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Remembering Tampa’s experience hosting Super Bowls over the years

Ahead of Super Bowl 55, a look back at the last 4 championship games hosted in Hillsborough.
Fans cheer on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl 43 in 2009; The front page of the St. Petersburg Times Jan. 23, 1984 featured an image taken during Super Bowl 18; Whitney Houston's iconic performance of the Star Spangled Banner during Super Bowl 25 in 2000.
Fans cheer on the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals during Super Bowl 43 in 2009; The front page of the St. Petersburg Times Jan. 23, 1984 featured an image taken during Super Bowl 18; Whitney Houston's iconic performance of the Star Spangled Banner during Super Bowl 25 in 2000. [ Tampa Bay Times Archives ]
Published Jan. 27
Updated Jan. 28

Tampa has four Super Bowl hosting experiences under its belt. And the fifth is shaping up to be historic, between the coronavirus pandemic and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers becoming the first team to play a Super Bowl in their home stadium.

Before the Bucs take on the Kansas City Chiefs Feb. 7, let’s look back at Tampa’s previous hosting gigs.

Super Bowl 18

Tampa’s first Super Bowl was held at the old Tampa Stadium, aka the Big Sombrero, in 1984. The Los Angeles Raiders beat the Washington Football Team 38-9.

Newspapers around the nation billed Super Bowl 18 as Tampa’s “coming out party” as a major city – its first event on an international stage. Prior to this Super Bowl, Miami was the only Florida city to host the big game and Tampa – despite being home to the Buccaneers – was still best known for spring training, professional wrestling and Jai Alai.

”A decade of sports growth in a city that had little more to cheer than a small college team 10 years ago will climax today when Tampa realizes a dream – hosting Super Bowl 18,” the Associated Press wrote.

Front page of the St. Petersburg Times, January 23, 1984. Features coverage of Super Bowl 18 between the Los Angeles Raiders and the Washington Football Team.
Front page of the St. Petersburg Times, January 23, 1984. Features coverage of Super Bowl 18 between the Los Angeles Raiders and the Washington Football Team. [ St. Petersburg Times ]

The Palm Beach Post wrote that Tampa was “smallest host city in the 18-year history of the Super Bowl.”

The most notable commercial that ran was the iconic “1984″ advertisement that introduced the Apple Macintosh computer.

The “Salute to the Superstars of the Silver Screen” halftime show starred the University of Florida and Florida State University marching bands, which performed songs from Hollywood musicals. Goofy danced onto the field wearing a white tuxedo and top hat. Minnie, donning a fruit basket headpiece, was carried in on a throne.

Minnie Mouse waves to the crowd during the Super Bowl 18 halftime show at Tampa Stadium, Jan. 22, 1984.
Minnie Mouse waves to the crowd during the Super Bowl 18 halftime show at Tampa Stadium, Jan. 22, 1984. [ STAFF | St. Petersburg Times ]

The St. Petersburg Times reported after the game that the team owners in attendance had “rave reviews” for Tampa as a host city and were confident the game would return in the coming years. Still, there were some negative critiques. A lack of night life was one and the size of the stadium was the other. Played at the since-razed Tampa Stadium, the Super Bowl crowd of 72,920 was the smallest in 10 years, the Times reported.

Related: Sinatra, nudists, Bern’s and upsets: 55 reminders of past Super Bowl stories and quirks in Tampa Bay.

Super Bowl 25

The Super Bowl returned to Tampa in 1991. It was impacted by two off-the-field issues: race and war.

The first Gasparilla Parade of Pirates was held in 1904 but by 1991 the event host, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, had never had a Black member. Civil rights leaders sought to change that. They didn’t care about dressing as pirates and tossing beads. Rather, as one of Tampa’s premiere social organizations, they said, the krewe was a symbol of exclusion.

Civil rights leaders saw America’s biggest sporting event as an opportunity to shed light on their campaign for equality. Gasparilla’s lack of diversity became national news. ”There’s no honor among pirates,” read a Palm Beach Post headline.

Hoping to avoid embarrassment, the NFL and the city of Tampa, pressed the krewe to open up its ranks. Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman threatened to pull in-kind services provided by the city, such as police security. The krewe canceled the event instead.

”Scrapping a segregated parade saved the NFL a headache,” the Philadelphia Inquirer wrote.

The city planned a substitute event, Bamboleo, a parade promoted as multi-cultural. It rained that day. The event bombed.

Whitney Houston lip syncing a pre recording she did of the national anthem before Super Bowl 25 may be the most memorable moment in Tampa Stadium history.
Whitney Houston lip syncing a pre recording she did of the national anthem before Super Bowl 25 may be the most memorable moment in Tampa Stadium history. [ Times (1991) ]

The Super Bowl that year is best remembered for Whitney Houston’s stunning rendition of the national anthem and Scott Norwood’s field goal that missed wide right to secure the New York Giants a 20 – 19 victory over the Buffalo Bills.

