Not the Scene It Used to Be

Preparations begin leading up to the NFL Championship game between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals in Tampa, Fla. on Feb. 1, 2009.
Saturday, January 31, 2009; Page E01

TAMPA Ticket prices are down a reported 20 percent from recent years and in some cases attracting a price below face value. Only 48 hours before kickoff, some of the usually coveted commercial time during the Super Bowl broadcast had not been sold. General Motors, one of the NFL's most important sponsors historically, had canceled the annual Super Bowl junket given to the top dealers. Some of the year's glitziest parties, including the one thrown annually by Playboy, were canceled or simply never planned.

Super Bowl Sunday probably won't seem any different than the previous 20 or so. Super Bowl week has been a different story. The parties and gatherings that transformed the Super Bowl from a football game to America's Biggest Party were all but gone. Fewer people pack the hotels here.

Restaurant reservations, which have been tough to get during the weeks leading up to the three previous Super Bowls here in Tampa, have been completely unnecessary this time. Prices for admission to VIP parties have been slashed, in some cases, in half.

The NFL says the league has nothing to do with these affairs and shouldn't have to answer questions about their absence or reduction. And responsible estimates project revenue from this year's game to be $150 million, down from last year's $180 million but hardly peanuts. Then again, NFL officials didn't complain in the fat years when such VIP parties and seen-and-be-seen celebrations pushed the profile of the Super Bowl to heights nobody dreamed before the first one, in 1967.

NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell's annual state-of-the-league Q&A Friday morning was dominated by issues relating to the economy and the growing sentiment a labor war could be looming. It's been years and years since the commissioner's pre-Super Bowl address was delivered under such dark clouds. Several executives I talked to over the past few weeks seem increasingly certain there will be some kind of confrontation between the players and owners that could jeopardize the 2011 season.

Given all of that, some observers have taken to calling this the "Recession Bowl." Indeed, Goodell's Friday address was appropriately somber.

The entire atmosphere here, again perhaps appropriately, is absolutely more subdued.

"I've been very clear," Goodell said, "that we're not immune to what's going on out in the economy. There's a tremendous amount of uncertainty; uncertainty clearly breeds fear. And I've said to you before, it's in three buckets for us: First, what's happening for our business partners? They're all going through difficult times. Some have, obviously for us, significant financial commitments and they're being stretched. We hear from them every day, and it's important to us how we manage that.

Second is "our fans," Goodell said, "which is the most important thing. For people who've lost their jobs, can they continue to afford to come to an NFL game, or to any other event? The good news for us is that we have a tremendous product. People want to continue to be associated with that. People want to continue to be involved with the game and get emotionally involved with the game, and I think that's to the benefit of the NFL.

"There's a healthy quality to times like this. I also believe, very firmly, that in a time like this, the NFL can become an extremely invaluable escape for people. This Sunday will be a great example of it. As you see, we have a lot of issues in our country and around the globe, and we have to be able to deal with those aggressively. I think for a few hours Sunday, hopefully we'll all be able to come together and enjoy a great football game and come together as Americans around a great event."

The NFL is coming to grips that ticket prices could be affected as well.

"We are going to look at all of our season ticket prices," the commissioner said. "Each team is doing that evaluation. I believe about three quarters of the league will hold their ticket prices flat. They're going to have to work harder and be more creative and offer extended terms in some cases to our fans to allow them to try to get through this difficult cycle. We'll continue to work with our business partners, who are facing challenges on their level, to figure out what we can do to help them during this time.

"Unfortunately also, we're doing our own cuts at the league level. You're seeing it across the league. Many of our clubs are having the difficult process of letting go employees. We're doing that at the league level, and it's incredibly difficult to do. But it is a difficult period of time. There is uncertainty out there, and we have to cut our costs so that we can continue to keep this business a successful business and grow this business at some point."

What many find stunning is that, against this backdrop, the owners and union are staking out their positions for a fight over revenue for the next collective bargaining agreement. Even though Goodell talked publicly Friday of being hopeful about constructive dialogue between the sides, several owners and club executives, in conversations this week, said they believe management will be aggressive with the union over the issue of percentage of revenue to the point of risking a work stoppage in 2011.

More neutral observers watching from afar as the Super Bowl shrinks, albeit marginally and probably temporarily, wonder if all the participants are paying attention to the storm clouds that have moved from the horizon to almost directly overhead.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company