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The Super Bowl is a spectacle again after two years of covid restrictions

Chiefs fans cheer during media night Monday at Footprint Center in Phoenix.
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PHOENIX — Some 10,000 fans showed up at a basketball arena Monday night to watch players and coaches from the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles answer questions from reporters. The media corps included a man wearing a barrel held in place by shoulder straps. Eagles center Jason Kelce fulfilled a request to play pin the tail on the donkey. Chiefs Coach Andy Reid was asked about his culinary preference among Five Guys, In-N-Out Burger and Shake Shack; he provided a somewhat detailed response in which he concluded, “I don’t turn any of them away.”

The Super Bowl has regained its full-scale spectacle status.

“It’s not covid anymore,” Chiefs defensive end Frank Clark said. “It’s not shut down. It’s the real deal. The Super Bowl is back.”

It never really left, of course. The NFL operated without interruption throughout the pandemic. It postponed some games but managed to play its 2020 and 2021 seasons to completion, including those two Super Bowls. But after two years of coronavirus-related restrictions and adjustments during Super Bowl week, this version is accompanied by the customary levels of enormity and grandeur.

“We’re fully back and in some ways better than normal … in terms of [having] two years where we learned a lot,” Peter O’Reilly, the NFL’s executive vice president of club business and league events, said Monday. “And now we’re back to what is not only a full week, but we continue to expand upon the week. So it’s great to be here on Monday, to have the teams already in town, opening night, a full set of events and then the opportunity to do what the Super Bowl does well, which is create just a big showcase.”

Call this the first true post-pandemic Super Bowl. It’s about the big-event trappings and all that surrounds the game as much as the game itself. It’s about a return to unrelenting, everywhere-you-turn splendor.

The Chiefs and Eagles arrived Sunday, a full week ahead of the game. They took their turns Monday night at Footprint Center for the NFL’s first in-person media night — or Super Bowl LVII Opening Night Presented by Fast Twitch, as the league billed it — in three years.

“Listen,” Reid told the reporters crowded around his podium, “I think it’s good for the fans. It’s good for you guys. I can think of other things I would like to do. But this is all right.”

More than 6,000 media members from 24 countries are accredited to cover this Super Bowl and related events on-site in Arizona, according to the NFL. That’s up from about 5,300 last year in Los Angeles and approximately 2,400 two years ago in Tampa. There are a record 128 outlets at a bustling-again radio row (renamed “media row” by the NFL); the league turned away another 26 radio stations.

An estimated 100,000 visitors are expected, Arizona Gov. Katie Hobbs (D) said Monday. There are tens of thousands of credentialed volunteers and workers, from airport greeters to security staffers. More than 70,000 fans attended the Super Bowl Experience, the NFL’s interactive theme park, over two days last weekend at the downtown convention center. That was the second most ever for an opening weekend at that event, trailing only the 2012 total in Indianapolis.

“The lines were around the corner,” O’Reilly said. “People wanted to be a part of the Super Bowl. That allows [fans] to really touch and feel the Super Bowl. … So that, to me, just reinforced the importance of the Super Bowl beyond game day. Game day is what the world sees. But the opportunity to allow so many more fans to touch and experience it, I think we’ll never forget that because we went without it, in some ways, for a couple years.”

Two years ago, the Chiefs arrived in Tampa the day before their Super Bowl meeting with the Buccaneers, only about 26 hours ahead of kickoff. They had a scare the previous weekend when a barber who had gone to the team facility to give haircuts to about 20 players and staffers tested positive for the coronavirus. The Chiefs placed wide receiver Demarcus Robinson and reserve center Daniel Kilgore on their covid-19 reserve list the Monday before the game as high-risk close contacts to the barber, requiring five-day quarantines.

Players and coaches spoke to reporters remotely. There was no radio row. The media center was practically vacant. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell and DeMaurice Smith, the executive director of the NFL Players Association, did conduct an in-person news conference on an outdoor balcony before a reduced number of reporters who were socially distanced and masked. The NFL came up with a plan to have about 22,000 fans in Raymond James Stadium for the game, including approximately 7,500 vaccinated health-care workers.

Last year’s Super Bowl was closer to normal. The Cincinnati Bengals arrived in the Los Angeles area Tuesday to face the hometown Rams. SoFi Stadium was filled for the game. But media day again was conducted remotely. And the game came a little more than a month after a huge December surge of cases attributed to the omicron variant temporarily raised questions about whether the NFL could complete its season, until the league and union adjusted their protocols in an attempt to live with the virus.

The NFL and NFLPA suspended their coronavirus protocols for good in March, and this season was unaffected after a smattering of positive tests during training camps. The Super Bowl arrives with fans wanting to travel and businesses eager to hold events.

“It’s come back in spades,” said David Rousseau, the board chair of the Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee. “There’s been an unsatiated appetite from the travel community, certainly the entertainment industry. I think there’s a lot of pent-up energy that they’re looking for. And we’re going to be the beneficiary of that, from our timing.”

It is the fourth Super Bowl to be held in Arizona and the first in eight years.

“We have been getting ready for this day and this week for a long, long time,” Arizona Cardinals owner Michael Bidwill said. “… The game gets bigger and bigger each year.”

For the NFL, the idea now is to go beyond a mere return to Super Bowl normalcy and focus again on making the event even grander.

“I think we got pretty close last year,” O’Reilly said. “But now we’re normal-plus, if you will, back in Arizona. Tampa was really [about]: What do we need to put on a football game? And do it safely and do it smartly with vaccinated health-care workers who were the first ones vaccinated. So that was as close as you can get to zero on the hospitality and the ancillary things. Last year, L.A. was fantastic and obviously a huge showcase. But on some of these things, like the full week, we weren’t fully back. And now you’re back and then some.”

Jerry Brewer contributed to this report.