MIAMI — College Football Playoff banners lined the roads from downtown to South Beach, alerting everyone to the Jan. 11 national championship.
There were photo ops along the boardwalk, shirts for sale on Ocean Drive and parties humming outside Hard Rock Stadium. The Ohio State University’s marching band spelled out “Ohio” in its famed script lettering, and cheers of “Roll Tide Roll” punctuated Sweet Home Alabama after the Crimson Tide celebrated yet another national title.
All the usual ingredients of college football’s biggest event were present, down to Southeastern Conference billboards off Florida’s Turnpike reminding drivers of the league’s motto: It just means more.
But it just felt less. As Tampa will soon learn.
Although the coronavirus pandemic no longer sidelines major sporting events, the ongoing public health crisis makes them look and feel different.
Many of the ancillary fan events are gone. Others have been restructured, often with virtual activities replacing in-person ones. If the games themselves seem relatively normal on TV, they don’t inside the stadium, where the empty seats and plentiful hand-sanitizing stands can’t be ignored.
Tampa Bay Times reporters have attended five U.S. championship events in the COVID-19 era: college football’s SEC title game and national championship, baseball’s World Series and American League Championship Series, and the IndyCar Series’ Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Due to strict Canadian quarantine rules, Times reporters did not travel during the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run. Together, the other five events offer insight into what to expect leading up to Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium.
If it is anything like college football’s championship in Miami, the environment and economic impact won’t be what local officials were anticipating in 2017 when they landed the NFL’s marquee game. But the experience still can be positive, even with a diminished buzz around town and softer roars in the stands.
“I had surprisingly good feelings about it,” College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said the morning after the University of Alabama’s win over Ohio State. But…
“I don’t want to do it again. Ever.”
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Extra events eliminated, reimagined
Before the SEC kicked off its most uncertain season since World War II, commissioner Greg Sankey set a clear goal. He wanted to crown a conference champion in Atlanta on Dec. 19.
The league structured its season around that objective and rethought its 29-year-old neutral-site event accordingly.
“There’s been a lot of the elimination in this reinvention,” Sankey said.
A lot of elimination. The pep rallies, fan challenges and pre-game festivities that make the SEC championship one of the sport’s marquee events were almost all scrapped. The Home Depot Backyard — 11 acres of tailgating greenspace in front of Mercedes-Benz Stadium — was practically empty two and a half hours before kickoff.
But Sankey accomplished his goal; he crowned a league champion (Alabama).
The World Series and Grand Prix eliminated a lot, too, prioritizing the competition itself. Major League Baseball ditched its VIP parties and in-person community service events. Ceremonies for top awards — usually held on the field — were pushed to the MLB Network at a later date.
Grand Prix organizers decided they could not control anything that happened outside their downtown gates, so they abandoned the 5K run, welcome party and driver appearances.
“We really just cut all that out and really focused on the race event on that Friday-Saturday-Sunday,” Grand Prix co-owner Kevin Savoree said.
Even that looked different; about two-thirds of the vendors and food trucks around the 1.8-mile track were eliminated to prevent crowds from forming.
Like the Grand Prix, the College Football Playoff title game kept enough key features to feel like a scaled-down version of its typical self.
“For us, it was an immediate pivot to reimagining things and understanding that large-scale, in-person gatherings were not viable anymore,” said Eric Poms, the 2021 Miami host committee’s executive director.
The reimagining included the cancellation of a youth football clinic but the addition of food drives and golf fundraisers.
Playoff Fan Central could not function the way it did before Tampa hosted the game four years ago, when thousands of visitors flocked to the convention center to kick field goals, catch passes, buy merchandise and take selfies with the Chick-fil-A cow.
Miami salvaged parts of the event, setting up photo ops like sand sculptures, giant playoff logos and uniformed mannequins at Lummus Park. They were easy to miss in the stereotypical South Beach scene, but enough Buckeyes fans strolled around the night before the game that a pair of O-H-I-O chants broke out.
