Hosting a Super Bowl is stressful for any destination with months of planning, countless meetings and every detail checked repeatedly. That could be the lines on the field, lines at a fan event or lines in a makeshift parking lot.
Now try to picture all of the organizational work that entails hosting one of the biggest sporting events in the world while working under the stress of the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced people to turn dining rooms into home offices, damaged the economy and forced socially distanced events with a fraction of a stadium’s capacity.
Through all of the difficulties, Tampa Bay’s host committee for Super Bowl LV has stayed focused on February 7’s kickoff.
“This is going to be a fantastic shot in the arm when our community really needs it,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the host committee and of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “Some people would look at it as the glass is half empty. We look at it as the glass is three-quarters full.”
Higgins points to response from the community that includes the most hotel rooms that the region has booked since the pandemic started and double the passenger traffic at the Tampa International Airport compared to recent months. While some in-person events traditionally part of Super Bowl week have been canceled, the Super Bowl Experience Presented by Lowe’s will be set up along Tampa Bay’s three-mile Riverwalk with health and safety protocols in place — and for the first time, the event will be free to attendees.
“We absolutely love the Super Bowl and appreciate the Super Bowl and I don’t think anything can dampen that,” Higgins said on the SportsTravel Podcast. “It’s not about the events that won’t happen or the hotel rooms that won’t happen, it’s about the ones that will.”
[SportsTravel Podcast with Rob Higgins: Inside Tampa Bay’s Plans for Hosting Super Bowl LV]
Super Bowl LV will mark the fifth time that the game will be in Tampa Bay and the third at Raymond James Stadium. The destination has seen two of the most dramatic finishes in Super Bowl history — Pittsburgh beating Arizona 27-23 on a touchdown pass with 35 seconds remaining in 2009 and Scott Norwood’s missed field goal with eight seconds to play as the Buffalo Bills lost to the New York Giants 20-19 in 1991. It has also hosted two of the more dominant performances in the game’s lore: Marcus Allen’s 191 yards rushing as the then-Los Angeles Raiders beat Washington 38-9 in 1984 and Baltimore’s dominating defensive earning the Ravens a 34-7 win over the Giants in 2001.
As Higgins noted, two of those games were held under challenging circumstances. The 1991 game kicked off within weeks of the Gulf War starting and the 2009 contest was held during the Great Recession.
“When we went on the clock last February, who knew that things would unfold the way they have,” he said. “There’s been a lot of twists and turns throughout. (But) we want to do a great job maximizing the opportunity for our community. When you think about what a Super Bowl does for economic impact and social impact and the marketing value that you receive, as a community, no matter what it looks like, we have to maximize what we can being on this incredible stage. … the NFL and Team Tampa Bay partnership has never been stronger. Certainly, it’s been battle-tested these past 10 or 11 months and we’re just so proud and so appreciative of this incredible opportunity to host the Super Bowl when really our community needs it the most.”
The community impact is highlighted by the partnership between the NFL and Super Bowl LV Host Committee on “Forever 55,” a social legacy initiative highlighted by 55 consecutive days of activities with civic partners throughout Tampa Bay. A $2 million investment by the local host committee and NFL is part of the project.
“We went on a listening tour when this (planning) process started and went to community leaders and found out what our key areas of need are,” Higgins said, pointing to things such as early childhood education, food insecurity, health and wellness, systemic justice as well as health and the environment. “We built out a strategic plan with our partners and now we’ve been executing it. … it’s not just about the lead-up to February 7, it’s about leaving a lasting impact and legacy. That’s what the NFL is all about and what we’re all about. Because of that setup and investment and partners involved, this is a Super Bowl that will leave a lasting legacy for a lifetime.”
The focus on a Super Bowl bringing community improvements also extends to the long-term tourism aspect. “There’s no bigger stage out there and it’s not just about the impact that it can make financially on a community,” Higgins said. “From a media value standpoint, the eyes of the world are really upon you.”
Some of those eyes, of course, come because there will not be a capacity crowd on hand. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers — still in the NFC Playoffs with a chance of being the first home team in a Super Bowl — started allowing fans in early October and by season’s end were allowing up to 16,000 fans per game. The NFL announced on January 22 that it will have 7,500 vaccinated health care workers in attendance along with 14,500 additional fans for a total of 22,000 at the game.
While the Super Bowl will bring the eyes of the world on Tampa Bay, the game is the latest in a defining stretch for the city’s sports scene. It started last year with the Tampa Bay Lightning winning the franchise’s second Stanley Cup in the NHL, followed by the Tampa Bay Rays reaching the World Series. The Tampa Bay Rowdies also advanced to the USL Championship game before it was cancelled because of COVID-19.
“Team Tampa Bay is on a little bit of a roll here,” Higgins said. “We don’t want to jinx it, we want to keep it rolling. But certainly it’s a great time for our sports teams and we love seeing our fans get rewarded for everything they continue to do to support them. The future’s bright here. We can’t be more excited to see how things unfold.”