Here’s how Tampa Bay has changed since its last Super Bowl

Much has changed locally and globally since Tampa last hosted the championship in 2009. That means planning for an event with much activity centered on downtown, not the stadium.
Aerial photo of Curtis Hixon Park and downtown Tampa at sunset on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in Tampa.
Aerial photo of Curtis Hixon Park and downtown Tampa at sunset on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]
Published Feb. 1, 2020

TAMPA — Today the world is focused on Miami, but once the Lombardi Trophy is lifted, the spotlight will again swing to Tampa for Super Bowl 55.

One of the biggest entertainment spectacles on the planet comes to town next year and while the city has played host to the championship game four times before, the world has changed dramatically. Tampa, too.

When the Pittsburgh Steelers won at Raymond James Stadium in 2009, Airbnb was just getting started. Instagram and Uber didn’t exist.

Metal detectors and fan patdowns before entering the stadium were still controversial. And Florida was center stage for the Great Recession, tamping down the party.

By kickoff on Feb. 7, 2021, a decade-long construction boom will have delivered more than $2 billion worth of new hotels, airport renovations, destination parks and ambitious food halls to the bay area. There’s a wholly updated Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the new Armature Works a redesigned and renamed Sparkman Wharf and — most important — the Tampa Riverwalk.

“The continued transformation of our community since 2009 has been truly incredible,” said Rob Higgins, president and chief executive officer of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl LV Host Committee. From renovations to Raymond James Stadium to new hotels and entertainment options, “this will be a totally new experience from the last time we hosted.”

Aerial photo of Armature Works and downtown Tampa at sunset on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in Tampa.
Aerial photo of Armature Works and downtown Tampa at sunset on Friday, Jan. 24, 2020 in Tampa. [ LUIS SANTANA | Times ]

Much of the makeover has taken place along the water in or near downtown Tampa. There, starting with the 2017 College Football National Championship, local officials figured out how to use the 2.5-mile-long Riverwalk as a traffic-free artery for people in town for a big event.

The Riverwalk, completed in 2015, allowed fans to move from hotels to activities without driving or parking. It showcased Tampa’s waterfront. And it kept them engaged, with stages for live music, vendors selling beer, coffee and ice pops, and temporary poster-sized decals on the pavement pointing the way to various destinations.

Tampa replicated the model for the National Hockey League All-Star Game the following year, and it plans to do so again in February 2021.

“The heart of the experience around Super Bowl will be in downtown Tampa along the Riverwalk … taking advantage of all the great venues we have,” Higgins said.

Related: Super Bowl host committee looks ahead to an event 'unlike any other'

At Water Street Tampa, the JW Marriott hotel, scheduled to open in September, and the neighboring Tampa Marriott Water Street are expected to serve as the headquarters hotels for the NFL. The Tampa Convention Center likely will be a media hub for visiting journalists.

The NFL and the small army of journalists who follow the Super Bowl used the Marriott Water Street, formerly the Tampa Marriott Waterside, when the game was in Tampa in 2001 and 2009. The hotel recently got a $50 million makeover that included renovations to every room, a new lobby and new restaurants, including 200 seats on the patio overlooking the hotel’s marina and the Riverwalk. The Marriott Water Street also will be connected to the new JW Marriott via an elevated walkway, effectively allowing the two hotels, with more than 1,200 rooms and extensive new meeting space, to work together to host events.

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Showcasing Tampa’s downtown for the Super Bowl isn’t a new idea. In 2001, organizers brought in the B-52s for a media party at the Florida Aquarium. The same year, the city moved the Gasparilla pirate invasion to the day before the Super Bowl to give visitors more to do. Instead, it turned out to be too much to handle. (Next year, Gasparilla will be Jan. 30, the last Saturday of the month, as usual.)

The difference is that now there’s more to showcase: food halls at the Armature Works, Sparkman Wharf and at the Hall on Franklin, more restaurants, more nightlife and parks, including Curtis Hixon, Water Works Park and Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.

