By Amy Tennery
TAMPA, Fla. (Reuters) - Mask-clad fans streamed into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stadium on Super Bowl Sunday for the NFL's championship game, 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 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 for America's biggest annual sporting event, 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 images of average fans, former NFL players and celebrities including disc jockey and record producer DJ Khaled and singer Lizzo, 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.
While the vast majority of fans were wearing masks, the signage requesting that attendees stay 6 feet (1.8 m) apart was largely ignored around of some of the stadium’s concession stands.
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."
Tampa is the first city to host its own team at the Super Bowl, and fans shelled out thousands of dollars for the limited supply of tickets. The lowest price for a pair on Ticketmaster was $10,716 as of Friday, according to data supplied by the ticket seller.
Keith Kunzig, a 53-year-old financial adviser in Tampa, who is attending his second straight Super Bowl, was accompanied by his 21-year-old daughter, Destiny.
"I knocked this off my bucket list to be in the home stadium with our Tampa Bay Bucs and my baby girl. That’s all I can ask," Kunzig said. "Now let’s get a victory."
(Reporting by Amy Tennery and Gabriella Borter in Tampa, Florida; Editing by Peter Cooney)