TAMPA, Fla. - There were mountains of jumbo shrimp, and caviar everywhere. Muhammad Ali would show up, maybe amid a fleet of shiny Cadillacs. Five-star hotels were packed, and getting a dinner reservation for Saturday night was impossible. Finding a ticket for Sunday was even harder.
In years past, the Super Bowl was so much more than a game. It was an outright orgy of football, glitz and gluttony, a celebration of excess where too much was never enough.
The No. 1 sporting event in America is still a big deal. Nearly 100 million of us will tune in Sunday night when the Pittsburgh Steelers play the Arizona Cardinals.
But in these tough economic times, it's easy to see: The Super Bowl is taking a hit, too.
General Motors and FedEx pulled their TV ads, even though NBC lowered the price. Playboy canceled its annual party. Almost 200 fewer media credentials were issued.
"When I think of the NFL, I think of recession-proof," Cardinals lineman Elliot Vallejo said this week. "But that's not true anymore."
Used to be everywhere you looked around a Super Bowl town, all you could see was advertising. There were commercial booths at every turn. The headquarters hotel and media center looked like giant trade shows.
Now you can look pretty much everywhere and actually see things, such as empty tables at local restaurants and vacant hotel rooms downtown.
StubHub does have a sign on the mezzanine level at Raymond James Stadium. The nationwide ticket broker also had more than 3,000 seats for sale, as of midweek. They were getting less expensive by the minute.
"In terms of pricing, this game has become the Limbo Bowl - how low can it go?" StubHub spokesman Sean Pate said. "When it comes to plunking down $7,000 for a weekend, people are becoming more pragmatic. They have other needs."
Dave Gornick hears that from his pals. Now a dentist in Gibsonia, Pa., the lifelong Steelers fan grew up in steel-mill country.
"Some of the guys I tailgate with, they're blue-collar guys making $30,000 or $35,000 a year, and they didn't have the $1,600 you had to put up in advance to get into the lottery for Super Bowl tickets," he said. "In the past, I think they would've done anything to get to the Super Bowl. Not now. Not with this economy."
On the other hand, it might be cheaper to go to the game.
While tickets are still pricey - about 15,000 at a record $1,000 apiece, and 53,000 at $800 each - another 1,000 cost $500 - down from last year's low of $700, the first cut in Super Bowl history. And tickets that cost $2,500 or more from scalpers and brokers could be selling at face value by kickoff.
"I haven't seen empty stadiums yet. I haven't seen games being blacked out on TV because they haven't sold out," Cardinals defensive end Travis LaBoy said. "But they're saying this is the lowest price for a Super Bowl ticket. That's the economy, tenfold."
In a week or so, the NFL plans to make a more painful cut, reducing 10 percent of its staff.
"These are difficult and painful steps," Commissioner Roger Goodell recently wrote in a memo to employees. "But they are necessary in the current economic environment. I would like to be able to report that we are immune to the troubles around us, but we are not."
Still the gold standard in sports worldwide, the league with annual revenues of $6.5 billion is paying the price. But with television money already locked in and most tickets committed in advance, the NFL is far from struggling.
The league won't feel the biggest effects from the recession until it's time for fans to renew and buy season tickets.
"There's no secret on sponsorship, advertising, licensing - those numbers are going to be impacted by the current climate. We're aware of that," Goodell told The Associated Press before Thanksgiving.
"We're still, unfortunately, in the beginning stages of this. And most of our tickets are sold in the spring. And so '09 is going to be more of a barometer of how impactful the economic environment's going to be on the NFL," he said.
Steelers tackle Jeremy Parquet is busy these days checking his long-term investments, financial portfolios and retirement accounts.
"We're lucky because as athletes, we make good salaries. But everyone is affected," he said. "With Barack Obama as our president, maybe it'll change in the next two years."
Too late for Warrick Dunn.
One of the most popular players in Tampa Bay history, Dunn and Buccaneers teammate Derrick Brooks planned to hold a charity event while the Super Bowl was in town. Widely recognized for their community service, they were all set to host the Brooks & Dunn Inaugural Golf Classic this week.
Many locals figured that if anyone in the area could put on a successful outing, it was these two. But earlier this month, the event was canceled. Not enough corporate sponsorship and support.
"We raised a good amount of money, but we were hoping for more," Dunn said. "I guess it's not surprising, given these tough times. People don't have as much money to spend."