TAMPA, Fla. — When Super Bowl 55 kicks off on Sunday, it will represent the NFL’s celebration of a season that many deemed impossible to pull off amidst a global pandemic.
But the NFL also intends to use its grandest stage to thank vaccinated frontline healthcare workers both from the Tampa area and across the country.
The league and its 32 teams are treating 7,500 healthcare workers to a Super Bowl weekend that includes a pregame concert by Miley Cyrus, in addition to tickets to the game between the Kansas City Chiefs and Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Roughly 6,500 of the healthcare workers attending hail from hospitals and health care systems in the Tampa and Central Florida area. The remaining 1,000 are medical professionals from each of the NFL’s 31 other markets.
“We always wanted to find a way to say thank you,” Jon Barker, the NFL’s head of live event production and operations, told USA TODAY Sports. “… We owe them so much gratitude and we wanted to make sure we found an appropriate way to do a few things.
"One, to say thank you for everything they have done and everything they will continue to do for us, and two, find a way to show the benefits of vaccine and promote the use of vaccination. And three, find a way to show good societal behavior and compliance of the wearing of masks, and I couldn’t think of a bigger stage, more watched each year, which is the Super Bowl."
The project hit close to home for Barker.
“I’m the son of the nurse who worked 32 years on the floor of the Lehigh Valley Medical Hospital Center, who was a massive Giants fan, and I know she would have never been able to get to the Super Bowl,” he said. “So to do this is thrilling for all of us.”
The total valuation of the tickets for the 7,500 healthcare workers is $18.75 million, according to the NFL. Raymond James Stadium will have limited capacity on Sunday to ensure adequate social distancing. Another 14,500 fans will round out the general admission totals, while 2,700 will watch from suites.
The NFL will highlight the healthcare heroes in a variety of ways, Barker said. The medical guests will be given white KN95 masks that bear the Super Bowl 55 logo and a special “Healthcare Heroes” emblem. They will stand out from the other fans and staff, who will be wearing black KN95 masks.
For Barker, the planning and execution of the frontline workers recognition has proven almost as exciting as the build-up to the Super Bowl itself.
“It’s been emotional,” he said. “The amount of thank-yous that we have received, we always stop the conversation because the thanks needs to go the other way. …
“Yes, we’ll have limited capacity and yes, there will only be 25,000 fans in the stadium, and of those 25,000, 7,500 will be healthcare workers,” Barker continued. “But I guarantee you, this stadium is going to sound loud."
Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Mike Jones on Twitter @ByMikeJones and listen to the Football Jones podcast on iTunes.
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