At least two parties still took place outside Hard Rock Stadium leading up to kickoff. Bee Gees songs boomed through the parking lot at one; another advertised custom face-mask stations inside a VIP-only event.
Other elements went completely virtual. You could throw pixelated footballs at a bus to raise money for teachers or test your football trivia at an online, corporate-sponsored cabana. The Playoff Playlist Live! concert series moved from a show on the sand to a Jason Derulo performance on Facebook, YouTube and the ESPN app. Twenty minutes in, the digital crowd topped 1,500.
Hancock, the playoff’s executive director, called it “emotionally difficult” to change those events because they were among the playoff’s best connections to fans and the host community. But the decision wasn’t hard because organizers believed there was no way to do them safely.
The art installations and online elements were “a really good Plan B,” Hancock said.
“We’re looking forward to getting back to Plan A.”
The games don’t feel as big
Although the championship events themselves don’t look much different, they are still filled with Plan B options.
The Rays flew game presentation/production director Michael Weinman to San Diego so their AL Division and Championship Series games would have the same video-board programming and crowd prompts as what they would have used at Tropicana Field. But the pre-game festivities — the national anthem, ceremonial first pitches from Tampa Bay leaders — were recordings. In-game entertainment included a taped rendition of Take Me Out to the Ballgame by the Scheiber family of St. Petersburg.
It was similar at the World Series, held without the usual pomp and little of the circumstance at a neutral site in Arlington, Texas — at the Globe Life Field, new home of the Texas Rangers.
“I think everyone with the Rangers was very pleased with the overall result,” team vice president John Blake said. “Certainly, not having onfield ceremonies, all of the ancillary events, and lack of access for media and others was disappointing. But the atmosphere in the park was very welcome after the regular season. It certainly wasn’t the same. But it worked pretty well, all things considered.’'
Marching bands couldn’t be at Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium, so the video board played recordings of their pre-game performances. Watching a big-screen version of a Buckeyes sousaphonist becoming the dot above the i in script Ohio does not come close to seeing the famed Ohio State tradition in person.
The effects of the limited attendance are relative. The Buckeyes played in front of family-only crowds during the regular season. The Rays, like some NFL teams, played in empty stadiums. In that sense, the announced crowds of 14,926 in Miami and 11,500 in Arlington provided more energy than players were used to.
“To be able to play in front of them, that part was amazing, just to have fans back,” then-Rays pitcher Blake Snell said.
But if you stepped away from the field, the scene seemed weird, empty.
The national championship felt more like a middling regular-season game than the Orange Bowl. Baseball’s reduced crowd, spread out over the Texas-sized stadium, wasn’t anything like the buzz of a World Series, or even close to the roaring, rollicking and ground-shaking atmosphere for the last games played at the Trop with fans — the 2019 AL Division Series against Houston, in front of a sold-out crowd of 32,000.
“It felt different...” said Chris Westmoreland, the Rays’ longtime director of team travel and logistics. “It’s obvious, but COVID-19 took away from the magnitude of where we were.”
Embrace the changes
The Super Bowl that comes to town next month will not be like the one that was here in 2009.
The NFL’s downtown fan event, the Super Bowl Experience, will have socially distanced lines and limited capacity. The Taste of the NFL has become a virtual cooking show. The crowd at Raymond James Stadium will be smaller and more subdued. The NFL plans to host around 7,500 vaccinated health care workers and 14,500 fans.
But it still can be significant.
Atlanta, Arlington, Miami and St. Petersburg all welcomed out-of-town fans who slept in local hotels, shopped at local stores and ate from local restaurants. Considering how much the tourism industry has struggled since March, even a limited boost helps. All four cities, as well as San Diego, enjoyed media exposure that could lead to more visitors, once the pandemic subsides.
Beyond that, the communities weathered months of uncertainty to serve as historic backdrops to the momentous end of the wildest seasons of our lifetimes. And Tampa’s Super Bowl will be the biggest of them all.
“It’s going to be very special,” said the Grand Prix’s Savoree. “We can all, as we did in St. Pete at the end of October, celebrate a champion.
“It doesn’t get any better than that.”