Modest Jacksonville preens for its moment as media epicenter

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Paul McCartney is here. So is rapper Snoop Dogg and rocker Lynyrd Skynyrd.

Gladys Knight is on her way - but nothing yet on the whereabouts of those Pips.

There's golf with football legends. A parade of illuminated boats. And, oh yeah, at some point there's supposed to be a football game.

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Welcome to Super Bowl XXXIX.

At 6:30 p.m. Sunday, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles will deploy on the field before 83,000 cheering fans at Alltel Stadium to play the National Football League's championship game.

The winners will be awarded the Lombardi Trophy, $68,000 per player, and the coveted Super Bowl ring - worth about $5,000 each. The losers get $36,500 per player and a one-way ticket into sports oblivion.

The Super Bowl has become more than a mere sporting event. It is one of the purest expressions of the American ideal of competition and victory. It has captured the imagination not only of those fortunate enough to hold game tickets here in Jacksonville - but also of pretty much anyone anywhere with a working TV.

According to the National Retail Federation, 1.5 million televisions will be sold in the week leading up to the Super Bowl. Five times as many big-screen TVs are sold that week in comparison with an average week, according to the National Electronic Dealers Association.

Other products benefit from a Super Bowl bounce as well. Estimates are that 4,000 tons of popcorn will be eaten this Sunday, along with 14,500 tons of snack chips and 8 million pounds of guacamole.

There will be 7.5 million Super Bowl parties: That's more socializing in America than occurs on New Year's Eve, according to the National Retail Federation and Hallmark Cards.

Most of the hard-core fans - those from Philadelphia and Boston - haven't arrived here yet. But final preparations are under way for a citywide party that has been four years in the making.

And for good reason. City leaders say 144 million Americans watched last year's Super Bowl. With the game picked up in 220 other countries, worldwide viewership could approach 800 million, they say.

Yes, this is Jacksonville's moment in the sun. "For us, the Super Bowl represents a golden opportunity," says Heather Surface of the Jacksonville Super Bowl Host Committee.

Officials estimate a $250 million to $350 million economic boost to the region as a result of hosting the game. But the real payoff, Ms. Surface says, is access to a worldwide audience: "That visibility far exceeds the dollars left behind."

Mayor John Peyton and other city leaders are hopeful that potential investors and tourists watching Super Bowl coverage will like what they see of Jacksonville.

Not everyone, however, has liked what they've seen so far. Some sportswriters have questioned whether a small city like Jacksonville is the best venue for a major event like this.

Jacksonville was selected over Miami and Oakland four years ago to host Sunday's game. New Orleans has hosted the big game nine times - more than any other city. Miami comes in second, having hosted eight. This is Jacksonville's first.

To win the hosting job, Jacksonville had to convince the NFL that it could comply with certain requirements. The city must be able to provide 700 limousines for the week, facilities to handle 650 corporate jets, and 17,000 premium hotel rooms within 25 miles of the stadium.

The first two requirements were no problem. But Jacksonville didn't have enough high-quality hotel rooms near the stadium.

The solution? City leaders leased five cruise ships for $11.7 million and positioned them not far from the stadium on the St. Johns River.

Yet even that may not have been enough. John Connelly of Rochester, N.H., says he's staying with his daughter who lives on nearby Amelia Island. But he says a friend with Super Bowl tickets was unable to find an available hotel room within 100 miles of the stadium.

Mr. Connelly says his friend is staying in an Orlando hotel and has rented a car.

Connelly describes himself as a serious Patriots fan. Wearing a Patriots cap and the Patriots jersey worn by quarterback Tom Brady, he says he doesn't have tickets yet to the game, but he wanted to come to Jacksonville anyway.

"I figured if I couldn't go to the game, at least I could enjoy the festivities," Connelly says.

The box-office price of a Super Bowl ticket ranges from $500 to $600 each. But some tickets are for sale on the Internet for as much as $7,000 each.

Eagles fan Lenny DeMarco of New York is taking his wife, Karen, and son, Travis, to the game. He says he's impressed with what he's seen so far of Jacksonville. "I think it's great," he says of the cruise-ship idea. "They are prepared."

Domingo Pinate has lived in Jacksonville only eight months. A native of Venezuela, he admits to not being much of a football fan. But he says he is a big fan of Jacksonville, his new home: "We are really hoping to give a good impression, and we are hoping that [football fans] think of Jacksonville as a charming city and friendly."

Mr. Pinate does not follow football - yet. But he has decided to root for one team and is now busily shopping for a T-shirt, hat, and mug in one of the countless souvenir shops that have opened for the week in Jacksonville.

"I'm a baseball fan and I like the Red Sox," he says, adding, "so it will be good if New England wins."

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