No fans at Super Bowl 55? Anything is possible

The NFL still hopes to “fill the stadium with fans” at Raymond James Stadium on Feb. 7, but contingency plans are in place.
A look at the stadium with no fans before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the  Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
A look at the stadium with no fans before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. [ DIRK SHADD | Times ]
Published Sept. 22, 2020|Updated Sept. 22, 2020

TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Bucs have started this season with no fans in the stands at Raymond James Stadium. Is it possible Super Bowl 55, slated for Feb. 7, will be fan-less as well, or at least not played before a full-capacity crowd?

The NFL certainly is looking at contingency plans if the current coronavirus pandemic hasn’t subsided by early next year.

“Well, we certainly have to prepare for that," said Jonathan Barker, head of live events and production for the NFL. "Our hope is going to be to fill this stadium with fans. That’s our hope. But the smart thing to do is to prepare just in case. If we find ourselves on Feb. 7 where we’re in different scenario, we’re going to just make sure we’re ready for that.”

Barker, along with Nicki Ewell, the NFL’s director of events, toured Raymond James Stadium on Tuesday morning for the first time this year.

The Bucs, who played without fans in this past Sunday’s home opener against the Panthers and will do the same Oct. 4 against the Chargers, have said they hope to begin admitting some fans by Oct. 18′s home game against the Packers.

Earlier this month, Gov. Ron DeSantis was displeased by the Bucs' decision not to open the season with fans, afraid it would foster negative perceptions about Tampa’s readiness to hold the Super Bowl.

“I really want to be able to show that Tampa is going to be a great place to host the Super Bowl,” DeSantis said. “Showing this community is ready to host a great Super Bowl, having some fans there would’ve been a good first step. It’s not where we need to be.”

The Tampa Sports Authority had been planning for reduced seating capacities at the stadium of around 14,000 for Bucs games. USF, which plays its home games at the stadium as well, also has not announced when fans will be permitted.

Raymond James Stadium received approximately $10.4 million in federal funding through the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act for upgrades and safety enhancements. The modifications, everything from touch-free toilets and sinks, hand sanitizing stations and signs, were about 75 percent complete going into this season.

Safety for fans, players and staff will be the biggest priority for Super Bowl 55, Barker said.

“The league over the last few months has done all the work necessary to get all our clubs and teams up and ready for the season and we’re going to apply the same thinking as we approach Super Bowl,” he said. "Working in accordance with infectious disease experts, our own medical experts, the CDC, local health here in Hillsborough County, making sure everything that we do is in compliance with CDC guidelines first and foremost.

“But it’s also important to understand the safety of our fans, the safety of our vendors and volunteers and everybody who’s going to work the Super Bowl and come to the Super Bowl, is paramount to our success. That’s why we’re taking all the necessarily precautions to make sure the Super Bowl is done in a very safe way.”

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Barker acknowledged that COVID-19 could significantly reduce the economic impact of hosting a Super Bowl locally.

“Certainly, the economic impact is important and it’s 100s of millions of dollars,” Barker said. “...To be able to qualify that number for you today is impossible to do.”

Barker and Ewell said it was important to tour the stadium and meet with local authorities after holding virtual meetings since March.

And plans are still a go for the Super Bowl Experience, located on nine continuous parks on the Riverwalk, ahead of the big game. It is free and will include NFL players signing autographs (socially distanced, of course), the Vince Lombardi Trophy, a collection of 54 Super Bowl rings, interactive games and concessions showcasing the food in Tampa. The event will open Jan. 29 in conjunction with Gasparilla.

“We’re excited to be down here,” Ewell said. "...We’re still forging ahead with plans for the Super Bowl Experience and of course for the game here on Feb. 7.''