TAMPA, Fla. — When hotels were built, restaurants opened and millions of dollars given to the NFL in anticipation of Super Bowl 55, part of the payoff was to be out-of-town money.
So a week before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play the Kansas Chiefs on Sunday, there was a troubling sight.
Thousands of people gathered on the Riverwalk downtown last weekend when the NFL opened its Super Bowl Experience, an interactive football-theme park. But there was no sign of Chiefs fans, with the only fans bedecked in team colors wearing Bucs jerseys.
“As they should be,’’ Tampa mayor Jane Castor said. “We see any jerseys besides the Bucs on the Riverwalk, we just push them into the river. We’re a very hospitable town, but we have our limits."
The Super Bowl Experience has been mostly frequented by Bucs fans early in the week. (Photo: Keir Magoulas, Visit Tampa Bay)
The quip can only temporarily deflect the obvious: the coronavirus will drastically reduce the number of out-of-town fans, specifically those from Kansas City, and undercut this city’s investment in the big game.
Even if a large number of fans arrive later this week — something Castor said she thinks will happen — much is missing from this Super Bowl.
There was no “Opening Night,’’ unless you’re counting the Zoom version of a media event traditionally held the Monday night of Super Bowl week.
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There will be no “Taste of the NFL" unless you count the virtual version of the food-and-wine event.
There will be no NFL Tailgate Party on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, site of the game.
“It was already going to be a different Super Bowl, if only because of the pandemic,’’ said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, tasked with attracting business and tourism to the city. “It’s hard to know the entire list of all the other non-NFL-sanctioned, affiliated events that (were canceled).’’
If thousands of Chiefs fans arrive later this week, that too could create a conundrum: what would inject cash into the hotel industry could fuel COVID-19 spread.
Attendance at the Super Bowl is expected to be capped at 25,000, and 7,500 of those tickets have been allocated to vaccinated healthcare workers from Florida. That could leave thousands of fans without tickets looking for a place to party and take in the game.
Many bars and restaurants are advertising watch parties, despite the city and NFL urging anyone not attending the game to stay home.
Walter Hill, owner of Press Box Sports Emporium, said he expects his Tampa spots bar to draw more than 200 people on Sunday, at $50 each for admission. Masks will be required unless patrons are eating or drinking.
“I’m concerned," he said. “Hopefully everybody practices safe COVID stuff because there’s going to be a lot of people in the Press Box. But we follow protocol and we’re ready for them.’’
It might feel like a fourth-and-long situation for Tampa. Yet the optimism almost is as easy to spot as the Bucs jerseys at the Riverwalk.
“This is not about the events that aren’t going to happen," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Super Bowl 55 Host Committee. “This is about the ones that are happening.’’
That will include 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers, most from the Tampa region, attending the Super Bowl for free at the invitation of the NFL. It will include “Legacy 55,’’ a $2 million investment in the community focusing on social issues like food insecurity and early childhood education.
To secure the Super Bowl, Tampa pledged $7.5 million in public funds, according to Higgins. He declined to say how much was donated through private sources, but the broader investment with the Super Bowl in mind or coinciding with game includes:
► $160 million in renovations at Raymond James Stadium.
► The opening of a J.W. Marriott and a boutique hotel called the Hotel Haya. (Hotels were expected to be at full occupancy for the Super Bowl. Counting on the later-than-usual arrivals, occupancy is expected to be 70% to 75%, said Bob Morrison, Executive Director of Hillsborough County Hotel & Motel Association.
► The opening of two restaurants with Michelin-rated chefs.
Will anyone make money, much less cash in as is expected at Super Bowls.
“I think we’re going to have to let the data come out after the Super Bowl as far as hotel occupancy and revenues, et cetera,’’ said Corrada of Visit Tampa Bay.
Brad Culpepper, the retired NFL defensive tackle who played for the Bucs from 1994 to 1999, said he and his wife drove their boat to the NFL Experience this past weekend.
“We were trying to figure out if it’s good or bad that the Bucs are in the Super Bowl," he said.
In a year without the pandemic, Culpepper said, Tampa likely would benefit economically from teams outside the city bringing their fans — and their disposable income here. But this past weekend, it was Bucs fans filling up the Super Bowl Experience and downtown bars and restaurants.
“So maybe it’s better that the Bucs are hosting," Culpepper said. “It’s the best of a bad situation."
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