The Crowd, the Quiet, the Cutouts: A Strange Year at the Super Bowl

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On Sunday, Benjamin Hoffman was at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla., covering his 12th Super Bowl for The New York Times. His first, in 2009, was also in Tampa, But that might be where the similarities stop. Attendance for the game, a lopsided 31-9 win by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers over the Kansas City Chiefs, was limited to a third of the stadium’s capacity, and the normal week of mega events was minimized to avoid the spread of the coronavirus. In a series of emails, Mr. Hoffman, a senior editor on the Sports desk, shared what the game was like from up close. Here is that edited exchange.

You’ve covered previous Super Bowls. Those were usually preceded by days of events that gave the game its oversize feeling. What was it like when you arrived in Tampa this year?

The entire week felt considerably different. Instead of spending Monday through Friday in hotel conference rooms with players, we were at home talking to them on Zoom. I arrived in Tampa on Friday — typically when a Super Bowl city has reached a fever pitch — and found it to have the feel of much earlier in the week. The various signs of a Super Bowl being in town — the blocked-off streets, the pop-up vendors, the N.F.L. gear being worn everywhere — were there, but the crowds seemed much smaller, and the media gatherings were nonexistent.

Did you miss having face-to-face interviews with players and coaches?

I think they did the best they could with the Zoom access to players, but nothing can really replicate the middle of a Super Bowl week when some of the media has cleared out and you find yourself in a room of players who would love to talk about the game rather than the off-the-wall questions they’ve spent the first few days of the week answering. The remote access also limited our ability to bounce around between players. A lot of the organic reporting that happens at Super Bowls just by being around people and events was impossible.

How was it inside a Super Bowl with limited attendance? Did your senses pick up on anything in a less-than-packed stadium?

The second I walked in I could tell just how few people were going to be there because the stands were already full of the corrugated plastic cutouts of fans. The people who were allowed in were spaced out.

At first, the regulations about masks and distancing were followed closely, but that waned as the game started. By the second quarter, fans were milling around, many of them maskless, and they were treating the game like a tailgate party, which was pretty heavily influenced by it being the home team playing.

The way The Times covers big sporting events has evolved. Online, a live briefing is updated constantly. How has the way a journalist works during the game changed?

The live coverage has made everything more immediate, moving up the timeline on everything we do. Dave Anderson, the legendary Times sports columnist, had a famous line when an editor called him mid-game to ask what he was writing about. He said something along the lines of “it hasn’t happened yet.” We can’t work with a strategy like that anymore. We were writing everything as it happened and doing our best to make sense of all of it. In some ways it’s a lot easier — you’re largely writing about what’s in front of you — but the most difficult thing is the nagging feeling that there is a more pulled-back analysis that you’d like to be able to do but you just don’t have the time. Ben Shpigel largely detached to do that analysis, allowing others to do the more immediate stuff.

As you mentioned, the Buccaneers won playing in their stadium, the first time that ever happened. Did it feel like a home game?

Right up until game time I would have insisted the crowd was around 50-50, as Chiefs fans were being plenty vocal and the teams’ color schemes are fairly similar. But once they started playing it was apparent that it was a Buccaneers crowd. Their touchdowns were greeted with thunderous cheers, and in moments of surprising silence — a stadium that is two-thirds empty can really get quiet — you could hear fans shouting insults at [Chiefs quarterback] Patrick Mahomes. It had to be strangest for the players, because it was the Super Bowl, but in many ways it felt almost like a preseason game.

Maybe the N.F.L. had timing and a structural advantage on its side. There are fewer games and less travel, for example. But are you surprised the league was able to play its entire season?

The league got in all 256 regular season games and every playoff game, but there were some major compromises along the way that I’m not sure other leagues would have been willing to make. The most extreme was Denver having to play a game with a practice squad wide receiver at quarterback, but there were other issues, like the Browns playing the Jets with no wide receivers and the Saints playing a game with just one running back. The Steelers, thanks to an outbreak on the Tennessee Titans, essentially played the entire season without a bye week. So while I’ll absolutely credit the N.F.L. with working hard to make the season happen, I think they have perhaps overstated how smoothly the whole thing went.

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