More than a year after the coronavirus erupted in China before spreading to the rest of the world, the pandemic continues to disrupt life as we once knew it – and the 2021 Super Bowl was no exception. At Super Bowl 2020, an estimated 62,000 fans packed Miami’s Hard Rock Stadium to watch the Kansas City Chiefs defeat the San Francisco 49ers. This year, the Raymond James Stadium crowd was limited to 20% capacity, with social distancing and mask mandates enforced. All in all, around 25,000 people saw the game in-person, alongside 30,000 cardboard cutouts to help make the stands look closer to full capacity and keep other fans 6 ft from one another. Everyone else, including the cutouts’ flesh and blood versions (who paid $100 for the treat, by the way), had to watch the game on TV somewhere.
Of course, the Super Bowl has always been a hybrid event, with legions more tuning in from home than from the stands. All told, 100 million people watched the 2020 game. Still, something was different this year, and not only because of those cutouts or the fact that for the first time ever, a woman officiated in the game (Kudos, Sarah Thomas!). Some of it indeed has to do with the tumultuous year we’ve all been through, making anything we once took for granted seem surreal, but that’s only part of it.
The vibe at the stadium, lacking its usual energy and excitement, changed the experience for fans at home too. The sights and sounds of the colorful crowds cheering and booing viewers once reveled in were severely missed. Furthermore, the Super Bowl experience revolves around big parties where friends and family enjoy the game, halftime show, and ads together, at home or in bars. This year, that wasn’t really an option. With fewer gatherings and watch parties, the NFL had a hard time sustaining high viewership throughout the year.
Hopefully, with vaccines on the way, social distancing will be long gone by the time the referee blows the whistle in Super Bowl 2022. Even so, it will also present organizers with another chance – one that I wish they had taken up this year – to reimagine ways and make the home viewing experience bigger and better. . To do that, and turn up the verve and passion, they just have to look at the advancements made this year in virtual events. Here are some of the things I’m rooting for.
Incorporating collaborative communication tools and other interactive elements into the broadcast is an absolute must. Super Bowl trivia and quizzes, ranking the Best Ever Halftime shows, or polls asking viewers to chime in on their favorite ad engage viewers and enrich the overall experience. These are relatively straightforward and could have been easy wins this year, had we just seen more of them (and a better version of) but oh well.
Fun and innovative ways of generating that unique stadium experience can now be created with the help of technology. Video-recorded skits, cheers, and chants – and even the wave – can be integrated into the live broadcast, expanding the virtual stadium and allowing fans from far-flung corners of the country to take part in the event. I knew it was a stretch, but I was hoping to see all that this year already, believing it could ignite that special energy and connection with the game us fans were longing for.
While a dramatically smaller crowd meant a very different Super Bowl experience in Tampa and for millions of viewers across the U.S., the sharp reduction in fan noise does come with some benefits for those watching on screens. If nothing else, it could make it much easier for invested fans to hear interactions between teams and players – if given a chance. I’m still hoping for a packed stadium next year, but god willing, the broadcast could nonetheless split streams and audio channels to provide viewers with more perspectives – referees, coaches, star players, and analysts, for instance.
And on the subject of personalization, a “pick your own replay“ experience could be integrated so viewers can choose specific plays they would like to re–watch during the game or after it. Ideally, we’ll also have more angles available that may not have been used as part of the primary broadcast. Using apps or video platforms where fans offer live commentary during the game, we can also enhance the social aspect. Think of it as a forum bringing together diverse groups of fans to comment and contribute, although one person officially leads it.
And a Few Other Perks
You can’t talk about the Super Bowl without mentioning the ads. These never fail to surprise and amaze, and this year’s too were absolutely out of this world. Again. Nonetheless, for all those less-inspiring ads, a system where we can specify our interests and get only relevant ads accordingly is long overdue.
Speaking of user data, by investing in the right technology and tools, teams, networks, and sponsors would receive valuable viewer data that would help them continuously improve our viewing experience. And while on the subject of continuity, the Super Bowl now has the chance for a longer life cycle available on-demand via online platforms in perpetuity, together with other fan content. If done correctly, it can turn into the new fan hub.
A big factor already in the NFL’s favor this year? The Weeknd, slated to perform during the halftime show. His acclaimed, audience-free performance with Kenny G at the American Music Awards earlier this year underscored what a superb choice he was. He’s shown remarkable skill at electrifying and engaging viewers even without feeding on the energy of a crowded venue and set a high standard for the game itself. I know some were disappointed with his performance, and admittedly, it’s hard to top Beyonce’s, lady Gaga’s, and Janet Jackson’s showmanship. Still, when he went into that incredible golden lights maze to the singing of “I can’t feel my face,“ I couldn’t help feeling like I’m getting a better show than those at the stadium. Either way, I’m sure if we look deeper, we can learn plenty of more valuable lessons from past years’ half-time entertainment, and music concerts in general, about engaging the crowds.
This year’s Super Bowl wasn’t a carbon copy of those that came before it. Different? Undoubtedly. But that is precisely why it’s such a unique chance to enhance, rethink, and reinvent what’s possible for future Super Bowl events. The circumstances forced upon this year’s Super Bowl can lead to an evolution in how viewers enjoy sports games in stadiums and at home, bars, and pubs. Even though the game looked nothing like my wish list, I can’t wait to see what the organizers have in store for us next week. In the new Corona-free normal yet geared-for-remote-experiences world, I’m sure all my wishes will come true.
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