Detailing the strangeness of pandemic-stricken Super Bowl LV 

TAMPA, Fla. -- The red-clad volunteers applaud each batch of airport arrivals, the building-high poster of the Lombardi Trophy is affixed to a downtown hotel, there are pictures of every Super Bowl ring -- in ascending order of years and carats -- stuck to the sidewalk and a pirate ship is parked in the middle of the Hillsborough River, bearing the flags of the Bucs and Chiefs and enormous silver roman numerals, LV.

In many of the NFL's over-the-top ways, this looks like a typical Super Bowl week, albeit the first one featuring a home team. Thousands of locals wore Bucs shirts to the Super Bowl Experience this week, Bucs banners dangle off apartment balconies (there is also, inexplicably, a Detroit Lions banner on a balcony that directly faces the NFL's headquarters hotel), and one local boat tour company promoted, on a hand-written sign, the chance to cruise past Tom Brady's new home and yacht nearby.

"As you're walking around -- you feel like you're surrounded by this big event," said Peter O'Reilly, the NFL's executive vice president of club business and league events. "It will still feel the same, amplified by the Bucs in the game." 

But then there is the hand sanitizer -- so much hand sanitizer -- and the omnipresent reminders to wear masks and Opening Night, during the day, by Zoom. Like the season it will cap, this is a Super Bowl like no other, surreal, strange and a bit subdued, the chaos of America's best excuse to have a party intersecting with the caution necessary to stage such a spectacle without becoming a superspreader event. 

If "unprecedented" was the word of 2020, get used to "reimagined" as the word of the weekend. Nearly everything about the Super Bowl save for the game itself has been tweaked in ways big (corporate junkets are mostly out) and small (the Bucs and Chiefs have been getting tested twice a day instead of just once since they won their conference championship games). In a normal year, when thousands of fans, sponsors, movie stars, off-duty players and assorted hangers-on descend on the Super Bowl host city, the first question is usually "Where's the party?" This year, when many fewer show up, it is likely to be something else. "Where is everybody?"

"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."

That is both an incredible flex and incredibly accurate.

I wish our guys could have had the real experience of what it really is. Bucs OC Byron Leftwich

One of the hallmarks of a Super Bowl is that everything feels supersized -- the signage, the noise, the media contingent, the security detail, the revelry. How odd is this week? Brady was happy that even his own family isn't in town, leaving him alone to prepare.

Indeed, the most noticeable difference about Tampa this week is the absence of crowds -- particularly those who arrive late in the week for several nights of bashes before the game. Autograph seekers, who usually cluster around the biggest hotels waiting for players to emerge, have been sparse here, like those they seek.

The NFL knew almost immediately after the country began its shutdown in March that the Super Bowl would be different in some form -- it was just a question of how different. Throughout the summer and fall, there were various scenarios -- including if an 18th week got added to the regular season, if the Super Bowl itself had to be moved, and if there was no bye week before the game. The NFL was focused, though, on playing the game on schedule, with many of the events that normally fill the rest of the week in a build-up to the game changing significantly. The focus, O'Reilly said, was to get the core right -- game day and the experience for the two teams, the television broadcast on CBS, and then to look at each of the pieces that surround the game to determine what could be modified and what had to go. Community charitable events survived, with some of them, including NFL Play 60 for children, going virtual. NFL Honors, the league's awards show shifted from being in-person on the night before the game to being taped early for television purposes. The glitzy hospitality events are out. 

It was determined months ago that whoever the Super Bowl teams were, they would not spend the week living and practicing in the Super Bowl city, the better to keep them isolated in their season-long COVID routine. The Chiefs will arrive in town on Saturday, making this like any other road trip. 

With all interviews being conducted virtually this week as they have been all season, the thousands-strong media horde from around the world has been whittled down to just a few hundred, a number now bulked up by the dozens of local Florida reporters added to cover the Bucs' breakthrough. The winnowing meant, particularly for the Opening Night sessions, less of the zaniness that has made that a crossover hit for even the most casual fans. Players often take videos of the circus while they themselves are being photographed at Opening Night. But this year, like Brady, players sat alone in front of cameras and ring lights for their interviews this week. The technology worked seamlessly, but there were no people dressed as brides and superheroes or bearing puppets, rendering this just another press conference. Patrick Mahomes still got asked what his spirit animal was (wolf), but what passed for a controversial quote was Tampa Bay's pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul saying he didn't know who Mike Remmers, the Chiefs' left tackle, is. 

Radio row -- a magnet for former and current players, pitchmen and celebrities and the fans who want to see them -- is drastically slimmed down, too, and there is no fan access. On one afternoon this week, the media center, which is usually jammed with reporters, radio hosts and their guests, was mostly deserted, and inevitably, the buzz that usually builds as the city fills up has been muted. 

The biggest event for most fans, though, survived the changes. The Super Bowl Experience, the NFL's version of a carnival which is usually staged inside a convention center, was already scheduled to largely be set outdoors along the river here. That made it safe enough to let it proceed with limits on how many fans can be inside at a time and with everyone wearing masks. Last weekend and in the last few days, filled with kids attempting field goals and running 40-yard dashes, it looked as normal as anything about this season has.

The luckiest 25,000 fans will be at the game, the smallest crowd in Super Bowl history, about a third of what full capacity at Raymond James Stadium would be for a Super Bowl. Still, it is a triumph of planning and spacing. No fan will have someone sitting directly in front or behind them, an effort aided by 30,000 cardboard cutouts of fans that will be dispersed throughout the stadium. And the crowd will include 7,500 fully vaccinated health care workers, at the game as guests of the NFL, which wanted to honor their work throughout the pandemic and also use the NFL's enormous platform to promote the COVID-19 vaccines. The massive tailgate party on game day was scrapped. Instead, the NFL is now staging a Miley Cyrus concert exclusively for the health care workers and for an audience on TikTok and CBS. 

"The fan who ultimately makes it to this game, I think you'll have a potentially less corporate than normal Super Bowl crowd," O'Reilly said. "You'll have fans who really want to be there to support their teams." 

By the midpoint of the week, more of the annual markers of a Super Bowl emerged. Swarms of security people materialized at every hotel, on boats on the rivers, in patrol cars on the streets. Local reporters began offering warnings about downtown traffic patterns and the best places to find a parking spot. 

For players, of course, the game will be unchanged, but not the experience. Brady has been through enough of these to know what COVID-19 has forced everyone to miss here. Byron Leftwich, the Bucs' offensive coordinator who went to two Super Bowls as a player with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- including when the Steelers won 12 years ago the last time the game was played in Tampa -- was wistful about how much different this Super Bowl has been for players. He was, after all, speaking from an empty room at the Bucs' training facility, not a tricked-out ballroom in a plush hotel. 

"I wish our guys could have had the real experience of what it really is," Leftwich said. "The experience is a little different this year. We're doing it through video. I would love for it to be a different year, a different experience so they could experience it the way I experienced it. This is a thing you should enjoy. This will do for the guys." 

And for the rest of us, too.

Follow Judy Battista on Twitter.

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