NFL-Mask-clad fans stream into Buccaneers' home stadium for Super Bowl unlike any other
By Amy Tennery
TAMPA, Fla., Feb 7 (Reuters) - Mask-clad fans trickled into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stadium on Super Bowl Sunday, as the limited crowd of attendees largely observed COVID-19 health and safety restrictions.
The showdown between the hometown Bucs and the reigning Super Bowl champion Kansas City Chiefs is the culmination of a National Football League (NFL) season that once appeared in doubt, as the novel coronavirus ripped through the United States and plunged the world of professional sports into disarray nearly 11 months ago.
The 65,618-capacity Raymond James Stadium, which is allowing 25,000 ticketed fans in the stands and suites, had the appearance of a packed crowd, as cardboard cutouts were scattered between the in-person fans.
"I love this," said Colleen O'Malley, 61, a lifelong Chiefs fan who traveled from Lawrence, Kansas, gesturing to the cutouts, as she enjoyed the sunny skies and 71-degree Fahrenheit (22 C) weather. "We were worried about the rain and look at this!"
The cutouts, which feature average fans and former NFL players, among others, were among the measures designed to keep attendees socially distanced.
Officials scattered throughout the stadium reminded ticket holders to space themselves out on escalators, while pop singer Miley Cyrus crooned her cover of "Heart of Glass" to a crammed tailgate concert for some of the 7,500 vaccinated healthcare workers to whom the league provided free tickets.
Michael Simpkins, 51, a Buccaneers season-ticket holder for five years, was among the many hometown fans hoping to see Tampa Bay clinch its first NFL championship since 2003, with six-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback Tom Brady – playing his first season for the team – at the helm.
"I hated him until he came here," Simpkins said of the longtime New England Patriot. "Now I love him! I love Brady. He’s awesome."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Peter Cooney)