TAMPA, Fla. (NBCSPORTS.com) - Downtown Tampa was as quiet as the inside of a coffin. A few early arrivals were picking up credentials at the convention center, where they'll be holed up this week. Piles of Steelers postseason media guides were already out for anyone who wanted to read a season's worth of press clippings, but there wasn't a scrap of information out about the Cardinals.
Other than that, and various volunteers practicing their Welcome to Tampa smiles on the occasional passerby, there wasn't a whisper of activity.
No problem with that. Soon enough, downtown Tampa, which isn't used to being the center o' the universe, will be swarming with journalists, NFL employees, volunteers, buses, taxis, cops and people dressed up either like total idiots or rabid fans, and that's a distinction best left to the eye of the beholder. Superstars of music and film and television and other sports will show up to party.
There's a recession on, and it's hitting the economy hard. Even here some activities have been scaled back by the host committee whose corporate sponsors pulled back on their financial commitments. The local papers are saying that scalpers are asking twice the face value of tickets instead of three times the value as in years past. And the NFL has sold some tickets to fans of the Super Bowl teams for $500 each below market value.
You'll read about that this week. I'll be writing some of it. But don't be fooled. Money may be tight all over, but this is still Super Bowl Week, America's winter break for adults. It's still the one sporting event that's on just about every fan's bucket list. Maybe some fans will come down a day later than usual to save a few bucks, but by Game Day, this town is going to be jumping like never before.
Somebody will write about the wretched excess of it all, but, c'mon, folks. We need distractions in life, and when times are hard, we need them more. If people want to fling some dollars around having fun and taking in the game, why spoil their fun by telling them they shouldn't? It would be like telling a man standing before the firing squad that he shouldn't have that last cigarette because smoking is bad for his health.
At some point, somebody with more sense than sensibility will say that it's only a football game. That person would be right in the narrow way that constipated minds frequently are, but utterly wrong in the spirit of what's about to unfold over the next week. It's like being on a tropical beach watching the greatest sunset in the history of sunsets and someone telling you, "It's only a sunset."
And the Super Bowl is the tropical sunset of football games. It's not a terrible metaphor. It's the end of the season, the final game, the figurative sunset of the season. You may have watched scores of games during the year, but this one is the biggest, the brightest, the best. Ratings will probably be down from last year because it's just the Cardinals playing against the Steelers, and not the Giants or Cowboys or Eagles taking on Pittsburgh. But it's still going to be the most-watched television show of the year, it's still going to command our attention and conversation all week long and maybe for weeks after it's over.
Whether you're here, where it's warm and wonderfully sunny, or back home in the frigid grip of winter, Super Bowl Week is an escape. It's a chance to throw money at an office or bar pool or both. It's something to talk and argue about. There are personalities to meet, stories to read, maybe a controversy to liven things up, beer to drink, brats to gobble down, and a big Sunday party at which someone is sure to ask 20 minutes into the game, Okay, which team is the Steelers?
Tampa, which has done this before, is ready. Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh and Phoenix, the two combatants were enjoying their last day with their families in relative sanity, getting ready to fly to the host city on Monday and issue their first quotes of Super Bowl Week.
Picture players standing in front of their mirrors repeating such lines as, We're just going to treat this like any other week, I have nothing but the highest respect for (Fill in name of opposing player, team, coach or all of the above.), This is what you dream about, the Super Bowl, and Before I tell you how wonderful I am, I first want to give all praise and credit to (Fill in name of deity, parent, high school coach, probation officer or all of the above.), without whom I wouldn't be here.
As they pack, a lot of the players will remind themselves to bring along a camcorder so they can shoot their own videos of people shooting videos of them shooting videos at Media Day. Those being chronicled chronicling the chroniclers (Say that fast three times.) has become one of many Super Bowl traditions over the years.
We know how it's going to go. Monday is for short-and-sweet arrival quotes. Tuesday is the madhouse in the stadium with representatives of more media outlets that you ever knew existed asking players what sort of tree or sandwich or dog or wild animal or superhero - they would be if they were whatever it is they're being asked to compare themselves to. Some hot woman television reporter from a foreign country may dress up as a bride and ask players to marry her, as a Mexican TV personality did last year to great amusement. Players will be asked to give a shout out to NFL fans in Japan, China, Germany, Mexico, Argentina, Australia and scores of other countries.
Wednesday and Thursday are more media sessions and, with any luck, a running controversy wrung out of an offhanded comment somebody made on Tuesday. Friday is when all of us alleged experts tell you in exhausting detail why one team or the other is going to win. Saturday is for getting everything together for Sunday's party.
And Sunday, Feb. 1, they finally bring down the curtain on another season. I like the match-up, and I'll go out on a limb now and say it's going to be closer than a lot of you think. The Cardinals, playing for their second title since 1947, are here on merit; they've played great in the postseason. The Steelers are looking to be the first team to win six silver footballs.
The teams arrive on Monday. The fun begins for real on Tuesday. Enjoy the show. Lord knows we need the distraction.