Going to a Super Bowl city can be fun, frustrating, exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time. Super Bowl XXXVII is San Diego’s third time hosting the NFL’s big party, and that’s just what it is: a big party, or parties to be more correct. While 70,000 people attend the game, upwards of 300,000 arrive in the Super Bowl city to take part in the festivities. Just about every large corporate entity in the US uses the Super Bowl as some kind of client entertainment. Many of the corporations have a connection to the NFL through sponsorship, others are just there as part of the revelry.
There are official functions, sanctioned functions, and in every town, there’s a place where the assembled assemble. In New Orleans, of course, it’s Bourbon Street, in Miami, South Beach, in San Diego it’s the Gas Lamp district, and in Jacksonville it’ll be, well, where will it be? For the first time, the league allowed a city two years away from hosting the game to have a spot in the media headquarters, allowing Jacksonville’s host committee to give a long-range preview of their plans to put on the game. Set up right next to Houston, next year’s Super Bowl city, the Jacksonville host committee had about a 25X25 octagonal shaped booth, complete with a continuous running video highlighting the city, a Tiger Woods video golf game set up so you could play TPC as Tiger, pamphlets and brochures trumpeting the city’s climate and beaches, downtown and riverfront and showing off the cruise ships as the centerpiece of what they’re calling the “Super Bowl by the River.”
Yet everywhere I’d go, there’d be skeptics. “I might skip that Super Bowl,” said Len Pasquarelli of ESPN.com, “it’s a terrible town.” While Pasquarelli might be a little harsh, that’s the general consensus about Jacksonville hosting the game. We can’t do it, and even if we do, it’ll be terrible and the league will come to their senses and never come back. I covered the game in 1984 in Tampa and 1988 in San Diego, those cities first foray into the Super Bowl hosting business. Both were “not ready for prime time” places to be the first time around. Tampa was pretty sleepy and spread out, San Diego was downright scary in downtown. Both, with the help of the NFL, hosted the game, had their problems and set out to fix them. In each case, the league gave them a pat on the back and said “good effort, change the stuff that needs to be changed and we’ll be back.”
Tampa’s subsequent hostings have included a new stadium and expansion of their resorts, so it’s gotten easier each time. San Diego transformed itself downtown, adding the Gas Lamp district with plenty of restaurants and drinking establishments and two big hotels attached to the new convention center. It’s an easy choice for the league to put their big game.
Jacksonville’s a whole different story.
While the host committee has used San Diego’s bid and execution as a model, they’ve got a whole different idea. “San Diego is good for use because of its similar military personnel, the water and the population but we’ve got a different idea,” said Wayne Weaver, Jaguars owner and board member of the Jacksonville Host Committee. “We’re going to have everything possible within two miles of the stadium. People won’t have to go anywhere, and for sure they won’t have to drive.”
The big picture plan has semi-permanent tenting, trams and trolleys, cruise ships for accommodations and entertainment. So to the question “Where are all those people going to eat and stay?” the answer is: right by the stadium. “Oh, we’re actually ahead of schedule,” Mike Kelly, the president of the Host Committee said on Friday. “We’ve got contracts with the cruise lines and plans from the league so we’re very busy.”
While none of that seems to be tangible yet (the cruise ships won’t arrive until the week of the game) nobody’s panicking, especially not the NFL. Tim Murphy, the VP of sponsorship of the league and one of the key figures in executing the Super Bowl for the NFL is excited. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but it’s going to be great. People won’t even recognize the downtown when the game is there.” And that’s part of the whole plan.
Jacksonville’s transformation for the game should give people a glimpse of what the city can be in the future. I went to a party in downtown San Diego on Friday night, very exclusive (invited by my brother), where the guests had no idea they were in an abandoned warehouse, painted, scrubbed and fixed up for the Super Bowl. Same thing with many of the bars and eating establishments downtown. Unoccupied storefronts are spruced up, food service and liquor licenses granted and voila, a place to eat, drink and meet is created. The NFL has plenty of experience at changing planning and changing things. They’ve accepted Jacksonville’s application and they’ll make it work. What we do with it while it’s here and after it leaves is up to us.