NFL scrambles to keep charitable Super Bowl events in Tampa

Befitting the championship game of the nation’s most popular sport, the Super Bowl is about more than football.

Yes, who wins the NFL championship is what fans remember most. For hundreds, maybe thousands of others, the legacy of the Super Bowl stretches far beyond the field.

During the pandemic, staging the league’s annual charitable and community efforts before and during its final game has called for some scrambling. The NFL is determined that those initiatives remain impactful in the Tampa Bay area.

“Due to the pandemic this year we definitely had to pivot our thinking behind community events, which are usually a great way to engage with the NFL in a Super Bowl city,” says Melissa Schiller, the league’s director of community relations. “We had to transition them to virtual events and also make sure those that are taking place (in the Tampa area) are COVID-19 compliant.”

One of Super Bowl week’s biggest events is the NFL PLAY 60 kids day of youth health and wellness, held in partnership with the American Heart Association. Usually, about 2,000 youngsters are involved locally for basically a football festival of learning, participating and, well, fun. Due to the pandemic, the event has gone virtual and been opened up nationally. More than 100,000 youngsters have signed up for the event on Wednesday.

“We’re creating a one-hour experience with kids whether they are in the classroom or at home for which they can really tune in and engage,” Schiller says.

On Wednesday, through the NFL’s Inspire Change initiative, Jefferson High School students will participate in EVERFI’s 306 African-American history program. They will be discussing Black trailblazers in business with a panel that will include NFL players. Funded by the league, the EVERFI 306 program provides schools nationwide that otherwise might not have the resources with a digital African-American history curriculum.

Some students will be on site, while others will view the conversation virtually. Guest panelists will join the class remotely. As part of efforts to help address the digital divide, the NFL, in collaboration with the Hillsborough Education Foundation, will make a contribution to assist students throughout Tampa Bay. NFL partner Bose is also donating noise cancelling headphones to Jefferson High School to assist with their technological needs as part of this event.

“The way (Super Bowl week) has changed things on the social justice front, some events are virtual and some in person,” says Clare Graff, the NFL’s senior director of social responsibility and community affairs. “And also the topic that the pandemic has brought to light is the digital divide, and the ways kids are having trouble connecting in communities of need. We pivoted our focus.”

The Super Bowl Legacy Grant Program in which the NFL Foundation makes a $1 million contribution to improve local communities — the Super Bowl host committee matches it — will have an on site news conference two days before the game. The grants will support Forever 55, the host committee’s primary social legacy initiative, and will focus on early childhood education; food insecurity; at-risk, unsheltered and veteran families; health and wellness; sustainability; and systemic justice.

“On the NFL Foundation side, it’s definitely the case that we have ramped up our funding support,” explains Alexia Gallagher, the foundation’s vice president of philanthropy and executive director. “It is important, more so than ever. We’re not seeing other donors not being able to do so as well.”

As part of the Huddle to Tackle Hunger program, the foundation committed $250,000 to Feeding Tampa Bay to combat food insecurity in the region. The grant will assist in supporting local restaurants that have been significantly affected by COVID-19, and provide meals to those in need. The program will run for 44 weeks following the Super Bowl.

Two volunteer events will encourage local residents to sign up to volunteer with Feeding Tampa Bay to help fight hunger within their community, handling such tasks as food packing and distribution.

“Knowing how the pandemic hit communities so hard, and what we do in relation to the Super Bowl is providing this giveback to this community,” Gallagher says, “it was important we do something a little different to really help support the community and the population that is struggling in terms of hunger relief and supporting the restaurants.”

In Raymond James Stadium on game day, a “Fans In The Stands” cutout program will raise funds. For $100, fans can upload a photo of themselves or someone they consider a hero, and the cutout will feature that person. Cutouts will be installed throughout the stadium between pods of ticketed fans.

With the purchase of a cutout, fans will be entered to win two tickets to the 2022 Super Bowl in Los Angeles.

The proceeds will be donated to Feeding Tampa Bay on behalf of the Buccaneers, and to City Year on behalf of the Chiefs.

“I think the pandemic, for better or worse, made all of us as employees and parents and teachers be creative and do things differently,” Graf says. “There’s been plenty of downsizing due to COVID, but that caused all of us to be more creative.”

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