Not quite normal.
That’s where we are these days, that was the defining trait of this past NFL season, and that’s how this year’s Super Bowl between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers will look. Yes, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes will do battle on the field; inside the lines, everything will look pretty much like it always does. But off the field, from the stands to the host city to your living room, this will be a Super Bowl that’s (hopefully) unlike any other.
Let’s break down the differences between now and then …
Fewer fans in the stands: We’ve spent the better part of the past seven months getting accustomed to empty stands, cutouts and Zoom screens, or socially distanced fans ringing the field. But the Super Bowl is a different entity entirely, as close to holy as secular America gets. So it’ll hit differently when overhead shots of the stadium show scattered pockets of diehards.
Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida, has a seating capacity of 65,000, and every single one of those seats could’ve been filled three times over in a normal year. Now, though, the NFL will mix 30,000 cutouts in with 25,000 fans.
Who’ll be in attendance? Vaccinated first responders plus a select few willing to pony up for a ticket. Prices are much softer than expected for an all-time great QB matchup, so it’s possible that the masses are sitting this one out and just watch from home. One problem with that …
Parties aren’t the same: When Super Bowl Sunday rolls around, a vast swath of America gathers around the TV and lays out an array of junk food like a conductor managing an orchestra. That can still happen, of course, but this year we’ll be doing a whole lot of it on our own.
Gathering indoors for four hours with people outside your own bubble doesn’t exactly meet CDC recommendations for social distancing. And many restaurants and sports bars across the country remain closed for similar health reasons.
The city of Tampa suffers here, too. Super Bowl week is a time for #brands to roll out the literal red carpet for the tranches of arriving celebrities, with multiple parties scheduled for every night of the week leading up to the game. COVID has cut most of those to minimal-attendance or virtual events … and party-hopping via Zoom just doesn’t cut it.
On the plus side, if the party’s in your house, at least you know you’ll be invited.
Big names not in Super Bowl ads: Budweiser, Coke, Pepsi and Hyundai are among the corporate entities who are sitting out “the Big Game” … wait, the Super Bowl, we’re allowed to use the real name here. (Yes, the brands are getting a whole lot of free mileage by talking about how noble they are for not spending their money on Sunday.)
What will that mean from a viewers’ perspective? Not a whole lot; all ad spaces are already sold out, so you’re not going to see Uncle Billy’s Bait Shack n’ Wholesale Lingerie Outlet getting a cheap ad slot. (Too bad.) We’ll have plenty of Very Solemn Ads About These Unprecedented Times to sit through, regardless of who’s behind them. (For the love of heaven, please don’t do a “people wearing masks in Super Bowl ads” drinking game.)
Zero media crush: “This is a crazy Media Day,” Tom Brady said Monday. “I’m sitting here in an empty room. This is very different than the other nine experiences.” Put aside the inherent flex in the “other nine experiences” line — Brady’s on to something here. The hallmark of any pre-COVID Super Bowl was the constant crush of media, in search of any and every possible angle.
Sure, you’d get the wacky puppets or talk-show sidekicks asking players about, say, their favorite pizza toppings or their bathroom habits. And every media outlet would stampede to craft a scene-from-the-Super-Bowl story for viewers back home, like the hordes that went ice fishing in Minnesota three years back.
But as goofy and superficial as this all was, it also whipped up hype for the game. Yes, by the time kickoff arrived the well had just about run dry and we were down to stories about the quarterback’s inspirational fourth-grade teacher or the head coach’s interest in whittling. That was all part of the spectacle, and it’s not easily replicable over Zoom. If you sense a distinct lack of hype for this year’s game, this is part of the reason why.
The halftime show: One of the low-key strange traditions of the Super Bowl is the way that thousands of people barrel onto the field for the halftime show, thrash around on the turf for 12 minutes, and then clear the hell out. Details are still scarce about this year’s halftime show, but it’s likely we’re not going to see a similar horde of humanity this time around.
On the other hand, there will be some normalcy. Apparently The Weeknd will be performing the entire show live and inside the stadium, which is a sharp departure from most musical performances during the pandemic.
So there you go. A strange Super Bowl, but a Super Bowl all the same. We’ll watch, we’ll enjoy, and we’ll never speak of what (little) happened outside the lines again.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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