The Thrill-Seekers Who Sneak Into the Super Bowl: ‘The Risk Has Always Been Outweighed by the Reward’
Robert Silverman examines the rich history of people sneaking into the priciest event in all of sports.
Of the estimated 71,000-plus fans expected to cram into Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII on Sunday, it’s a near-lock that one or two will get in without paying. Whether driven by the need for a bit of viral fame, the thousands it costs to buy a ticket, or the thrill of committing a misdemeanor, almost every year someone manages to subvert the massive surveillance and security apparatus the NFL and the federal government installs in the host city, by hook or by crook.
One person who got away with this low-level crime is Trevor Kraus, a 27-year-old from St. Louis, who has retired from gatecrashing and is teaching English in Madrid. But during his six-year heyday, he managed to hustle and scamper his way into 31 sporting events across the globe: Wimbledon, the Copa Libertadores in Buenos Aires, the National League Championship Series, the World Series, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, big-time college football games, and, of course, the Super Bowl. His book, Ticketless, documented 22 of these escapades.
Reached by phone, Kraus said sneaking into games wasn’t just a source of fun and treasured memories, but significantly changed his life’s trajectory—and very much for the better. The road trips, the hours spent scoping out stadiums and concocting plans, and developing his patented “spin move” (more on this later), pulled him out of a serious depression he was mired in after his father died. When he was dodging rent-a-cops, “all of that disappeared,” he said. Gatecrashing made Kraus feel invulnerable, accepted, surrounded by friends, and armed with a clear purpose. To put it simply: “It made me feel cool.”
Growing up, Kraus had been a diehard fan of the local St. Louis teams: the Rams (who’ve since ditched Missouri for Los Angeles), Cardinals, Blues, and the University of Missouri. At age 8, his parents divorced. He and his younger brother spent their weekends at his father’s apartment, and sports became an indelible part of that fabric. Invariably they’d hunker down on the couch, watching games on television.
But it wasn’t until his freshman year at Mizzou that Kraus flouted the law. In March 2010, He and a group of friends hit the road, trekking all the way to Buffalo, New York, for the NCAA Tournament. They’d bought tickets for the early game, but Gonzaga—another school Kraus rooted for—was playing later that evening against Syracuse, and Kraus was determined to see them in person.
Thanks to a part-time job in high school as ticket taker at the Scottrade Center (now called the Enterprise Center), Kraus knew there would be an hour-long break between the afternoon and evening games. More to the point, while stadium personnel do their level best to boot everyone who attended the first game out, they weren’t always successful. (Kraus said he often used that ostensible downtime to snag a snack and chill in the break room.)
After the buzzer sounded, they scooted all the way up to the upper deck of the arena and found a hiding place behind a curtain and inside an industrial-sized dumpster. There, crouched in garbage, they waited for approximately 45 minutes. When they heard a new batch of fans clattering about, they exited the bin and plopped down in a few unused seats. From that moment on, “I realized how easy it can be and how minimal the consequences are likely to be,” recalled Kraus.
Of course, Kraus doesn’t really know what those consequences might be. He’s only been caught without a legit ticket twice, and on both occasions, security didn’t call the police. Even if he had been charged with trespassing or loitering, “For me,” he said, “the risk has always been outweighed by the reward.”
While in college, his father’s health took a turn for the worse. Though his father was only 49 years old, he’d been sent to an adult-care facility, wracked with depression and unable to live on his own. In October 2011, he passed away in a car crash. Kraus has never been clinically diagnosed, but he described himself as deeply depressed at the time, haunted by the fear that he was destined to suffer a similar fate.
“I was worried that I would be alone forever because I’d had no luck romantically,” he said. I felt like I was a loser—a virgin, no girlfriend, and I just kept striking out over and over.”
So Kraus leaned into gatecrashing, honing his craft and refining what he called his “spin move.” No, he doesn’t actually spin his way out of someone’s clutches, though that was the inspiration. “Well, if they reach out to grab me, I’ll just spin out of their grasp,” Kraus recalled thinking. Members of his fraternity adopted and adapted the term, using it to describe a frat brother extricating himself from all manner of sticky situations, and so “the name just stuck.”
Actually, the spin move is a descriptor of his overall strategy. To wit: Kraus realized that for most sporting events, there’s no layer of defense once you’ve hurdled the initial obstacle, the ticket taker. Most of the time, that means futzing with his pockets and acting as if he’s misplaced his ticket at the front gate. The instant a ticket taker is otherwise occupied or looks the other way, he’ll break off into a dead sprint. Best-case scenario, the entrance to the stadium is located near a staircase. If he can reach the concourse, the throng of fans serves as a natural camouflage.
Wearing a shirt or jacket with the home team’s colors helps him blend in and can be quickly ditched if Kraus thinks he’s been spotted and followed. “If I can get into that crowd of people, I’d be very difficult to catch,” said Kraus. Since stadium security tends to mobilize by the entrance, once he makes it up a flight or two, “That’s all she wrote.”
Getting into the 2012 Super Bowl, though, required more than blasting his way past security, Namely, he needed something that could pass for a ticket. Kraus did some digging online and found a photo of that year’s version. In recent years, the NFL has tried to keep the ticket design a secret for as long as humanly possible to get a leg up on the counterfeiters. (The league’s ongoing partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has helped cut down on the millions in illegal profits.) But Kraus was friendly with a teaching assistant at Mizzou who was a “whiz at Photoshop,” he said. Maybe, he asked, they would help him with some light forgery?
