Tampa welcomes fans to the, well, Subdued Bowl

With a down economy and an unconventional matchup, the Super Bowl doesn't have quite as much hoopla this year.

Morry Gash/AP
Ahead of the game: A large balloon version of the Vince Lombardi Trophy is in Tampa, Fla.

Billboards across Tampa Bay, host of Super Bowl XLIII, show big smiling faces under the slogan: "Get your game face on."

At a time of economic slump, and with an oddball matchup on the gridiron, that municipal appeal has suddenly taken on unintended meaning for residents like Leonard Johnson, hawking T-shirts to the empty streets of Tampa's Ybor City neighborhood Tuesday night. "I'm nervous," he said. "This place should have been a party by now, and it's not."

Coming only a few months after Tampa hosted the worst-rated World Series of all time, the lead-up to the Super Bowl has been noticeably subdued. That's testing not only the game faces of the area's boosters, but also a National Football League that, some critics say, has sacrificed fan passion for a 15-year effort to achieve competitive parity among the teams.

"Pressure on Tampa Bay is especially high for this Super Bowl, especially since they're still smarting from the World Series," says Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture in Syracuse, N.Y. "And there's less of a sense of arrogance around the league this year."

Still, success at the Super Bowl level is relative. The NFL's national television contracts alone mean that all 32 teams are profitable before the regular season's first downs are even played. And no matter which teams are playing in the Super Bowl, or where it's held, Americans have long ago planned their parties for Sunday.

"I promise you: There's not going to be one cocktail shrimp left in America after this week," says Larry DeGaris, a sports marketing professor at the University of Indianapolis.

Tampa's attractions

Hosting the Super Bowl for the fourth time in 25 years, Tampa Bay's mix of historic streetcars, Cuban districts, and rowdy beaches is in many ways a perfect destination. The 78 degree heat had frostbitten Pittsburgh Steelers players smiling on media day. And the city plies much of its trade around the young male demographic that has kept the Super Bowl one of the last enduring ratings successes in a deeply fractured television market.

Still, the firm PricewaterhouseCoopers shifted downward the revenue estimates for spending by visitors – from $180 million to $150 million. And StubHub, an online, secondary market for tickets, predicted that game-day tickets will be sold at about face value (which is $1,000). As of last week, the average price on StubHub for a Super Bowl ticket was $2,552, about 28 percent below last year's street price for the Patriots-Giants matchup.

Also, Playboy and Sports Illustrated have both canceled parties. And the much-anticipated "lingerie bowl" was also sacked due to lack of sponsorship. Even the commercials are expected to "be more Clydesdales than [potty humor]," says Professor DeGaris.

After revising its fundraising goal from $8 million to $7 million, the Tampa host committee met its final obligations last week. "This is actually a great year to host the game, in this economy," argues Reid Sigman, the host committee director. "There are a lot of cities around the US that would love this kind of boost right now."

So far, Mr. Sigman is holding to his prediction of 100,000 visitors. There's little doubt that Steeler Nation will travel and get some beach time in before waving their Terrible Towels. But despite the charge of excitement around the Arizona Cardinals, which are making their first Super Bowl appearance, their fans seemed more reluctant to leave the sunny Southwest.

"The notion that only one Cardinals fan is showing up isn't true," says Gary Williams, a mechanic in the Tampa area. "There's actually two."

For Mr. Johnson, the T-shirt hawker, Tampa Bay is showing its limits as a destination. "The fact is that this isn't Miami," he says. "This is an offshoot city."

Is parity a good thing?

But critics say the city didn't get much help from the NFL's focus on parity. In the past 10 years, seven teams (including the Cardinals) have made it to the Super Bowl that had never been there before.

That the Cardinals slipped through the regular season with a 9-7 record and then got hot in the playoffs shows a basic weakness in the NFL's attempts to level the playing field, in the opinion of Football Outsiders president Aaron Schatz. College football's arcane Bowl Championship Series selection, the argument goes, is better suited to make sure that a fluke isn't crowned champion.

"If the NFL has now arrived at a strange point where regular-season performance does nothing to predict playoff performance ... is that bad for the league?" Mr. Schatz asked in an exchange that appeared in an online column by Sports Illustrated's Peter King.

But that idea, argues San Francisco Chronicle columnist Ray Ratto, contradicts the very appeal of professional football – the unpredictability that gives, say, Philadelphia Eagles fans the pleasure of whining through the postseason.

"A lot of people are used to the college-football template, where the only teams that can win are from a field of four to six," Mr. Ratto says. "That's not what pro sports pretends to be. You can't have the thrill of surprise and a preordained verdict at the same time."

Even if the Super Bowl doesn't quite live up to its billing this year, at least Tampa will have helped give a troubled nation a brief reprieve on Sunday, says Sigman of the host committee.

"This is still something the whole country can take part in and give people a few hours to forget everything else and collectively be here," he says.

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