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Can Tampa’s Super Bowl 55 halftime show get spectacle at a distance?

To pull off the feat of transforming a stadium, the NFL says the crew will be tested and “everyone will be wearing a mask.”
Fireworks explode during the Super Bowl XVIII halftime show at Tampa Stadium in in 1984. Industry estimates put the 13-minute halftime show spectacle at $1 million a minute these days.
Fireworks explode during the Super Bowl XVIII halftime show at Tampa Stadium in in 1984. Industry estimates put the 13-minute halftime show spectacle at $1 million a minute these days. [ STAFF | Times (1984) ]
Published Feb. 2

The Super Bowl halftime show Sunday will be the second consecutive one for the NFL’s title game produced by hip-hop music mogul Jay-Z’s Roc Nation entertainment company. With the Weeknd as the headliner, Jay-Z appears to again be aiming for edgy, diverse acts.

But Super Bowl 55 brings another element to the planning: the coronavirus.

Jay-Z’s first Super Bowl outing, last year at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, starred Shakira and Jennifer Lopez. The show was widely praised for its entertainment value and its brazen political content, a change from the classic rock acts of past shows dominated by white musicians.

For Tampa’s show, Roc Nation has tapped veteran live-event producer Jesse Collins, the event’s first Black executive producer.

Related: What a major sporting event is like in the COVID-19 era

In addition to the Weeknd, country star Eric Church will pair with R&B artist Jazmine Sullivan to sing the national anthem. Grammy-winning singer H.E.R., who has earned critical acclaim for her live performances, will perform America the Beautiful. Deaf rapper and recording artist Warren “WAWA” Snipe will perform the Star Spangled Banner and America the Beautiful in American Sign Language.

The Weeknd has had five No. 1 hits, including Can’t Feel My Face. His 2020 album, After Hours, is the most-streamed R&B album of all time, followed by his 2016 album, Starboy, at No. 2. His retro track Blinding Lights went platinum and broke the record for Billboard’s longest-running No. 1 on its U.S. radio chart.

As a performer on Saturday Night Live and Jimmy Kimmel Live!, the Canadian artist — whose real name is Abel Tesfaye — has tended to favor elaborate, high-concept stage settings that can easily translate into a stadium environment.

In a recent interview with Billboard, Tesfaye said he added $7 million of his own money to the production budget for the haltime show to make sure it would be as elaborate as he has envisioned. “We’ve been really focusing on dialing in on the fans at home and making performances a cinematic experience, and we want to do that with the Super Bowl,” he said.

Putting on an exciting live show during a pandemic can be tough to pull off.

At the Billboard Music Awards in October, artists appeared on soundstages without an audience. At the Country Music Association Awards in November in Nashville, a socially distanced but largely unmasked live audience was present for a supper-club feel for the show’s main performers.

For the Super Bowl halftime show, it typically takes hundreds of people to transform in a few minutes a stadium into a concert stage incorporating lasers, strobes, pyrotechnics and a video wall. Then hundreds of preselected fans rush onto the field. The show is over in 12 or 13 minutes, and then the field needs to be cleared again without damaging it for the players.

British director Hamish Hamilton has helmed the shows since 2010, and in between he has directed just about every TV awards-show broadcast worth tweeting about, from the MTV Video Music Awards to the Oscars. He tends to go big on spectacle.

Industry estimates say the halftime shows cost $1 million a minute these days. More than 700 people were required last year in order to deliver a spectacle. The reason? The audience is sometimes bigger for the halftime show than for the game. In 2015, pop star Katy Perry raked in 120 million viewers, compared with the game’s 114.4 million viewers, giving Perry the most-watched halftime show, Nielsen data says.

Related: Super Bowl in Tampa will only have 24,700 fans in the stands, including vaccinated health care workers

Raymond James Stadium will have 25 percent of its usual capacity to help with social distancing. The 24,700 people there will include 7,500 vaccinated health care workers who are being given free tickets.

The show’s crew will be tested for the coronavirus before the Super Bowl, said NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy, “and every single person, from the audience to the crew to all the workers, will be wearing a mask.”

All Super Bowl plans are being worked on in conjunction with the city of Tampa, Hillsborough County and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “to put on an event that will be safe and responsible,” McCarthy said.

The city of Tampa said it has been pleased with the planning.

“The health and safety of our community is paramount, and the NFL and the host committee have been fantastic community partners,” city spokesperson Ashley Bauman said. “As always, we recommend everyone follow CDC guidelines, wear a mask and stay socially distant.”

Ensuring that Tampa’s Super Bowl doesn’t become a superspreader event will be largely up to those in attendance, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor has said. The strategy is to encourage “personal responsibility.”

The NFL came calling for Jay-Z for its halftime show after artists across the music industry said they would not work with the league to show solidarity with Colin Kaepernick, the former 49ers quarterback who in the 2016 season began kneeling during the playing of the national anthem before games to protest police brutality and racial injustice. Kaepernick hasn’t played in the NFL since that season.

Jay-Z himself turned down a Super Bowl spot and famously addressed the saga in a 2018 song, rapping “I said no to the Super Bowl, you need me, I don’t need you.”

When the NFL agreement with Roc Nation was announced in 2019, Jay-Z said he still supported Kaepernick, but he has said he is using this platform to show a wider range of artists who are free to express themselves without corporate interference.

Jennifer Lopez performs during the halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2020 in Miami. It typically takes hundreds of people to pull off the feat of transforming a stadium in just a few minutes into a concert stage.
Jennifer Lopez performs during the halftime show at the Super Bowl in 2020 in Miami. It typically takes hundreds of people to pull off the feat of transforming a stadium in just a few minutes into a concert stage. [ ADAM HUNGER | AP ]

The partnership may have helped the NFL boost its halftime show compared with 2019′s Maroon 5 performance, but the league has struggled with Kaepernick’s legacy. Last year, as protests occurred around the country over police shootings of Black people, several NFL players released a video demanding the league condemn racism and the systemic oppression of Black people. Commissioner Roger Goodell responded saying the league was wrong for not listening to players fighting for racial equality and had erred in how it had dealt with player protests of police brutality and systemic racism over the past few years.

Beyonce performs at the Super Bowl halftime show in New Orleans. Hundreds of pre-selected fans are usually picked ahead of time to rush on the field to add a crowd element.
Beyonce performs at the Super Bowl halftime show in New Orleans. Hundreds of pre-selected fans are usually picked ahead of time to rush on the field to add a crowd element.

Roc Nation asked Goodell to spend $100 million on social justice outreach and causes over the next decade as part of their partnership. The league has broadcast public service videos addressing stories of Black people who were killed by police.

While it is unclear how Church and Sullivan will be performing the national anthem, the teaming of a white country singer with a Black R&B artist to sing for The Star Spangled Banner seems intended to resonate.

Contact Sharon Kennedy Wynne at swynne@tampabay.com or 727-893-8595. Follow @SharonKWn.