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Florida sports industry leaders discuss the 'pandemic playbook'

What will the return of sports look like after the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of leagues across the world?
Credit: AP Photo/Chris O'Meara
FILE: Medical personnel from BayCare test people for the coronavirus in the parking lot outside Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — It’s a question being asked not just locally, but nationally: “Who isn’t looking forward to watching Brady to Gronkowski here?” Jason Siegel, President and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission said. “And the resurgence of the Dolphins.”

A new era of NFL football is coming to Florida with the signing of future Hall of Famers Tom Brady and Rob Gronkowski to the Buccaneers, and rookie quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to the Dolphins.

That is if the season starts on time.

“That’s the 64-gazillion dollar question,” Jose Sotolongo said. “Will we ever be ready without an actual vaccine or a treatment. Will we ever really be ready? That is a good question. We do need to move forward, though.”

Sotolongo, the Director of Sports and Entertainment Tourism of the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau, joined a virtual panel of local leaders in the sports industry on Thursday in discussing the “pandemic playbook.” 

He was joined by Siegel; Rob Higgins, the Executive Director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission; and Eric Hart, the President and CEO of the Tampa Sports Authority. Gray Robinson hosted the event.

They agree if sporting events include fans this year, it’ll look and feel a lot different.

“I think we can sell a lot of tickets because people are pent up,” Hart said. I think you're going to see a cautious return … but people should anticipate it's going to take longer to get into the event. It's going to take more time to get concessions or use the restroom because trying to incorporate social distancing into these venues is difficult.”

If screening fans is necessary for entry to an event, Hart brings up a unique concern.

“It’s going to be 90-plus degrees here shortly in the summer heat,” he said. “How are you going to take temperatures that you believe are effective as people coming into your venues?”

Florida’s a popular location for sports.

NASCAR returns to Homestead-Miami this weekend, allowing, 1,000 first responders to attend races at the track as spectators.

Disney World in Orlando is hosting two leagues: The NBA will resume play on July 30, and the MLS will start a World Cup-style tournament on July 8.

Tampa lost the NCAA basketball tournament and WWE WrestleMania events due to the coronavirus but is still planning to host Super Bowl 55 in February.

“We're looking at what is quickly becoming one of the first-ever virtually-planned Super Bowls, if not the first-ever virtually planned Super Bowl,” Higgins said. “We're on zoom calls morning, noon and night with the NFL on every topic imaginable, and I feel like we're getting to a really good spot from that.”

It’s been a challenge planning all facets of Super Bowl 55 completely online. From opening night at Amalie Arena to transportation and parking, and from meeting with 200 vendors and stakeholders to the production of the actual game at Raymond James Stadium.

“To try to explain the cats that have to be herded through this electronic process for the Super Bowl is a Herculean task,” Hart said.

But, when sports do return, the group agrees it will serve as a unifier after the nation-wide hurt from a pandemic and social justice movement.

“I remember as a kid many years ago when the when the Dolphins won their first Super Bowl in 1972, that the entire city just went out and celebrated together. 

“Fast forward to 1997, when the Marlins won their first World Series, I was blown away by the fact that everybody from every different background here in Miami was able to join together, celebrate – the African American community, the Hispanics, the Anglo community. Everybody went out to the streets and the parties and the parades. Everybody celebrated together," Sotolongo said. 

Sotolongo said it’s encouraging to see NASCAR’s decision to ban the Confederate flag from its events as a sign of unity. He praised Cup Series driver Bubba Wallace, the only black driver on the circuit, for painting the words “Black Lives Matter” onto his No. 43 Chevy for the race in Martinsville.

“The social impact is so vast,” Higgins said. “I think that's where it can be a major part of the fabric of this recovery. It can be a major part of driving the fight against systemic injustice as well. So, I think sports is proven to be incredibly invaluable on a number of fronts.”

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