- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 6, 2005

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — The cruise ships are docked. The celebrities are wedged into accommodations up and down the spectrum of luxury. The wardrobes have been triple-checked for potential malfunctions. And the weather finally is warming up.

It’s time for Super Bowl XXXIX.

The NFL’s smallest market today emerges from a typically festive, occasionally criticized week of preliminaries leading up to tonight’s game between the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles at Alltel Stadium. Kickoff is set for 6:38 p.m. before a worldwide audience potentially approaching 1 billion.

For the first time in several years, security doesn’t top the list of subplots for the nation’s No. 1 sporting event. Instead, people are talking about Jacksonville itself, a first-time Super Bowl site that has been challenged by the week’s logistics, and about plans for a demure halftime show in the wake of Janet Jackson’s controversial performance a year ago.

Jacksonville, a city small in population but sprawling in area, has been described alternately as desolate and overwhelmed in the past week. The nation’s largest city by square miles lacks a “destination” sector, and some areas have reported surprisingly light business while others have been choked by foot and car traffic.

Without enough hotel rooms to qualify formally as a Super Bowl host site, Jacksonville arranged for the docking of five cruise ships along the St. Johns River, which cuts through downtown, to create more than 3,500 additional rooms. Nonetheless, high-end accommodations are limited. Rock star Kid Rock and rapper Chingy reportedly were staying at a Holiday Inn near the airport.

Several days of chilly, overcast weather also dampened enthusiasm. But the sun emerged Friday and temperatures rose yesterday into the low 60s, warming North Florida just in time for the peak crowds and A-list parties. Today’s forecast calls for terrific weather: sunny skies and 65 degrees.

Despite the criticism of Jacksonville’s suitability, NFL Commissioner Paul Tagliabue said the city likely will be host for another Super Bowl after the current slate — Detroit (2006), Miami (2007) and Phoenix (2008) — plays out.

“I think Jacksonville will prove, and it is proving, that it’s got all the things that you need to host the Super Bowl game successfully,” Mr. Tagliabue said. “My feeling is [the game] will be back here at some point.”

The most memorable element of last year’s Super Bowl in Houston occurred at halftime, when Miss Jackson capped a risque musical montage by having her right breast exposed by co-star Justin Timberlake in an infamous “wardrobe malfunction.”

Such lapses in taste are virtually certain not to happen today. Aging ex-Beatle Paul McCartney will perform his good-for-all-ages hits for most of halftime, while 2004 producer MTV has been replaced by Don Mischer Productions, whose resume includes the Olympic Games Opening Ceremony and the Kennedy Center Honors. Plus the NFL is “extremely involved in every aspect of the production,” according to league Vice President of Programming Charles Coplin.

Security remains a massive, if somewhat understated, undertaking. No one is buzzing about it, with the NFL holding its fourth Super Bowl since September 11. But myriad precautions have been taken by local, state and federal agencies, including Coast Guard patrols along the St. Johns and a 30-mile no-fly zone around Alltel.

The partying started in earnest Friday night, when about 1,000 people attended the commissioner’s party at the Jacksonville Equestrian Center. Drinks flowed, sushi and 6-inch shrimp were consumed, and dead-on impersonators of Jimmy Buffett and Ray Charles performed at the typically ritzy gathering.

Taking center stage last night were the high-end parties that have come to define Super Bowl week. The most exclusive events once again were held by Playboy and Maxim magazines. While a ticket to Playboy’s event at the River City Brewing Co. reportedly cost $1,600 for the few who had access, Maxim’s event once again was set for a secret location.

Actors, musicians and NFL stars were out in force around Jacksonville. Spotted around town were movie stars Tom Cruise, Jennifer Lopez and Robin Williams, while Brad Pitt reportedly saved a woman whose debit card wouldn’t work at an area gas station by handing her $20.

All the revelry culminates today with the anticipated matchup between a pair of model franchises. The Patriots stand on the brink of dynasty status with a third Super Bowl title in four years possible, while Philadelphia is attempting to punctuate a superb four-year run of its own and win its first Super Bowl championship.

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