But the Persian Gulf War was the talk of pregame. In the era before 9/11, stadium security was so lax that fans were known to sneak into the Super Bowl. But this time the stadium boosted military security due to fear of a terror attack in response to the United States’ role in the Gulf War.

”Super Bowl a tasteless mix of football and war,” read a Miami Herald headline a few days after the game.

”An Orwellian picture from 1984,” is how the article described the scene. “Thousands and thousands and thousands of people waited in lines for up to an hour or more, each of them treated as would-be-terrorists, searched and frisked and buzzed by machines, all because they wanted to enter a football stadium.

“Sharpshooters were on the roof of the stadium,” continued the critique. “Attack helicopters were flying above. Buses and trucks encircled the stadium, which, in turn, were inside a high fence that encircled the stadium. Selling fear is the newest industry in the United States. It was sold here by the truck load and the bus load.”

In the ESPN documentary the Four Falls of Buffalo about the Bills’ four Super Bowl losses, Buffalo’s general manager Bill Polian said, “It was really shocking to think this surrounded a football game because that had never happened before.”

Super Bowl 35

Gus Pantelides of Clearwater joined many others hoping to buy tickets to watch the Baltimore Ravens play the New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium during the 2011 Super Bowl.
Gus Pantelides of Clearwater joined many others hoping to buy tickets to watch the Baltimore Ravens play the New York Giants at Raymond James Stadium during the 2011 Super Bowl. [ SCHROEDER-NORTON, JANEL | Times (2001) ]

The 2001 Super Bowl was Tampa’s first to take place at Raymond James Stadium. The Ravens defeated the Giants 34–7.

While controversial during Tampa’s previous Super Bowl, Gasparilla was moved up to become an officially sanctioned Super Bowl weekend event. NFL officials and team owners even boarded the Starlight Princess pirate ship to join the Gasparilla invasion the day before the game.

A whopping 750,000 attended the Gasparilla festivities — twice as many as usual. The throngs clogged traffic, preventing many visitors from reaching the Super Bowl festivities.

Crowds pack the streets along 7th Avenue in Ybor City for the weekend festivities prior to the 2001 Super Bowl.
Crowds pack the streets along 7th Avenue in Ybor City for the weekend festivities prior to the 2001 Super Bowl. [ Times (2001) ]

Still, the Tampa Tribune wrote about Super Bowl 35 more favorably than it did in previous years, featuring quotes from a number of officials who praised the smooth combination of events.

“It seemed to make everything even more festive,” NFL spokesperson Vince Casey told the Tribune. “It put the icing on the cake.”

A pregame show called “Life’s Super in Central Florida” featured a performance by Sting and plenty of pirate imagery. Ye Mystic Krewe, criticized during the previous Super Bowl, was invited to blast cannons and “invade” the field with dancers dressed in swashbuckling outfits. Aerosmith performed at halftime, joined by Britney Spears, Mary J. Blige, NSYNC and Nelly.

Onscreen, Tampa provided the setting for an Everybody Loves Raymond episode that year. The plot revolved around Ray’s decision to not bring Debra with him to the Super Bowl. Filming took place in California, but many cast members came to the Super Bowl 35 for promotional purposes.

Super Bowl 43

Super Bowl 43 between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida.
Super Bowl 43 between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers on February 1, 2009 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. [ FITTERER, BRENDAN | Times (2009) ]

Tampa’s most recent Super Bowl in 2009 ended with a thrilling 27-23 win by the Pittsburgh Steelers over the Arizona Cardinals.

Due to the economic downturn that year, several off-field elements of the game saw major changes.

“The Big Three automakers — Ford, Chrysler and General Motors — did not purchase television advertisements,” the Tampa Tribune wrote. “Several over-the-top parties were canceled. There were 200 fewer journalists covering the game.”

Bruce Springsteen performs during halftime of Super Bowl 43 between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 1, 2009, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Bruce Springsteen performs during halftime of Super Bowl 43 between the Arizona Cardinals and the Pittsburgh Steelers on Feb. 1, 2009, at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. [ BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN PERFORMS DURING HALFTIME OF SUPER BOWL XLIII BETWEEN THE ARIZONA CARDINALS AND THE PITTSBURGH STEELERS ON FEB. 1, 2009, AT RAYMOND JAMES STADIUM IN TAMPA. (TIMES FILES ]

The game did see one of Tampa’s biggest halftime performances, starring Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. It also featured Bruce’s infamous crotch thrust.

Related: Remembering Bruce Springsteen's Super Bowl halftime crotch thrust in Tampa, 10 years later

Information from the Times archive was used in this report.