The Lombardi Trophy at the NFL Experience on Feb. 4,...

The Lombardi Trophy at the NFL Experience on Feb. 4, 2021, in Tampa. Credit: AP/Charlie Riedel

Super Bowl LV between Kansas City and Tampa Bay will have a familiar look and feel on several levels, despite the strangeness of a far-less-than-full stadium because of COVID-19 restrictions.

For one thing, it will be the 17th played in Florida, the most of any state. For another, the Buccaneers’ Tom Brady will play in his 10th Super Bowl, the most of any player ever.  And he will become the first quarterback to play the Super Bowl in his home stadium.

In the CBS broadcast booth, Jim Nantz will work his eighth Super Bowl as either a play-by-play man or host, and CBS itself will mark its 21st showing of the big game, the most of any network. James Brown will host his 10th Super Bowl – four for Fox and six for CBS – also a record.

This normally would have been NBC’s turn in the Super Bowl rotation, but it executed a trade with CBS so it could use Super Bowl LVI next February as a promotional launching pad for the Winter Olympics in Beijing.

The Super Bowl pregame plans

The days of being shocked by the length of Super Bowl pregame shows is long past. Fans have gotten used to the filler programming that serves mostly to scoop up advertising and sponsorship loose change before kickoff.

This year will be no different.

CBS’ extravaganza will begin at 11:30 a.m. with “That Other Pregame Show,” followed by a venerable Super Bowl Sunday tradition – NFL Films’ “Road to the Super Bowl.”

At 1 p.m., Tony Romo will precede his second Super Bowl in the game booth with a special called “Tony Goes to the Super Bowl,” in which he will interview Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks, including both in this year’s game, Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes.

The formal pregame show runs, per recent custom, from 2 to 6 p.m., with James Brown hosting and the network rolling out its familiar NFL studio faces.

“I’ve never been as proud of a pregame show as I am of the one that you’re going to see on Sunday,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said.

It will include features on Kenny Washington’s reintegration of the NFL in the 1940s (narrated by actress Viola Davis) and Whitney Houston’s memorable singing of the national anthem 30 years ago, also in Tampa, before the Giants beat the Bills in Super Bowl XXV.
CBS is scheduled to air an interview with President Joe Biden in the 4 p.m. hour, and James Brown will interview commissioner Roger Goodell.

Pregame festivities and introductions will be seen from 6 to 6:30, followed by the game itself at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.

In addition to CBS television, the game will stream digitally, an increasingly popular viewing option for fans.

In the week leading up to the game, CBS Sports’ cable arm, CBS Sports Network, will provide more than 75 hours of coverage, including daily morning episodes of “That Other Pregame Show,” a nightly “Super Bowl Live” show, radio simulcasts and a Super Bowl edition of “We Need to Talk.”

CBSSN also will offer extended postgame coverage following CBS’ postgame.

As always, NFL Network and ESPN also plan extensive, weeklong coverage leading up to game day, when each will have their own pregame programming.

Super Bowl prop bets fun

Every year that goes by, legal sports betting becomes more widespread in the United States.

But old-school gambling traditions surrounding the Super Bowl endure, notably the goofy proposition bets tied to the game, many of the goofiest turning up on offshore books.

Here are some over/under examples from BetOnline’s collection:

How many players will miss the game because of COVID-19? Over/under: 1 ½

Length of national anthem: Over/under: 2 minutes

How many times will “Belichick” be said on TV broadcast? Over/under: 1

How many times will Tom Brady’s wife, Gisele Bundchen, be shown? Over/under: 1 ½

How many times will CBS analyst Tony Romo mention his children? Over/under: 0.5

How many times will “Biden” be said? Over/under: 0.5

BetOnline offers more conventional stuff, too. Patrick Mahomes is even money to be Super Bowl MVP, while Tom Brady is 2/1.

U.S. books also mostly offer on-field wagers. William Hill, for example, has a variety of yardage-based prop bets.

Mahomes’ passing yards over/under was 319.5 at the start of Super Bowl week, while Travis Kelce was at 102.5 for receiving yards and Tyreek Hill at 97.5.

William Hill said one New Jersey bettor placed a $6,666 wager on Sammy Watkins at 15/1 odds to score the first Kansas City touchdown and another $4,000 on Watkins at 25/1 to score the game’s first touchdown overall.

Oh, and another $1,000 on Watkins at 200/1 to be the game’s MVP.

