How Tampa Bay and the NFL pulled off Super Bowl LV amid a pandemic

TAMPA, Fla. -- On the opening day of his 10th Super Bowl media day -- the most of any NFL player ever -- Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Tom Brady took his seat under the bright lights, looked up to see 33 hands raised and said, "I've gotta get a picture of this."

But there was no reporter dressed as a bride proposing to him (that was Glendale, Arizona, at Super Bowl XLII), or an adorable kid reporter going for the waterworks by asking him who his hero was (that was Houston, at Super Bowl LI, and yes, Brady did cry).

For Super Bowl LV, Brady wasn't at a podium -- he was the only one in the room. The communications representative responsible for assisting him, Chris King, wasn't even there. And those hands raised? All virtual, through Zoom, which became the lifeline of NFL teams during the 2020 season.

"How come I don't get to see them at all?" Brady quipped while flashing a smile as 15 additional hands shot up. "Why do they only get to see me?"

By "them," he was referring to the media. Last year, the NFL credentialed over 6,000 media members for Super Bowl LIV in Miami. This year, that number dropped to 2,353 in order to accommodate 6 feet of social distancing on game day inside the press box and outdoor auxiliary boxes at Raymond James Stadium. Everyone else watched from home as the Bucs beat the Kansas City Chiefs 31-9 on Sunday.

The Bucs' opponents weren't even in the same city when they did their media day and didn't arrive in Tampa until Saturday, which has never happened in Super Bowl history.

Super Bowl LV was unlike any we've seen before, played in front of hometown fans amid a coronavirus pandemic. But even though the event's pageantry was scaled back to comply with COVID-19 safety protocols, it didn't lose its luster.

The lack of lead-up didn't make things any less significant for Chiefs defensive tackle Chris Jones, despite a stark contrast to what he experienced last year in Miami.

"Never. Never," Jones said. "You can never get enough of being at the Super Bowl. I don't care where it's at. I don't care if you all have to set me up in the basement. I'm good."

Even for the home-team players who had been in Tampa the whole week, it was quite different. There were no glitzy parties to attend and no celebrity run-ins.

"I remember there was a party every night," said Bucs outside linebackers coach Larry Foote, who was a player with the Pittsburgh Steelers team when they won Super Bowl XLIII following the 2008 season in Tampa.

The closest Bucs wide receiver Chris Godwin got to any of it was a car ride with his fiancée, Mariah DelPercio, on Thursday night to an empty stadium. They drove up as far as the barricades would allow so they could take pictures. Godwin had dreamed of this since they started dating in high school.

Bucs tight end Cameron Brate relied on photos from his fiancée, Brooke Skelley, of the downtown skyline and a pirate ship illuminated by fireworks and a laser show. He's seen her work tirelessly over the past year with the Super Bowl Tampa Bay host committee.

"It's been very stressful, I know, for them. Like, how do you prepare for this? A lot of their plans had to get scrapped," Brate said. "It's still awesome. ... I just can't say enough about how everyone's responded."

The lack of crowds and parties didn't detract from the excitement for Bucs inside linebacker and team captain Lavonte David, who had been part of just one winning season prior and waited nine years to get to the playoffs.

"Not at all. Not at all. COVID -- you can't control that," said David, the longest-tenured Buc on this roster. "It happened. But what we did control was being in this moment right now. I'm taking it all in. Whatever is out there at this moment -- I'm taking it all in. Nobody will be able to take this moment away from me. I'm happy to be here. I'm grateful."

Experience hosting Super Bowls matters

The Tampa Bay area is no stranger to hosting Super Bowls in uncertain times. While the nation has fond recollections of Whitney Houston's iconic national anthem at Super Bowl XXV in 1991, the area remembers something much different.

The NFL almost canceled that game due to fears of a terrorist attack, as the United States was barely two weeks into the Persian Gulf War. Concrete barriers surrounded what was then Tampa Stadium. Every fan was waved with a metal detector. There were SWAT teams, FBI agents, bomb technicians and military helicopters circling overhead.

Then, during Super Bowl XLIII in 2009, the nation was in its worst economic recession in 80 years. The total economic impact for the Tampa Bay area dropped by about $50 million compared to the two previous Super Bowls.

"I don't think anyone could have imagined that when the commissioner handed off the football to us on Feb. 3, down in Miami at Super Bowl LIV, that we could have imagined what would be in store over the following year," said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission and CEO of the Super Bowl LV host committee.