The resulting product was more than passable, but it lacked the proper weight and heft. Kraus glued the Photoshopped image onto an old ticket from a Major League Baseball All-Star Game and tucked it into the accompanying lanyard. He made his way through the metal detector at the initial checkpoint, but the bottom barcode wasn’t scanning. The befuddled ticket taker furrowed her brow, motioned Kraus off to the side, and got her supervisor on the phone. While she was momentarily distracted, Kraus considered making a mad dash into the stadium. Instead of revealing his guilt, Kraus dutifully followed orders and awaited his near-certain doom.
In a back room, the supervisor removed the ticket from the lanyard and “started peeling away at it, and we both saw very clearly, a picture of [St. Louis] Cardinals outfielder Matt Holliday swinging a bat,” said Kraus. Whether or not the supervisor saw through his clumsy ruse, Kraus still can’t say for sure. Regardless, he told Kraus, “Oh. Your ticket got stuck to an old baseball ticket.” In a state of semi-shock, he played dumb and encouraged the supervisor to scan the top barcode. Amazingly, it worked. The scanner pumped out a green checkmark, and the supervisor handed the forgery back to Kraus, saying, “Terribly sorry about that, sir, enjoy the game.” As far as Kraus can tell, the supervisor assumed he’d forked over a near-fortune to a scalper or forger and “took pity” on him, he said. “We’ll never know for sure.”
Kraus is far from the only Super Bowl interloper to rely on seemingly rudimentary techniques. In 2013, two college students posed as documentary filmmakers, recording their entire journey. Like Kraus, they were shocked to discover how little resistance they met. “I wonder what’s going on—they should’ve stopped us, they should’ve stopped us but they didn't,” one said.
Similarly, in 2015, two Irishmen bypassed security by alternating between burying their heads in their phone and blending in with first aid workers, eventually snagging two seats in the fourth row for the entirety of the second half. “We just thought if we pretend we belong there, nobody will question us,” Dubliner Richard Whelan told The Independent.
Two years later, a group of pranksters achieved a measure of viral notoriety after posting videos on YouTube alleging they’d gotten to witness the New England Patriots’ thrilling comeback win thanks to a ladder. Alas, after being grilled by NFL officials, they gave up the goods, admitting it was all a not-that-elaborate hoax. “It was an edited video that made it appear as if they were there,” NFL Spokesman Brian McCarthy told the Boston Globe. “It was a ridiculous story to begin with.”
Ridiculous or not, McCarthy apparently was unaware of the two Houston locals who did manage to hurdle various fences and dodge a security guard or two during Super Bowl LI. Unlike their online fame-thirsty counterparts, their videos hadn’t been fabricated.
(The Daily Beast reached out to the 2018 Atlanta Super Bowl LIII Host Committee and Joe Coomer, the vice president of security at AMB Sports + Entertainment, to ask if any additional security measures had been undertaken to prevent these incursions. They said all inquiries should be directed to NFL security and McCarthy, both of whom did not respond prior to publication.)
Then there’s Matthew Mills, who described himself as an “independent journalist” when interviewed by NJ Advance Media. Mills didn’t care whether or not he got to see the Seattle Seahawks pummel the Denver Broncos. Rather, he snuck into the post-game presser, jumped up behind the podium, and demanded that the assembled sporting press (and presumably, some of the viewers at home) “Investigate 9/11,” he said. “9/11 was perpetrated by people within our own government,” he offered, before being quickly escorted off the stage.
He was subsequently placed under arrest, but evidently it was not enough to stanch Mills’s penchant for insane conspiracy theories (and additional arrests).
But no one has achieved greater fame from gatecrashing than Dion Rich. With the help of a closetful of disguises, forged passes, false identities, and schmoozed connections, the self-described World’s Greatest Gatecrasher has snuck into 35 Super Bowls. At the first-ever NFL championship, Rich somehow managed to climb on the podium with then-NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle as the trophy was handed over to Vince Lombardi. Nor has Rich limited his gatecrashing to sports. He’s attended Academy Awards, hobnobbed with Hollywood glitterati at exclusive after-parties, and rubbed elbows with Playboy Playmates at Hugh Hefner’s mansion, all without a ticket or invitation.
The former ticket broker and plugged-in socialite, now age 89, is currently retired and living in San Diego. By phone, Rich told The Daily Beast that he started sneaking in before he could walk. At the 1932 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, his parents ferreted in 2-year-old Rich because “they couldn’t find a babysitter,” he joked. (Yes, he later snuck into multiple Olympic Games as an adult.) Rich proved so adept at foiling the best-laid plans of the NFL that they eventually “put a sting operation on me” for Super Bowl XXIII.
As far as advice for would-be gatecrashers, “First of all, you have to dress the part,” said Rich. If that means ponying up the cash for a pricey tuxedo rental in order to mingle with the well-to-do set, so be it. “Then you walk in like you own the place. You don’t run, you don’t stroll in. You walk in like you’re slightly—a couple minutes—late,” he said. The combination of low-level worry and absolute confidence tends to dissuade bouncers and various gatekeepers from checking your credentials.
Via email, Kraus agreed: “Start with a media-entrance ruse of some kind. Walk up and say, ‘I’m supposed to be meeting with So and So, VP of Corporate Such and Such.’”
If all that fails, then it’s time to go full spin move. Preparation, though, is still the key to success.
“Do your homework, know where entrances lead, and look behind the ticket takers to see the second layer. Any security, cops, or supervisors? What’s the fastest route to the top level of the stadium?” he said. “But once you’ve done that homework, turn your brain off and let adrenaline be your friend—it won’t steer you wrong.”
Over the years, more than a few acolytes have contacted Kraus, largely on Twitter, looking to take up his mantle. He hopes they do so. Sneaking into games, especially the Super Bowl, remains a “victimless” crime, Kraus said. If a true fan, a devoted fan, has enough passion and determination, “That’s the person who deserves to be in the arena more than someone who can afford multiple hundred dollars for a ticket.”