Big bets, little talk

The Super Bowl is the Super Bowl of sports gambling, of course, but don’t look for that to be a significant element of CBS’ coverage of the big game.

CBS traditionally is more conservative than some of its counterparts, and the explosion in legal sports gambling – and related programming – in recent years is no exception.

"We haven’t felt the need to include a lot of gambling information in our studio programming,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “I think people who are gambling have such incredible access to mountains of information that what we were providing probably would be rather obvious to the person who is gambling and might be even annoying or superfluous to the people who aren’t gambling. 

"So we’ve included it in some of our picks segments, where we talk about how much we think a team will win by. But really, we haven’t felt the need to do a lot of it, and in the game itself we do not talk about betting information or lines or over/unders or parlays at all. 

"We’re taking this slowly, one step at a time. I think there’s probably an opportunity down the road, hopefully partnering with the NFL, on a gambling feed that would be more in tune to what the gambler would want, the opportunity for in-game gaming possibly down the road. But that would be a separate production and it would be a separate feed that we would be doing to implement that kind of process. 

“So we’re going slowly. We’ve dipped our toe in the water a little bit. No one seems to have minded it. The gamblers seem to enjoy it. So we’re taking it one season at a time, basically.”

Nantz feels the distance in social distancing for Super Bowl week

Jim Nantz insisted he is not complaining. After all, he gets to call the Super Bowl, and be paid handsomely to do so. But he did admit the COVID-19 restrictions that have altered much of his professional life have been difficult to swallow.
“There’s nothing social about it,” he said, referring to protocols he and his colleagues have followed all season, up to and including Super Bowl week. “I miss it, big time. It’s not OK with me; I’ll be honest.”
Nantz illustrated the severity of those restrictions with this startling detail: The first time he and analyst Tony Romo see one another in Tampa will be when they walk into the booth on game day, having taken separate cars there.
The only other time Nantz will leave his hotel room after arriving on Thursday night will be for a walkthrough at the stadium on Friday to practice the Lombardi Trophy presentation.
Nantz said his CBS NFL crew has not had a single dinner together this season, a ritual that not only is social but also generates ideas for game-day discussion topics.
“Jim knows as well as I do how many times in our history those conversations lead to something else that we mention on-air,” Romo said.
In essence, there will be no Super Bowl week this year as it traditionally has been known.
CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus described his usual rituals, full of meetings and schmoozing, and said this year he will order room service on Saturday night, be in an office on game day instead of in a production truck, then go to back to his hotel Sunday night.
“It’s definitely scaled back,” he said. “It’s not social in any way, which is fine . . . It’ll be different, but if we get a close game, it’ll all be worth it."

CBS will have about 15% fewer personnel on site for the game than normal.

Sideline reporting challenges

No on-air NFL game day job has been as altered by the COVID-19 pandemic more than that of sideline reporter, and now Tracy Wolfson will become the first to do it during a Super Bowl.

She said a season of practice has prepared her, but it has not been easy.

"It’s been a challenge I’ve learned to attack, trying to find different ways to find information from the position we’re in,” she said. “It’s not easy listening in and hearing what they’re saying on the sidelines, everyone masked up and me being further back than normal, the crowd noise being pumped in, fans who are behind me.
"It’s made that challenging, no doubt.”

Wolfson expects to be allowed on the sideline itself for the Super Bowl, which should allow her to operate more normally than when she has been relegated to the lower rows of the stands.

"I think it will help in terms of trying to hear what is actually happening down there a little bit more, getting a little of a closer feel,” she said, “and certainly in a game of this magnitude, what better opportunity than that?"

Wolfson said the thing she has missed most is the way social distancing protocols have restricted her approach to postgame interviews.

"A player, a coach, when they win, the best thing and one of my favorite things is to do the postgame interview right up in their face, getting on in there,” she said. “I’ve done that forever, whether it was in college football in the SEC or in the NFL, and I miss that, I really do.

"Just getting that excitement and that emotion right after a win is something you can’t replicate from six feet away or from the time you have in between to set up that interview. That’s something I certainly look forward to going back to next year."

From one NFL official to another

Gene Steratore is only three years removed from officiating in the Super Bowl, so he knows the thrill of that job – and the pressure that comes with it.

But he said the challenge Sarah Thomas will face as the first woman to officiate in a Super Bowl comes with an even higher degree of difficulty.

"In anything in life, when you are the first to do something, an additional amount of attention and spotlight does get put on you, whether you want it to or not, because you are the first,” said Steratore, now CBS’ rules analyst.

