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As Tampa’s Super Bowl nears, party buzz is muted

The coronavirus pandemic has scrapped some big Super Bowl plans, leading sponsors and venues to take a wait-and-see approach.

Lisa Levine thinks her company’s upcoming Super Bowl celebrity flag football game could look a lot like the one they held last season in Miami.

Retired NFL stars like Michael Irvin, Doug Flutie and Donovan McNabb will pal around with players and celebrities on the sand near Clearwater Beach’s Pier 60. The game will air on ESPN platforms the day before Super Bowl 55 in Tampa. Fans will be able to watch for free.

On the other hand, those fans will have to stay outside a fence, a “beach bubble,” Levine called it, so they don’t come into contact with the stars, who will have been tested and contact-traced for COVID-19.

“We knew Super Bowl week would be different,” said Levine, the president and CEO of Celebrity Sweat, which has brought the charity game to each of the last 20 Super Bowls. “We have a lot of sponsors that are NFL sponsors that are all just very sensitive and pulling back completely. But our thought was, even if we couldn’t have the regular meet-and-greets that we would have, even if we couldn’t have the regular seating as close to the players as possible, that’s fine. They would still be able to enjoy the excitement.”

Less than 80 days from Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium, the celebrity event factor — traditionally a major part of Super Bowl week — remains a big unknown.

The NFL has several long-planned official events penciled in, even as coronavirus cases spike in Florida and around the country. The NFL Experience, an interactive celebration of the game, is still scheduled to wind along Tampa’s Riverwalk. The Weeknd is booked to play halftime.

Related: Super Bowl 55 proceeding as planned with 2.7 mile outdoor fan experience

But outside the league, there’s a sense of hesitation about what kind of party Tampa’s next Super Bowl will be.

Major sponsors like Anheuser-Busch and AT&T say they won’t be hosting their usual A-list Super Bowl events in Tampa. And local venues that would, in a normal season, already have events locked in still have dates open on the calendar.

“You can’t really put the show together right now, because you don’t know what kind of show to put together,” said John Santoro, owner of the Ritz Ybor. “The sponsors don’t want to pull the trigger on the money if they don’t see enough eyeballs on their product. And the promoters are kind of stuck in the middle of it all. It’s just a big, big wait-and-see.”

Before the pandemic, the Ritz was already reserved for Super Bowl week, Santoro said. Then sponsors of that party pulled out, and those dates have since been open. Only in the last month have booking discussions started heating up again.

Related: Super Bowl 55 to feature limited audience at Raymond James Stadium, ESPN reports

Other venues have seen the same thing. Pre-pandemic, the Tampa Theatre had “a couple of big holds on the calendar,” said spokeswoman Jill Witecki, “but none of those are happening now. We haven’t gotten any new requests since the pandemic.”

The David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts, which was part of the city’s initial bid to get the Super Bowl, had been holding space to host part of the NFL Honors awards ceremony.

“There has been a bit of back-and-forth, but we’ve now been informed that they won’t need our space,” said spokesman Paul Bilyeu. “All this is pandemic related.”

The St. Pete Pier has been approached to host events by Tim Tebow and the NFL Alumni Association, but no deals have been finalized, according to city records.

Amalie Arena — which before Tampa’s last Super Bowl in 2009 hosted performances by Celine Dion, the Eagles and Dane Cook — spent two years laying the groundwork to host performances by “superstar, A-plus-list acts,” said executive vice president of event management Kevin Preast. Had the pandemic not hit, those shows would have been announced months ago.

“We would have been shouting it from the rooftops, and (tickets would have) been on sale right around the start of the NFL preseason, in mid-August,” Preast said. "Now some of the things that we had slated have gone away, and some new things have popped in. The word I would use to describe our planning right now is: It’s fluid.”

A spokesman for AT&T said the company has decided to skip this year’s AT&T TV Super Saturday Night, an A-list concert that last year featured Lady Gaga. And Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Budweiser and Bud Light, has opted not to put its name on any Tampa events.

“Given the challenges presented by COVID-19 and the ongoing fluid environment, we have chosen not to host large gatherings at the Super Bowl and elsewhere,” said Anheuser-Busch spokeswoman Lacey Clifford. “Consumers will be able to find our products in and around the Super Bowl, but we won’t host events this year.”

Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, said the Super Bowl Host Committee has a venue allocation program that helps play matchmaker between the NFL, its partners and local venues. In a normal year, Higgins said, more venues might have contracts in place by mid-November.

