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Tampa Super Bowl: What a major sporting event is like in the COVID-19 era
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Tampa Super Bowl: What a major sporting event is like in the COVID-19 era

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MIAMI — College Football Playoff banners lined the roads from downtown to South Beach, alerting everyone to the Jan. 11 national championship.

There were photo ops along the boardwalk, shirts for sale on Ocean Drive and parties humming outside Hard Rock Stadium. The Ohio State University’s marching band spelled out “Ohio” in its famed script lettering, and cheers of “Roll Tide Roll” punctuated Sweet Home Alabama after the Crimson Tide celebrated yet another national title.

All the usual ingredients of college football’s biggest event were present, down to Southeastern Conference billboards off Florida’s Turnpike reminding drivers of the league’s motto: It just means more.

But it just felt less. As Tampa will soon learn.

Although the coronavirus pandemic no longer sidelines major sporting events, the ongoing public health crisis makes them look and feel different.

Many of the ancillary fan events are gone. Others have been restructured, often with virtual activities replacing in-person ones. If the games themselves seem relatively normal on TV, they don’t inside the stadium, where the empty seats and plentiful hand-sanitizing stands can’t be ignored.

Tampa Bay Times reporters have attended five U.S. championship events in the COVID-19 era: college football’s SEC title game and national championship, baseball’s World Series and American League Championship Series, and the IndyCar Series’ Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg. Due to strict Canadian quarantine rules, Times reporters did not travel during the Lightning’s Stanley Cup run. Together, the other five events offer insight into what to expect leading up to Super Bowl 55 at Raymond James Stadium.

If it is anything like college football’s championship in Miami, the environment and economic impact won’t be what local officials were anticipating in 2017 when they landed the NFL’s marquee game. But the experience still can be positive, even with a diminished buzz around town and softer roars in the stands.

“I had surprisingly good feelings about it,” College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock said the morning after the University of Alabama’s win over Ohio State. But…

“I don’t want to do it again. Ever.”

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