"When you are an official, the critique and criticism that already is applied to this profession is very high, coupling that with being the first female official and having that spotlight on her, game in and game out, week in and week out, on and off the field, is a tremendous challenge.

"The way that she has handled herself, professionally and personally, with all of that attention and scrutiny at times, potentially, I can do nothing but commend what she’s done and her work has shown it, I’m sure, because she has been assigned to the Super Bowl."

Steratore will work on site on Sunday, but he spent most of the season monitoring games from a setup in his home. He credited producer Kimani Morales for making it work smoothly.

“It’s an amazing accomplishment [even] when we’re all next to each other,” he said. “They made this really seamless and have done a great job in that regard."

Nickelodeon's Super Bowl presence less than wild-card game

CBS considered doing a separate production of the Super Bowl for its youth-oriented sister channel, Nickelodeon, similar to the wildly popular one it did for the Bears-Saints wild-card playoff game. 

But CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said the network opted not to do that so it could maximize the audience for the main production on the broadcast network. “The Super Bowl is all about CBS,” he said.

Still, Nick will have a Super Bowl presence on its own channel, on social media and with a segment on the CBS pregame show featuring the Nick game show “Unfiltered.”
Nate Burleson, the analyst for the wild-card game on Nick, will host a Nickelodeon-themed highlights segment at halftime on CBS.

As a news release described it, Burleson “will recap the ‘slime-lights,’ highlights from the first two quarters of the game that have been ‘Nick-ified’ with original on-field graphics and filters.”

Asked about the success of the wild-card game, Burleson said, “There are these pockets of demographics that we can speak to a little bit better. I feel like the combination of the NFL, CBS and Nickelodeon coming together and being able to speak a different language while explaining the same type of football that we all love, it hit home.”

He added, “It spoke to different generations, people who are all kids at heart.”

Fellow CBS analyst Bill Cowher was such a fan of the wild-card game on Nick he proposed opening every season with such a game to refresh everyone’s memories about the sport.

Cowher said of the wild card telecast, “I just listened to that going, ‘Wow, ingenious!’”


ESPN, the Big Game and Berman

ESPN never has televised a Super Bowl – at least not in English in the United States – but traditionally it has a visible presence there, and this one will be no exception regardless of pandemic limitations.
In two cases, the network is televising the game itself, which will be shown in Spanish on ESPN Deportes and in English in Australia and New Zealand, with the “Monday Night Football” announcing crew doing the honors.
ESPN has its customary four-hour pregame show from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but the highlight for many old-school viewers will be a postgame episode of “NFL Prime Time” hosted from the stadium by Chris Berman, along with Steve Young and Booger McFarland.
This will be the 39th Super Bowl Berman has covered.
NFL Network always gets to go a tad longer than ESPN with its pregame show, given the “NFL” in its name and ownership structure.

Its pregame “NFL GameDay Morning” will start at 9 a.m. and end at 5:30 p.m

100 years later ...

Not everyone can – or chooses to – watch the Super Bowl on television or by other video means. Sometimes a radio works best.

If nothing else, chalk it up to an appropriate way to mark the beginning of the 100th anniversary year of live sports first being heard on radio.

Westwood One will do the audio honors again this season, heard locally on WFAN. This will be Westwood One’s 48th Super Bowl overall and 34th in a row.

Kevin Harlan will be on play-by-play for the 11th consecutive year, with Kurt Warner as lead analyst.

Tony Boselli and Laura Okmin will be the sideline reporters and Jim Gray will anchor pregame and halftime coverage for a 20th consecutive season.

Westwood One’s coverage will be heard on more than 600 stations, as well as on SiriusXM Satellite Radio and through NFL Game Pass. The broadcast also will be heard worldwide on the American Forces Radio Network. 

In lieu of Radio Row ... 

This year’s Super Bowl will be unlike any that has come before, including the temporary end of a three-decade-old tradition: Radio Row.

That will mean less on-site sports talk, and it will make it more difficult for the many former players who make the rounds picking up extra dough promoting products and services.

But that does not mean the fortnight will be without various sponsorship deals and promotions. Far from it.

Former Giants quarterback Eli Manning, a two-time Super Bowl MVP, and TikTok star David Dobrik teamed for an event to promote Frank’s RedHot sauce that was to involve Manning pouring 100 gallons of sauce on Dobrik’s head.

The company said it will donate $100,000 to Tackle Kids Cancer as part of the event.

