TAMPA — Last Monday, Rob Higgins was in the security line at Atlanta’s airport, the world’s busiest, which can be a nightmare all by its lonesome but was now stuffed like a fraternity-stunt phone booth as people tried to leave the day after Super Bowl LIII. It was 5:30 a.m.
“The most stressful time at a Super Bowl is getting out,” Higgins, 40, said. “I’m pondering that while I’m standing in line. How long is this going to take? Twenty minutes, 120 minutes? Then you just sort of hear this soothing music, like calming. I didn’t even notice it to begin with. Where’s that coming from? It must be coming through the loudspeakers. Then we come around the column and it’s this little old man playing his guitar. Soft jazz. And the next thing we knew we were at the front of the line. It was one of those things that people didn’t catch.”
Higgins made a note. He makes lots of notes these days. Atlanta was a reconnaissance mission. It goes with his job as president of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee. It has been charged with a “tight turn,” as they say in the major event biz, when Tampa was chosen to host after Los Angeles, originally awarded the game in 2016, had construction delays with its $4.9 billion super stadium.
Tampa Bay to the rescue, again. In case of emergency, break glass.
The clock is ticking. The game is slated for Feb. 7, 2021, and each day Higgins’ phone reminds him how much time is left. The countdown is at 730 days as of today. Higgins also reminds that the NCAA Women’s Final Four is coming to Amalie Arena in April, 56 days away.
Back to the Super Bowl.
“We’re trying to make promises that we cannot only meet but exceed,” Higgins said. “We think we’re in really good shape, but we’ll tell you, the next 730 days are going to be a real sprint.”
It is lost on no one that Super Bowl LV is the fifth for Tampa (previously: XVIII, XXV, XXXV, XLIII), least of all Higgins. For 14 years the Tampa native has been executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which helped secure the College Football Playoff national championship game at Raymond James Stadium in January 2017, which was rated a smashing success.
Only three cities have hosted more Super Bowls than Tampa: Miami, New Orleans and Los Angeles.
“It’s the biggest event in America,” Higgins said. “It’s the biggest stage our city can be on. … As a city in this country, you can either have the resources to host a Super Bowl or not have them. And to have only three cities that have hosted more of them, that’s pretty rarefied air.”
And if Tampa had never hosted its first Super Bowl, what are we today? Ocala?
There is work to do. There are public and private monies to be gathered, 10,000 volunteers to muster, events to plan, logistics to be nailed down. There are a million things on Higgins’ list, and another million after that, no detail too small. And that tight turn.
Tampa, awarded the game in October 2017, has experience at tight turns. Like just last year, after the NHL skipped sending its players to the Winter Olympics and decided to hold an All-Star Game. Find glass, break glass, Tampa Bay’s wheelhouse. Again, an event rated a big success.
“The key to every long-term relationship is trust,” Higgins said. “The fact that these major events trust us in less than ideal circumstances says a lot. New Orleans has it in 2024. They’ve got five years to prepare. We feel like we’re in great shape, though. Our community partners have proven that they’re going to stop at nothing to prove that these major events are a big success. So, we think there’s a lot of credibility there.”
At what price? That has become a question, especially after news leaked of how cities sell their souls in the name of hosting a Super Bowl. In the lead-up to Super Bowl LII in Minneapolis-St. Paul, civic leaders treated the NFL like a sultan: free security, free billboards, guaranteeing NFL all revenue from ticket sales, etc. Atlanta rolled the same way for Super Bowl LIII, all the while knowing that it wouldn’t have gotten the bid without first spending $1.6 billion to build Mercedes-Benz.
Compare that to Raymond James Stadium — total cost with improvements, $300 million — which is going to be hosting its third Super Bowl.
Ain’t life a kick?
Higgins won’t divulge what Tampa Bay has agreed to for this game, but he knows what people might think.
“We think everything we’ve agreed to is going to have a great return on investment,” he said. “We’re not doing anything if the return on investment isn’t there. Our soul is intact.”
Back to the Super Bowl.
“This is the best community in the country,” Higgins said. “We should be hosting these events. We should be hosting Super Bowls. We’ve got to do a great job with our fifth, but we should be thinking about the potential for our sixth. Women’s Final Four, we were awarded our third before having our second. We’ve already had two. It’s the stage that we should be on.”
The fact-finding trip to Atlanta mattered. Accompanying Higgins were host committee co-chairs Will Weatherford and Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks, support staff, Raymond James Stadium staff and public safety reps. I can just picture Brooks taking detailed notes as if the Bucs great was watching game film. He was always like that.
“We were most interested to see how the airport dealt with the worst travel day, how they addressed it, and it went really well,” Higgins said. “And they did a great job, the centralized campus, with Super Bowl Live, they had a really good footprint, everything downtown. Super Bowl Live at Centennial Park was the biggest takeaway.
“We’ve been studying the Atlanta Super Bowl for a year, since the Minneapolis one ended. We’ve read hundreds of articles in the last week on Atlanta. They had minor things, but they did great handling everything that was thrown at them.
“A lot of notes, a lot of pictures. The Women’s Final Four in April, we’re going to take the best from it and roll it into the Super Bowl blueprint, just as we have with previous Super Bowls. You look at the CFP blueprint with the Riverwalk as a backdrop, that’s a huge part of what the Super Bowl will be. It’s something no one else can offer.”
There is always the unexpected.
And there was the manmade disaster at Super Bowl XXXV in 2001, when Tampa held a Super Bowl and Gasparilla on the same weekend.
“We’ve turned the page and are focused on 2021, not 2001,” Higgins said with a smile. “But NHL All-Star last year worked extremely well with Gasparilla, but that’s probably the right size event with Gasparilla. You’re only as good as your last event, so we work with that urgency in mind.”
Some people would be happy with a decent Super Bowl logo. Those are few and far between in recent years, strictly kindergarten art class.
“The NFL is producing the official event logo, while we are focused on the host committee logo,” Higgins said. “We think about that kind of stuff relentlessly. Yeah, we doodle. It’s a big part of this opportunity, to leverage this as much as possible from a marketing standpoint. If somebody hates our logo, that’s a problem for us.
“I love selling Tampa Bay. It’s a community that is big enough to host five Super Bowls but small enough to get anything you need done through relationships. You have small-town comfort, but it can also be successful on the biggest stage there is.”
Lots of notes, lots of pictures. Higgins showed a picture on his phone: That white-haired man and with his guitar at the airport.
“My guy,” he said.
It all matters.
730 days to go.
Contact Martin Fennelly at [email protected] or (813) 731-8029. Follow @mjfennelly