you know, struck oil and you all had given gifts over the years, so now it can be conferred,” Sloan said. 

Of course, in Sanders’ case, it might be uniquely difficult to determine whether her relationships — even prior to taking office — are entirely independent of the political realm. Sanders has spent virtually her entire life ensconced in Republican politics. As the daughter of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, she grew up inside the governor’s mansion. Before she was elected to follow in his footsteps in 2022, Sanders had an extensive career in politics. She worked as a strategist for her father and other politicians as well as taking stints as a staffer in the administration of President George W. Bush and behind the White House podium for Trump. 

However, even in cases where Sanders received a gift from someone with whom she had a bonafide independent and personal relationship, Sloan said she would be required to publicly disclose it. 

“Gifts are reported on your statement of financial interest,” he explained.

That annual disclosure document is already highly anticipated among some of Sanders’ critics in light of the Super Bowl trip. After the governor posted the photos of her family at the game, Bell shared them on the site once called Twitter.

“This will make for an interesting SFI next January,” he wrote. 

However, in the past, Sanders’ family football fun has not made it onto her annual financial disclosures. 

On Nov. 26, 2023, Sanders posted another series of pictures with her family at a Chiefs game in Kansas City. The pictures were from earlier in the season since, that day, the Chiefs played the Raiders in Vegas. (While the Raiders were not victorious in that contest, I am pleased to report they beat the Chiefs roughly one month later as head coach Antonio Pierce made progress on cleaning up the mess that was the Josh McDaniels era. But, I digress.)

Travis Kelce with the Sanders family. (Photo: Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Instagram)

Sanders and her family seemed to have extraordinary access for this earlier game as well. The kids even managed to have a moment with Swift’s boyfriend, Travis Kelce.  

The photos the governor shared on social media showed her family posing on the field and in a luxury suite. One picture shows Sanders’ children giving Kelce a high five as he stepped out in his gear. In another photo, Sanders posed with Tavia Hunt, the wife of Chiefs owner Clark Hunt, who is a frequent donor to Republican politicians. Based on the outfit Tavia Hunt was wearing and a post she made in her own account, the prior game Sanders and her family attended took place on Nov. 20 when the Chiefs played the Eagles.

The distinctive windows and arched entranceways in Sanders’ pictures appear to match Hunt’s “opulent” two-level owner’s box rather than any of the standard suites at Kansas City’s Arrowhead Stadium. Based on the photos Tavia Hunt posted on her own Instagram from the game, she and her husband were both in the suite with Sanders. The governor commented on the pictures of the Hunts in the suite with three heart emojis. The Hunts did not respond to requests for comment about whether Sanders and her family were their guests at that game or the Super Bowl.

If Sanders took in a game from a private suite where tickets were not sold on the open market, that means that, according to ethics regulations, her seats were a gift that would have been valued at the game’s highest price. Yet Sanders’ 2023 statement of financial interest does not include any mention of her being gifted tickets to the Chiefs game where she sat in the owners box. 

Sloan, the director of the Arkansas Ethics Commission, said a public official would be required to disclose tickets they received from a sports team owner — even if the owner did not pay for the individual ticket — as a gift on their annual forms. 

“If you’re in a luxury suite, it would be the highest face price ticket to the event,” Sloan said of the scenario.

In other words, unless Sanders somehow managed to secure seats inside the Chiefs private owner’s suite on the open market, it was a gift that had to be disclosed. While there is no mention of any gifted Chiefs tickets on Sanders’ statement of financial interest for last year, which was filed earlier this month, it does include far smaller items like a $150 turkey call and a $109.99 vest for hunting that were received by her husband. Sanders’ office did not answer questions about why the Chiefs tickets from last year were not identified as a gift on her statement of financial interest. 

Tavia Hunt with Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders at Arrowhead Stadium. (Photo: Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ Instagram)

And any tickets received by Sanders and her family are just one part of the calculation. There are also travel, lodging, and security costs. With Sanders declining to answer questions about the game, it is unclear whether she brought along a security detail that would have also needed tickets or whether she used government vehicles to travel to the game. 

In other states, TPM would be able to use open records laws to obtain information about a public official’s use of resources. However, the Freedom of Information Act in Arkansas includes a relatively unusual provision that only allows a “citizen of the State of Arkansas” to make requests for records under the law. And, thanks to the exemptions to the law that were obtained by Sanders, even Arkansans can’t obtain records related to her travel. Bell, the transparency advocate in the state, said it’s a case of Sanders making “what was already a quite bad situation much worse.” 

“In terms of, what do I see as the direction of FOIA in Arkansas? It’s been getting worse progressively,” Bell said. “The governor just stepped on the throttle and said, we’re going to make this worse and we’re going to do it much more quickly.” 

I Don’t Trust Nobody And Nobody Trusts Me 

Sanders’ push to curb FOIA and shield her records from scrutiny comes as there have been multiple controversies over her spending. It’s an issue that her father also faced during his time in the governor’s mansion. In Sanders’ case, the expenses that have previously raised eyebrows have been related to her travel — and to football. 

Last September, as Sanders was pushing for the changes to the Freedom of Information Act, a local reporter named Matt Campbell broke the news that records showed she spent over $19,000 of state funds on a custom made lectern with a travel case before embarking on a trip to Europe. While Sanders’ team tried to blame an “accounting error” on public money being used for the speech accessory, Campbell obtained records via FOIA that called that explanation into question. The state Republican Party reimbursed the cost, but only after there was a public uproar over what became known as “Podiumgate” (or “Lecterngate,” using, for the insufferable among us, the less common but apparently more proper term). And then, in November, Campbell obtained public records and published a story in the Arkansas Times showing Sanders spent over $13,000 in public funds to throw a kickoff party for the University of Arkansas football team at the governor’s mansion. 

For his part, Bell said the biggest issue with the governor’s spending and gifts is the lack of transparency.

“The secrecy itself opens the door to corruption,” Bell said, before adding, “If someone wants to give lavish gifts to the governor, fine, but everybody in the world should know who it is, and know why, and the cost and all the parameters associated with it.”

Other Arkansans have expressed concerns about Sanders’ Super Bowl trip. The local site Magnolia Reporter conducted a poll earlier this month asking readers if they were troubled by Sanders’ presence at the big game. Magnolia Reporter found 37 percent of the respondents had some level of concern with many wanting a “a full accounting” of potential uses of state money or gifts to the governor. While most of the readers who responded said they were not concerned about Sanders’ Vegas jaunt, that came with a caveat that it wasn’t an issue only as long as the governor “paid for this trip out of her own pocket.” 

At the moment, with Sanders staying silent, it’s impossible to say whether or not that’s the case. 

Correction: An earlier version of this post misidentified the teams that were playing when Sanders was seemingly photographed in the Chiefs owners box as her Instagram post was made on the day of a different game.

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Notable Replies

  1. Is it safe to guess that SHS and her Chiefs ‘loving’ family have an in with the Biden campaign or the Deep State?

  2. image

  3. Good ol’ Huckasleeze. Ask an average Arkansan about this and they’ll tell you they not only expect to be massively grifted by their public servants, but they like it. Also Trump is Jesus. Carlin put it best (language warning):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=07w9K2XR3f0

    ETA - I have to disagree on the voting remarks, but the man was a satirist par excellence after all.

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