So, it’s all in good fun and will help a good cause and is the sort of thing that will keep the Super Bowl sponsorship tradition going until things return to normal.

Super Bowl viewership has its unknowns

Based on playoff viewership, the Super Bowl figures to attract its usual massive television audience, but much of the dynamic this year is an unknown, including the extent to which the pandemic will derail Super Bowl party gatherings.

A Seton Hall Sports Poll offered hints, with 47% of respondents saying they expect the game to be less exciting than usual with a less-than-full stadium, and 64% planning to watch only with members of their household.

The absence of large gatherings figures to reduce viewership among casual fans usually attracted to the event’s social trappings.

The Seton Hall poll reflected the growing impact of non-TV devices such as smartphones, laptops and tablets in viewership. In 2016, 98% of people polled said they would watch only on TV. In 2021, that figure dropped to 79%.

“I think if we get a good game, which I’m hoping we do, I think we’ll get a really, really good rating,” CBS Sports chairman Sean McManus said. “Our out-of-home numbers will be a little bit less than they normally would be, because bars and restaurants won’t be able to host the Super Bowl parties they normally do.

"But I think the ratings are going to be really good. We couldn’t have asked for a better matchup for both the football fan and for the casual fan. So I think we’ll do really good numbers . . . One thing I do know, that it is going to be by far the most-watched program of 2021, by an enormous amount.”


CBS' new tech toys

Super Bowls always are an opportunity for production types to show off technological toys, and CBS’ turn will be no exception.
As the network put it in a release, it will offer “various new camera enhancements with unique new camera angles never before seen, and cameras never before used live.”
One such innovation is a “trolley cam” that will zip on a wire from one end of the stadium to the other – at up to 65 mph – and offer views from the vantagepoint of a fan sitting in the eighth row.

Overall, the network will deploy more than 120 cameras around the field and stadium, which will have fans in the seats, but not as many as usual.
Harold Bryant, CBS Sports’ executive producer, said the less crowded stadium “will allow us to bring the viewer closer to the game. We’re going to have all these angles that are closer to the game.”
That includes field-level cameras that will have more latitude because of the smaller number of people allowed on the sidelines.
Some other numbers: CBS will use 18 robotic cameras, 32 cameras embedded into end zone pylons, 19 mobile TV units and 25 super slow-motion angles.

Hoping for big vibes from small crowd at 'The Big Game'

Tracy Wolfson plans to take a moment before Super Bowl LV to look around the stadium and appreciate her good fortune to be working the game as a CBS sideline reporter. But she expects the vibe to be unlike any before.
"It’s going to be interesting standing there looking around with a stadium that’s filled with 22,000 fans, certainly very different,” she said. “I don’t know if you’re going to get that huge pomp and circumstance you’re normally used to."

But Wolfson said she will focus on doing the job as she always does. “It’s going to be a little different,” she said, “but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be as great as every Super Bowl we’ve been a part of.”
The CBS team has had experience during the COVID-19 pandemic working games in empty stadiums, ones with only a few thousand fans and ones with well over 10,000.
“You’d be surprised being in some of these stadiums the difference 5,000 people can make at a game," Nantz said. “We had 17,000 at Arrowhead [for the AFC Championship Game] and it felt like 70,000.”
Nantz said with limited fans in Tampa the first time the Bucs and Kanas City met on Nov. 29, the atmosphere was not Super Bowl-worthy. But he expects it will be for the rematch, in part because the 7,500 health care workers invited to the game figure to be primarily Bucs fans from the Tampa area.
"My suspicion is there’s going to be a big presence coming from the stands,” Nantz said. “I feel really good about it . . . The vibe is going to be big. It’s going to feel like, in my estimation, it’s a full stadium, and it’s going to be a really joyous feeling and I’m very excited about it."

The Ian Eagle-Charles Davis pairing

After a long run working alongside Dan Fouts, Ian Eagle had a new NFL partner this season in Charles Davis, who moved over from Fox.

Normally, that would have meant an offseason of social and professional getting-to-know-each-other events. There was none of that in COVID-19 times. But the two said they found a way, mostly via virtual meetings.

"Fortunately, all of the Zoom sessions translated when we finally got to do a game together,” Eagle said. “But there was a mystery surrounding it, because it was so different than either of us ever had experienced . . . We hit the ground running and it really did feel like we were working together for years and years."

Said Davis, “This was what we were presented with and this is how we had to do it and it’s a wonderful time to get to know Ian that way first."

The two will appear together during CBS’ Super Bowl pregame show.


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