TAMPA — Look at us. Look at our sunshine. Look at the Gulf of Mexico and Tampa Bay. Look at 35 miles of beaches in Pinellas County. Look at the nearly 3 mile-long Riverwalk in Tampa. Look at the high rises going up at Water Street Tampa. Look how much fun Ybor City is.
Showcasing Tampa Bay’s tourism offerings was always supposed to be part of the festivities surrounding Super Bowl 55 coming to Raymond James Stadium this week. But as the region plays host to the nation’s most visible sporting event amid the coronavirus pandemic, the message Tampa Bay officials are sending is much more focused.
Look at us be safe.
“I want nothing more than this to be the best Super Bowl given the circumstances that we’re in where (visitors) can go back and say ‘these communities did it right,’” said Steve Hayes, CEO of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. “We all believe we are going to get over this hump, and there will be some resumption of normalcy, and what you want then is our name being out there.”
Immediately following Super Bowl 54 in Miami, anticipation pivoted toward Tampa Bay’s vision for this year’s event. That was before COVID-19 had infected more than 160,000 people and caused more than 2,600 deaths just in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties.
“I mean, I thought there’d be 70,000 people in the stadium. I thought there’d be a few hundred thousand traveling here. We thought there’d be massive events with gobs of people packed in for concerts and events,” said Will Weatherford, co-chair of the Super Bowl 55 Host Committee.
So some changes had to be made, like shifting the popular NFL PLAY 60 kids day from in-person to virtual.
“We’ve had to call a lot of audibles,” said NFL Hall of Famer and former Tampa Bay Buccaneer Derrick Brooks, also a committee co-chair.
Indeed. The NFL, the city of Tampa and other local governments, the tourism agencies in Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, the hotels, the restaurants and the fans all shared in the audible. Perhaps the only constant in Super Bowl 55 is that two football teams will compete to win the Lombardi Trophy.
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“Is it going to be different? Yes, it’s going to be different. Is it going to be very, very special? Yes, very, very special,” said Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s vice president of club business and league events.
Typically, being host to a Super Bowl — Sunday’s game will be the fifth in Tampa and 16th in Florida — is accompanied by what amounts to a week-long commercial. It touts the area’s attributes to the nation and then to a worldwide audience on game day. Annually, the Super Bowl game is the most watched television event in the U.S.
The message, however, pivoted from unabashed civic cheerleading to civic safety.
“We’re going to throw a world class event that shows well on TV. We’re still going to be able to do meaningful things, but safely and outside,” said Weatherford.
Visit Tampa Bay, which kicked in a $1 million sponsorship to the host committee, is using nearly $7 million in CARES Act and tourist tax dollars to underwrite a leisure travel campaign highlighting outdoor activities, open spaces and reduced crowds at area amenities. It began last year and will continue through September. It is not Super Bowl specific, but the targeted campaign is “aimed at people we think are willing to come,” said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.
If there had been no pandemic, said Corrada, this week’s marketing message would have focused on how much Tampa Bay has changed since it last played host to a Super Bowl.
“We would have been talking about how we’ve grown up since 2009,” he said. “In the pandemic, we’re still talking about that, but we’re talking about safety. We want people to come here and practice safe travel. That means following the ordinances, wearing the masks, social distancing.
“That’s the message: Come here, have a good time, be responsible.”
Visit St. Pete/Clearwater also paid $1 million to the host committee in exchange for exposure of Pinellas County through a variety of marketing blasts. The deal includes Pinellas County getting equal logo placement with Visit Tampa Bay on promotional elements, space on the Riverwalk to share tourism information, inclusion in media events, and other recognition.
“This is coming at a time when we need this business,” Hayes said.
However, some exposure opportunities that were originally considered are no longer possible. The original contract finalized last year between Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater and the host committee estimated 26 Pinellas venues were considered for ancillary events by NFL corporate partners. On Monday, Hayes could not estimate how many of those sites would benefit from events this week.
Certainly, the weather gets emphasized. Last week, Mayor Jane Castor poked fun at temperatures in the 20s in Kansas City. Tampa’s mild winter climate is one of the reasons the outdoor activities surrounding the Super Bowl can continue.
“Can you imagine if this thing was in Minnesota?” said Weatherford. “It would be a completely different story.”
The safety message grew in importance after the Bucs won the NFC championship to become the first team to play a Super Bowl in its home stadium. The community’s excitement meant more challenges because of the expectation of larger crowds of Buccaneer fans trying to attend events and be nearer the action.
The host committee added the 4.5-acre Cotanchobee Fort Brooke Park to the list of activity sites, hoping the additional space would allow more people to spread out safely. Castor issued an executive order requiring people to wear face masks during the outdoor activities and in the city’s popular entertainment districts. Likewise, the NFL and the host committee emphasized the required protocols of using a health screening app to gain entrance to the Super Bowl Experience at Julian B. Lane Riverfront Park.
They want people to come out and have fun.
”We’re discouraging watch parties. Now is not the time for watch parties. Now is the time to settle in with your families at home,” said Rob Higgins, CEO of the host committee and executive director of the Tampa Sports Commission.
So that global message during a pandemic becomes look at what we can do safely.
The competition between teams quarterbacked by Tom Brady, widely recognized as the greatest of all time, versus Patrick Mahomes, considered the greatest right now, makes for easy sports marketing. Marketing Tampa Bay and Super Bowl 55 shouldn’t be difficult either, said Weatherford.
“I don’t think you have to sell it that hard. People naturally realize we are in such a weird time,” he said.
The game is being played at a time vaccines are being administered, health care workers are being honored inside the stadium and — unlike the 2020 Stanley Cup and NBA Finals — the NFL championship is being played in front of a live audience of fans.
“It’s not going to be the most well-attended Super Bowl ever, but it’s going to be the most meaningful Super Bowl ever,” Weatherford said.
“I think the narrative will sell itself.”
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