BLOOMINGTON, Minn. — Jill Schmidt normally comes to the Mall of America on Tuesdays. Hardly anyone is there, and she's able to roam the fashion and retail mecca with relative ease.
That wasn't the case this week. While the mother of three was shopping Tuesday for Valentine's Day gifts for her kids, she and friend Angie Shannon swung up to the third floor of the mall, which they found transformed into a Super Bowl media headquarters. Schmidt clutched her Steve Madden bag while snapping an iPhone photo of Shannon, who was standing in a plastic oversize football helmet set up for visitors.
"It's exciting to showcase the city, for people to know we actually have stores and cars and don't go everywhere in horses and buggies," Schmidt, 52, joked. "It's like, ever heard of the Mall of America?"
Of course folks have heard of the Mall of America. Its 520 retailers, restaurants and attractions on almost five million square feet make it the biggest in the country, though there's plenty of debate as to whether the King of Prussia Mall actually wears the crown. While King of Prussia has about 100 fewer stores, purists will boast that it offers more retail footage (nearly 3 million square feet) than Mall of America (about 2.5 million).
Schmidt had heard of King of Prussia, but has never visited. Ditto for Shannon, also a 52-year-old mother of three from the Minneapolis suburbs. But the women would probably have a field day at King of Prussia; it's a retail dream for the luxury-mall patron.
Mall of America, in Bloomington, about 10 miles south of downtown Minneapolis, just feels different. It's heavy on entertainment; the center of the mall is a theme park with 27 rides, including a full-size roller-coaster and the largest zip line in North America. There's an aquarium. An 18-hole miniature golf course. A nightly light show. Two hotels call the mall home.
This place sees about 40 million visitors a year, 40 percent of whom are tourists, mall officials say. They also say the complex generates $2 billion a year in economic impact for the state of Minnesota.
You wouldn't know that talking to people in Minneapolis. Officials are urging members of the media, who congregate in the mall, where the NFL has set up official work space, to get out of Bloomington and feature downtown Minneapolis in their coverage of the Super Bowl this week.
The media presence in the Mall of America, though, is a spectacle in itself. Radio and television broadcasters are stationed throughout the mall, while what's called "radio row" — a massive conglomeration of broadcasters from around the world — is set up for the week outside one of the mall's two food courts.
Stephen A. Smith's show broadcasts live 30 feet from a Shake Shack. CBS Sports Network is coming to you from the Moose Mountain Adventure Golf course. NBC Sports is set up next to a T-Mobile store. A small TV station on Sunday was broadcasting next to a Chick-fil-A.
The whole setup is dotted with signs reading, "No autographs."
Crowds have been lingering while their favorite broadcast personalities conduct interviews with everyone from random fans to ex-professional athletes. The area is packed with Eagles and Patriots supporters. Wear a jersey and you can almost guarantee you'll be interviewed by someone.
Robert Green, a 54-year-old from Eden Prairie, was interviewed more times than he could count Tuesday. He was walking around the broadcasting area wearing a T-shirt that read: "I'm a Vikings fan. Go Patriots!"
His rap — how disappointed he was about the way Minnesota fans were treated in Philadelphia — did brisk business before a sea of microphones.
Green revealed another motivation when an Inquirer and Daily News reporter asked what he was doing in the mall Tuesday.
"Just advertising my shirt," he conceded.
Chris Johnson and his stepson Ryan Lemon, both from Wisconsin, stopped at the mall on their way into Minneapolis — just to see what it looked like. But they attracted plenty of attention on their own. Johnson, 46, was wearing a Pats jersey. Lemon, 20, rocked midnight-green Birds gear.
They swear there's no smack-talk. Yet. Johnson said they were just happy to take in the atmosphere.
"If the NFL wants to be more fan-friendly," he said, "this is the perfect place."
Meanwhile, Chandler Sentell, a 29-year-old high school basketball coach who lives in Highland Park, snapped photos of some of his favorite radio broadcasters who were stationed near an outpost of Carlo's Bakery. Wearing a "Gang Green" shirt and sporting a perma-smile, Sentell said he's a dedicated Eagles fan. That's because his mother, who died in January 2015, was born in Philadelphia.
She was a Birds fan, too.