Those parks have all been held for Super Bowl events. Announcements of concerts or other activities will come later, but don’t be surprised to see some of those spaces used for the NFL Experience events that took place outside Raymond James Stadium in 2009.

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor expects this event to “be much different” in “how involved the public can get in the activities leading up to the Super Bowl.”

“They’ll be much more accessible,” she said.


Hosting the game is expected to generate about 100,000 hotel room nights, but where the big blocks of rooms will be and for which group probably won’t be solidified until late summer or early fall, said Bob Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association.

Since Tampa’s last Super Bowl, Airbnb has gone from being a company scraping by — with revenues of just $200 a week, according to some reports — to a market-shaping giant with an estimated $2.5 billion in annual revenue. Despite that growth, Morrison said he doesn’t think his group’s members are worried about it undermining their Super Bowl bookings.

Fans who follow their home teams to the Super Bowl “want to be in the middle of it all,” he said. “That typically says the hotels are a much more attractive option. But let’s put it like this: I think it’s fair to say there’s more than enough business to go around.”

Related: Tampa's fifth Super Bowl offers small businesses a get-in-the-game opportunity

In Pinellas County, the host committee is working with Visit St. Pete/Clearwater, which has representation on the host committee’s leadership, about its overall game plan.

“We have several thousand hotel visitor room nights already blocked in Pinellas County as part of the official hotel block,” Higgins said. (In 2009, the NFL contracted for 14,000 room nights in Pinellas.) "Hosting the Super Bowl is a regional effort.”

St. Petersburg has seen the same kind of urban development boom as Tampa, with the addition since the last Super Bowl of new hotel rooms and the emergence of an urban core animated by new restaurants, craft breweries, retail and nightlife. During the same time, the city has seen the coming of three new museums: the relocated and expanded Dali Museum, the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art and the still-under-construction Museum of the American Arts and Crafts Movement.

Visit St. Pete/Clearwater president and chief executive officer Steve Hayes worked for the Hillsborough version of that agency during the 1991, 2001 and 2009 Tampa Super Bowls, and he recalls a couple of media outlets in 2001 talking about the bay area as a boring place.

“How can you say that now with all the things going on?” he said. “It has really grown up.”

Meanwhile, game day has become the de facto deadline for developers racing to complete projects that range from the dual-branded Hyatt Place and Hyatt House hotels next to City Hall to the $550 million Midtown Tampa project about two miles south of Raymond James Stadium.

It’s gotten to the point that local developers no longer even talk about the dates when their projects will open, Castor said:

“Anybody you ask, ‘When’s this going to be completed?’

Super Bowl, they say.


Transportation planning now includes coordinating with Uber and Lyft on stops for their drivers. Instagram is a force-multiplier for media coverage, Hayes said, with photos “showcasing us” from the game, but also the beach, the golf course and the nightclub.

In Tampa, planners have looked at game-related events in other cities for not just how public spaces are organized, but how the settings look, said Tony Mulkey, superintendent of the city of Tampa’s Office of Special Events.

At Tampa police headquarters, officials likewise are thinking about how recent history should inform security planning for Super Bowl 55. It can be a dark exercise.

“Everybody wants to compare this to 2009,” Police Chief Brian Dugan said. “Well, look at what’s happened in the last 10 years. It’s not the same world.

“We now look at the Gasparilla (Distance Classic) much differently since you had the Boston Marathon bombing,” Dugan said. “You look at concerts, especially outdoor concerts, a lot differently after the Mandalay Bay (mass shooting in Las Vegas). You look at securing (vehicular) routes because there was a trend for a while where you had terrorism where they were running people over with cars.”

Tampa police are studying what happened at the Super Bowl in Atlanta last year and why they have people in Miami looking at security there. Concert-goers next year may pass through metal detectors for events at city parks.

“We have to find a balance between being fan-friendly and having security,” Dugan said. “That’s a tough balance sometimes. … You look at the trends, and you start thinking about the what-ifs. That’s what keeps me awake at night.”