“That being said, we’re definitely still continuing to see interest in local event venues for potential events,” he said. “Most event organizers are naturally taking a very measured approach to determine what events will be safely possible to be hosted in three months, considering the current circumstances.”

Some venues' plans are falling into place, even if they haven’t been announced. The Tampa Museum of Art received “significant interest” as an event venue, said special events manager Bernadette Casey, and inked a deal to host “a confidential multi-day event.” She declined to name the client.

The city of Clearwater has received applications for a couple of events on Clearwater Beach, said Kris Koch, the city’s special events and athletics manager, but might only host the Celebrity Sweat flag football game. They had also received interest from the Buccaneers’ Rob Gronkowski about hosting his annual “Gronk Beach” party, but Koch said that group has since set their sights on a nearby private beach.

“Somebody had said Budweiser or Bud Light was going to reach out about doing a big beach concert, and then we never heard anything,” Koch said. “I think people are just trying to be a little smarter, and not making big, giant plans that don’t make a lot of sense in the current environment.”

One organization that has applied to throw a Clearwater Beach party is Maven Sports Group, whose clients include Bucs receiver Mike Evans. The group envisions a three-day “experience” on the beach with a fashion show, food and wine festival, adult arcade games and live music and comedy. In an application filed with the city, it said it expects up to 150 guests per day.

“It is open to the community, but it will be limited based on state and federal guidelines around the coronavirus,” said Terry Johnson, whose Innovative Marketing Group is organizing the event. “We’ve got to make sure that we adhere to health standards and the safety of all that participate.”

This rendering shows a design for Maven Sports Group's "Maven Super Bowl LV Experience," a proposed party on Clearwater Beach. The group has filed an application with the city for a three-day event featuring a fashion show, food and wine festival, adult arcade games, and live music and comedy.
This rendering shows a design for Maven Sports Group's "Maven Super Bowl LV Experience," a proposed party on Clearwater Beach. The group has filed an application with the city for a three-day event featuring a fashion show, food and wine festival, adult arcade games, and live music and comedy. [ Innovative Marketing Group ]

Johnson said Maven is looking to the NFL for guidance. If the league boosts the attendance capacity for the game, his event may follow suit.

“We’ve run the numbers based on a 25 percent capacity — how does it make sense for us to do this and still be profitable, and still give an experience?” he said. “In a perfect world, we’re hoping the league gets to that 50 to 75 percent, and then those numbers change dramatically.”

If the event scene surrounding the Super Bowl changes dramatically from years past, it could have a ripple effect across the local economy.

Related: Tampa Bay hotels expect Super Bowl boom despite stadium capacity limit

Craig Richard, the president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Economic Development Council, would normally spend Super Bowl week hosting prospective clients and business recruits, giving them a taste of the big-event buzz Tampa can offer. That likely won’t happen now.

“We’ll try to make the best of it and do something virtual with prospects or with potential companies,” he said.

Local businesses, from local restaurants to catering companies to merchandise vendors, may also see less of a windfall than they’d hoped for.

“It’ll probably look a little different than what everybody expected,” said Bob Rohrlack, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Chamber. “I think our businesses will still benefit from it. I’m sure it will be scaled back some from what it has been in the past. But knowing the NFL, it will certainly be a party.”

As with the Lightning and Rays’ recent runs to the Stanley Cup finals and World Series, Richard sees a lot of “opportunities lost” with this Super Bowl.

“How many people that weren’t as familiar with Tampa Bay now won’t have that message, or that opportunity, to see us in that type of light?” he said. “You could probably measure the fiscal impacts of the opportunities lost. From an exposure standpoint, I’m not sure how you would do it. I just know that it’s dramatic.”

The flip side of that, though, is this: What if coronavirus cases are still raging in February? What if an event isn’t handled safely, or responsibly, or tastefully, and the sponsor or star or city gets dragged on social media?

“It’s not only financial risk; it’s also brand and perception risk, it’s also execution risk,” said Amalie Arena’s Preast. “What happens if you do a really good job and something happens? You’re going to get called on the carpet for that.”

For that reason, Preast said Amalie Arena is being extra-cautious about any events it might host. Even if it gets the green light from local governments to host a major concert, they don’t plan to do it if it doesn’t feel right.

“No contracts have been signed, no checks have been written,” Preast said. “There’s just a lot of toe-tapping and Zooms and phone calls. There’s a lot of chatter, but not a lot of movement.”