"The good thing is, we're used to doing that because the last few Super Bowls we've had have been under unusual circumstances," said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay. "What's interesting about this community is that when it's tough going, we really get down to work."

Before the pandemic hit U.S. shores, the hotel occupancy in Hillsborough County was 87.8% for February of 2020. That was also before construction finished at the J.W. Marriott Water Street Hotel, the area's first five-star hotel, which targeted the Super Bowl as its grand opening after a soft opening in December.

But the area's hotel occupancy for the week of the Super Bowl this year was 53.3%. A normal month in February is about 74%, Corrada said. It was at 86% for Tampa's last Super Bowl. But compared to the 22.3% occupancy rate in April 2020, which led to layoffs of as much as 50% to 75% of the workforce in the Tampa Bay tourism industry, they were grateful for the boost.

In a grassy area downtown, a large hand-painted sign with a heart that reads, "Thank you for helping us Lift Up Local, while we reopen responsibly. -- Mayor Jane Castor" reinforced that. But it won't come close to the $572 million Miami raked in last year hosting Super Bowl LIV.

"This event should help us move that needle a little bit," said Corrada, adding that WrestleMania, scheduled for March 28, should help too.

Adapting to COVID-19 protocols

Castor issued an executive order for masks for specific areas downtown. Prior to the Super Bowl, masks were not required in outdoor spaces -- only indoors.

"Those areas were determined by the idea that there would be large crowds that wouldn't be able to socially distance," Castor said, adding that they saw "great compliance."

Everything was moved outdoors.

NFL commissioner Roger Goodell's annual news conference and the NFLPA news conference with executive director DeMaurice Smith were both held at the Amalie Arena Bud Light Party Deck outdoors, overlooking the downtown Tampa skyline. All players who participated did so virtually.

At the NFL Experience -- an annual attraction that has welcomed thousands each year since 1992 -- fans had to preregister online for a specific time slot to avoid crowds, with fan safety managers on-site to enforce wearing masks and social distancing, with hand sanitizing stations. The NFL made the event free for the first time this year.

Instead of being in a large expo hall as it had been last year and the previous Super Bowl, it took place outdoors at Julian B. Lane Park along Riverwalk, a 2.9-mile stretch of recreation area along the Hillsborough River downtown. That provided an ideal backdrop for a fireworks show -- the major attraction of the week, along with light projections featuring images of players on structures like the iconic Sykes Building. The fireworks could be seen across town and was a way to bring everyone together, even at a distance.

Outdoor recreation was popular near the convention center, including Yacht Village, where small groups could receive VIP hospitality. There were paddleboats, sunset cruises and dolphin-watching tours. One even advertised, "See Tom Brady's house and new yacht!" for $18. Students who are members of the Mayor's Youth Corps also handed out packs of five free masks.

"Certainly there are thousands of decisions that go into the making of a Super Bowl, but the one [component] throughout this entire process has been health and safety, and that's been the driving factor on every single decision," Higgins said. "We're just really thrilled to be able to give fans an opportunity to create Super Bowl memories that will last a lifetime."

NFL agent Leigh Steinberg moved his annual Super Bowl party -- which he's put on for 33 years -- online. The NFL did the same with the "Taste of the NFL." There were no Maxim or Sports Illustrated parties, no Gronk Beach and no Shaq's Fun House, although Shaq did put on the Shaq Bowl, a three-hour event featuring celebrity competitions with Ezekiel Elliott, Nelly, Tim Tebow and others that was streamed online.

The postgame scene was very different too. Every player and coach for the winning team was allowed to have two people on the field with them. Typically clubs are given 300 slots for this, but that number dropped to 200 this year. Those selected had to be family members living with the players and were required to undergo testing three times this week, with the last given within 48 hours of the game, according to NFL spokesperson Brian McCarthy.

The Chiefs celebrated at Club LIV last year and rapper Lil' Wayne performed. This year, no official postgame celebrations were planned. Teams were informed by the NFL they could not host or support a postgame party due to the league's coronavirus protocols. The Chiefs didn't even stay in Tampa on Sunday night, taking two team planes back to Kansas City.

That didn't stop fans from partying, even after presidential adviser Dr. Anthony Fauci urged Americans to "just lay low and cool it" this year, due to fears of Super Bowl parties becoming superspreader events. Swarms of people congregated in Ybor City, a known party destination that had already seen numerous businesses cited prior to the Super Bowl due to lack of compliance.

