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Raymond James Stadium readies for Super Bowl 55

Firing the cannons is still up for approval, but the national anthem and halftime show will be inside the stadium.
A sign featuring the Lombardi Trophy can be seen outside Raymond James Stadium earlier this month in Tampa. The stadium will host Super Bowl 55 on Feb. 7.
A sign featuring the Lombardi Trophy can be seen outside Raymond James Stadium earlier this month in Tampa. The stadium will host Super Bowl 55 on Feb. 7. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 27, 2021

When they received word less than four years ago that they would be hosting Super Bowl 55, little did the Bucs know that they would have to adjust their planned stadium upgrades to account for a pandemic.

The team, the Tampa Sports Authority and Hillsborough County spent the past four years preparing Raymond James Stadium for the NFL’s championship game. When the coronavirus pandemic arrived in March, they had to make additional allowances for the unprecedented circumstances.

Last summer, about $10.4 million was allocated toward coronavirus-related safety upgrades — which included touch-free toilets and sinks, hand-sanitizing stations and removable seat bottoms to ensure social distancing — funded by the federal government’s CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security) Act.

Related: Super Bowl fan cutouts will fill seats at Raymond James Stadium

“We’ve had a million fans at games across our 17-week season,” said Jon Barker, NFL live event production head, on Tuesday. “We’ve had 17 weeks to learn, change, adapt, learn, change, adapt, and we just continue to do that and refine those plans. We’re very confident in what we’re doing here.”

Every person who attends Super Bowl 55 on Feb. 7 will receive the typical swag bag of the pandemic times: an N-95 mask, antibacterial wipes, hand sanitizer and a safety card. The league is expecting 24,700 spectators, including 7,500 vaccinated health care workers, at the stadium.

In addition, Barker said sanitization efforts that fans and guests might not see are happening behind the scenes, including the cleaning of the stadium.

Related: Air Force flyover scheduled for Tampa’s Super Bowl

“We’re taking every step possible,” he said. “If you think about the start of it, and then you continue to add things to mitigate and mitigate and mitigate until you can get the risk all the way down, that’s the work we’ve been doing for 17 weeks, and we’re very, very confident in what we’ve got here and certainly ready for (a week from) Sunday.”

Eric Finkelstein, the NFL’s senior director of events planning, said the improvements made to the stadium over the years — including an Intel True View replay system in 2019, the redesigned East Stadium Club in 2018, new seatbacks and upgraded concession stands — are among the reasons the league keeps returning to Tampa, which is hosting the game for the fifth time.

“This city knows how to put on a Super Bowl, and the stadium does for certain, as well,” Finkelstein said. “The enhancements and the upgrades that have happened to the facility are tremendous and huge and are certainly things that we are taking advantage of and will be part of the overall experience for all fortunate enough to be in attendance.”

Related: A Super Bowl in tough times? Who better to host than Tampa, Mayor Castor says

Finkelstein called the Super Bowl a “unique animal.” The event requires additional staffing and facilities that are not typically required during the regular season, including media, broadcasters and event partners.

Further precautions were necessitated by the league’s plans to have the national anthem — sung by Eric Church and Jazmine Sullivan — and halftime show — performed by The Weeknd — take place inside the stadium.

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“You really have to look to see what are those things that you can do to ensure those can happen,” Finkelstein said, “while all of the other operations of the event are able to happen as seamlessly as possible.”

Related: Tampa Super Bowl: Where did the Bucs, Chiefs players come from?

Home advantage is relative

This is the first time in NFL history the host team has played in the Super Bowl, but it’s not the first time cities have prepared for the possibility.

The planning committee referenced the 2017 season, when the Super Bowl was held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis and the Vikings advanced to the NFC Championship Game before losing to the Eagles.

“We knew at some point this would happen, and we were close in Minnesota,” Barker said. “As we go through the playoff, we think about the impact of the stadium, whether it’s a divisional game or championship game or, in fact, the Super Bowl.”

The committee still is determining which Bucs in-game features can be used, including the firing of the cannons. Both teams will put in requests, and the game presentation team will review them and determine what will be done.

Related: Bucs brace for explosive Chiefs offense in Super Bowl 55

“Through a lot of work and a lot of thinking, we’re going to make sure this feels very balanced and very equal,” Barker said.

In addition, the Bucs will use their home locker room, but not because they’re hosting the Super Bowl. The home team alternates each year between the conferences, and it happens to be the NFC’s turn this season.

A different NFL Experience

The NFL Experience is an interactive football theme park set up along Tampa’s Riverwalk and Julian B Lane Riverfront Park where fans can see the Vince Lombardi Trophy, Hall of Fame bus and more.

To participate in the Experience, which runs from Friday to Sunday and Feb. 3-6, fans need to reserve spots via the NFL OnePass app. Reservations are free, but space is running out.

“It’s quickly getting snapped up,” said Nicki Ewell, the NFL’s director of events. “After the Bucs (won) Sunday night, not surprisingly, (most) of our reservations filled up, so we have very little inventory left.”

Contact Mari Faiello at mfaiello@tampabay.com. Follow @faiello_mari.

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