ESPN executives have been told not to plan for travel or hospitality for the Super Bowl in February, according to multiple people familiar with the conversations, becoming the latest major NFL partner to scale back its presence at America’s biggest sporting event because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Disney-owned network isn’t alone. Both mattress company Sleep Number and financial services provider USAA say they’re nixing standard plans for in-person activations on the ground in Tampa. Last week Sportico reported that Anheuser-Busch, one of the league’s most visible partners, would not be hosting its standard 600-person hospitality at the big game.
ESPN isn’t in the rotation for televising the Super Bowl, but it generally sends a large contingent to the event both for hospitality and for coverage. While the on-air talent and production plans remain in place, executives have been told that travel and client entertainment will be heavily reduced, if not eliminated, the people said. The company also typically reserves a hotel on site at the game. It’s unclear how these plans, which could change in the future, will affect its accommodations.
The NFL has made it clear that the Super Bowl on Feb. 7 in Tampa will be a scaled-down experience this year, though final decisions haven’t been made. An ESPN spokesperson declined to comment.
On top of being the most-watched U.S. sporting event of the year, the Super Bowl is also a corporate extravaganza. For more than a week before the game, the NFL, the city’s host committee and their partners turn the area around the game into a football amusement park of sorts, with games, experiences, food and live music. Events in town typically host hundreds of thousands of fans before the two teams kick off on Sunday.
Corporate hospitality is also a central part of the experience, with many companies sending hundreds of employees, sweepstakes winners, clients and business partners for a series of parties and events. That aspect in particular is up in the air right now as companies across the country have halted non-essential travel and mass hospitality due to the pandemic.
Many other specifics about the Super Bowl remain in flux, including the date and how many fans will be allowed to attend. The NFL is exploring ways to change the NFL Honors banquet that’s typically held on the Saturday before the game, and is likely altering the Monday media day, when both teams gather for televised interviews in front of ticket-buying fans.
In the past week, Sportico has reached out to almost all the NFL’s major partners to ask about their plans. The responses were mixed. Nationwide, the league’s official insurance partner, said it had extended its internal deadline for making decisions about hosting guests in Tampa.
Sleep Number, on the other hand, has already decided it won’t host any public-facing events on the ground in Tampa. For the past three Super Bowls, the league’s official sleep partner has set up consumer booths on the ground, where the public can try out beds, play games, win prizes and meet NFL players.
As for hospitality, Sleep Number typically sends 20 to 30 people and those plans are still not finalized. “We’re monitoring the situation closely,” a spokesman said.
USAA typically hosts a handful of lounge sessions on the ground at the game, which allow around 1,000 active military members, veterans and their families a chance to interact with NFL stars and coaches. This year the company is pursuing remote opportunities instead, including a virtual series of those chats that will allow it to take advantage of its relationship with the league.
As for ESPN, the company’s Super Bowl presence has already been reduced in recent years. It used to throw an annual party in the week leading up to the game, featuring A-list musical acts, but it began scaling back its presence on the ground a few years ago to dedicate more internal resources to the College Football Playoff championship game. That game, which ESPN televises each year, has become a major corporate event in its own right.
(This story has been updated with more information about the USAA’s usual in-person activations.)