"It is a little frustrating because we have worked so hard in cooperation with the NFL and the county and just a number of different entities, putting the executive order in place that masks had to be worn in specific areas that we knew groups would be congregating," Castor said.

"We did see some individuals that weren't wearing a mask. And at this point, in dealing with COVID-19, there is a level of frustration when you see that. It can be passed on to those individuals who are least likely to recover safely from it. But I think overall, our businesses understood the significance of it and this was a boost for them to be able to hold this event and to do it safely."

Managing how different this year has been

The NFL ramped up its daily testing to test players, coaches and team personnel twice daily leading up to the game. There were still some tense moments.

The Chiefs had 20 people -- including quarterback Patrick Mahomes -- scheduled for a haircut with a Kansas City barber who tested positive for COVID-19. The barber, who was not named, was pulled midway through his haircut with backup center Daniel Kilgore due to the positive test.

Both were wearing masks and Kilgore told him to finish, because he was already deemed a close contact, automatically putting him, along with wide receiver Demarcus Robinson, on the reserve/COVID-19 list.

Some Chiefs players were concerned that lack of a build-up, and practicing at home, could affect their mental state, although tight end Travis Kelce saw it as a positive that they had more of a regular week.

"It's mostly just the hype, the hype of it being the biggest sporting event in the world, man. The biggest stage that athletics provides for people is the Super Bowl, man," Kelce said. "There's no bigger stage. Everybody in the world's gonna be watching. And everybody in the world's gonna be watching every single move -- from what color Gatorade we got to how long the national anthem's gonna be, they're watching every single take of the show.

"You can't let the game become more than what it is. It's another football game. ... So I think it's just managing how different this year has been and just rolling with the punches that we've had to deal with."

Defined by honoring health care workers, not empty seats

The official attendance for Super Bowl LV was 25,000 fans -- a far cry from Raymond James Stadium's official capacity of 65,890. But the empty seats didn't come to define Super Bowl LV -- it was the presence of 7,500 vaccinated health care workers from cities of all 32 NFL teams, who spent the year fighting COVID-19 on the front lines and were given free tickets by the NFL.

"I don't think we've ever had an opportunity to work on something so historic and special," Higgins said. "When you think about what our health care workers have done to get us through the pandemic -- it's phenomenal. We can't even imagine what they've been through. To be able to welcome them and honor them on the biggest stage possible is exactly what they deserved, and we couldn't be more appreciative of the NFL for making it happen."

Many of them are now dealing with their own trauma from their own infections, understaffing, lack of PPE and holding hands with the sick and dying, who could not be with family in their final moments.

One local health care worker -- she asked not to be identified -- spent two weeks treating a man who was admitted to the COVID-19 ICU. The patient was "scared and alone," and they bonded over their love of the Buccaneers and watched a game together. She even used the Bucs coming back from 17-0 to defeat the Falcons as a rallying cry.

"That's one of the things we stress in health care, that you get to know your patient, what makes them them, where they're not a medical record number, not a patient, and certainly not a diagnosis -- they're a person first," she said.

As his condition worsened, she turned on the television one last time to ensure he was comforted by his team on his final day.

"He was very sick, and I don't know what he was aware of," she said. "But if for a moment, if I thought he could have some semblance that the Bucs were on ... it's 100% what he would have wanted."

She teared up when she received the email with her ticket. And she thought of him when the Bucs took the field.

"Whether it's a respiratory therapist, to a chaplain, to somebody that works in environmental services, to COVID ICU nurses -- each and every one of these incredible heroes has stepped up to the plate and done their job with so many different factors fighting against them, and it has truly continued to get us through the pandemic," Higgins said.

Their presence had a special meaning for Brate, who had COVID-19 with his fiancée this summer, and together, they've donated plasma in hopes of saving lives.

"It's awesome," he said. "No one deserves it more than those people who have sacrificed so much for us, making sure that we're all safe, working tirelessly around the clock, making sure we're all healthy and safe in the community. Just kind of giving them something that they can enjoy for all their hard work."

For Kelce, it's a chance to touch not only the health care workers but also the people at home who have struggled this year due to illness, the death of loved ones, closure of businesses, job loss, isolation, depression and economic hardship.

"I'm gonna make sure and do the right things and let everyone know, 'I appreciate who you are and what you do. And I'm gonna go out here and play for you guys,'" Kelce said. "We play for the people that haven't had a great year. It's been a little difficult for a lot of people ... but if we can provide that smile, that excitement to people's lives, we have to do it."