USA TODAY International Edition

Unusual Super 55 week begins

COVID- 19 brings big changes around game

- Nate Davis

An NFL season like no other will conclude Sunday with Super Bowl 55, which will be unpreceden­ted in many ways itself. A few ways Super Bowl week and Super Sunday will be far different during a pandemic:

• The Buccaneers will be the first team to host a Super Bowl in their own stadium, in Tampa, Florida. Definitely makes the family travel plans easier ... and probably lightens the mental load for a team that has no more trips to make as the COVID- 19 virus continues to rage.

• Raymond James Stadium, which typically accommodat­es 65,618 fans, will be capped to a capacity of 22,000. The attendance for Super Bowl 43, the last time the game was played here ( Steelers- Cardinals in 2009), was 70,774 with expanded seating.

• More than one- third of those in attendance ( approximat­ely 7,500) will be vaccinated health care workers. Most will come from Central Florida, though all 32 teams will be allowed to send health care representa­tives who fought the pandemic in their markets. All will watch as guests of the league. Every fan in attendance must wear a mask.

The only time the Super Bowl has h

not sold out was the first time it was played – it was dubbed the AFL- NFL World Championsh­ip Game in 1967. That game between the Chiefs and Packers had a record- low attendance ( 61,946), a mark that will be broken this year.

• The traditiona­l Super Bowl week kickoff event, known originally as “Media Day” but lately as “Opening Night,” will be drasticall­y altered Monday. To begin with, there will be no media. All interviews will be done via Zoom with just nine players from each team instead of full rosters. While it is still called “Opening Night,” those interviews will be conducted during the day. Fans, who in recent years were allowed to watch on site, can instead turn to NFL Network ( 8 p. m. ET) for “the best of the best moments and an NFL Network exclusive conversati­on between Super Bowl coaches and quarterbac­ks,” according to a league news release.

• The Chiefs are not expected to be on site until Friday or Saturday. Super Bowl teams usually spend a week at the host city – practicing, conducting interviews at media events and dispersing into the community to appear at pregame festivitie­s and parties.

• Sarah Thomas will become the first woman to officiate during a Super Bowl. A veteran of six NFL seasons, she will serve as the down judge.

The Hall of Fame selection conh clave, which traditiona­lly takes place among the selectors the day before the Super Bowl ( and in advance of that Saturday night's “NFL Honors” broadcast), has occurred in a virtual environmen­t, though the players elected to the 2021 Canton class have not been revealed.

The “Super Bowl Experience” will h be completely outdoors for the first time, along the Tampa riverfront. Masks will be required.

To assist the greater Tampa comh munity amid the pandemic – both in terms of food insecurity and restaurant­s hit hard by the lack of business – the NFL Foundation is making a $ 250,000 donation to Feeding Tampa Bay, and the league will orchestrat­e two community events in conjunctio­n with FTB to further address those issues.

• The parties and celebrity sightings that are staples of any Super Bowl week are expected to be drasticall­y curtailed and/ or reimagined. NFL agent Leigh Steinberg's 34th annual Super Bowl party is going virtual, for example, partnering with the Make- AWish Foundation to raise money for the charity.

 ?? MIKE EHRMANN/ GETTY IMAGES ?? An aerial view of Raymond James Stadium on Sunday ahead of next week’s Super Bowl 55.
MIKE EHRMANN/ GETTY IMAGES An aerial view of Raymond James Stadium on Sunday ahead of next week’s Super Bowl 55.

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