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Solo Bowl: Canadians ditching NFL championship parties amid COVID spread


Marc Horton's annual Super Bowl parties are usually epic, day-long events, garnering so much attention, the host says, that he had to create a waitlist for those eager to enjoy the festivities in the future.

This year's soiree in Keswick, Ont., will be exclusive to Horton and his wife Alicia however, as wild winter spread of COVID-19 meant cancelling the big bash. 

In years past, Horton's hoopla — nicknamed the "Stuper Bowl" — included as many as 50 invitees. 

The day would begin with a series of football games played at a nearby field, complete with a trophy presentation to the winning team, followed by a poker tournament at Horton's house. Guests would then flop down in front of several TV's and a championship-calibre food spread to watch the big game.

Horton's parties marked a day of competition and greasy culinary indulgence like no other in the calendar year, but it was also an opportunity to catch up with old friends.

"A lot of them I went to high school with, and we see each other once a year at this event," he said. "So it's pretty depressing that it can't happen this year." 

Indoor gatherings are banned across much of the country in efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19, which has accelerated in recent months. 

Horton, who'll be cheering for the Kansas City Chiefs over the host Tampa Bay Buccaneers on Sunday, is one of many football fans altering Super Bowl traditions as Canada deals with a dire second wave.

Some are moving their get-togethers to virtual platforms, while others will simply watch alone.

Catherine Sabiston, a kinesiology professor at the University of Toronto and a Canada Research Chair in physical activity and mental health, says it can be hard to infuse authenticity into an online event, and it's normal to feel something's missing when experiencing a big game solo. 

Whether it's watching sports at a bar with close friends or in a stadium with thousands of strangers, Sabiston says the "sense of collective identity" we get from fandom has been largely lacking over the last 11 months. 

"Sports make you feel like you're a member of something, and tied to that are emotions specific to togetherness," she said. "You think like others, you feel like others, there's others around you in that collective environment.

"But the social element is gone, or at least very limited these days."

That feeling can hit harder now almost a year into the pandemic, Sabiston says, especially for an event like the Super Bowl. And that can ring true whether they're football fans or not. 

Horton estimates 40 per cent of his usual guests don't care about touchdowns or field goals, but they attend his shindigs for the social aspect, including friendly wagers on random outcomes from the coin flip to the final score.

The food, including Super Bowl staples like chili, nachos and chicken wings, is also a big draw. 

Brenda Andress, an expert in sports and business leadership, says food has become an integral part of the Super Bowl by design, as the NFL has marketed its championship game in a way that mimics holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Bars and restaurants get on board too, she added. While closed to indoor dining, some establishments are tweaking their takeout menus to offer football-themed packages.

The Super Bowl itself is appealing for a number of reasons too, Andress says, including its strategic placement on the calendar — in the dead of winter when nothing is going on, and when people are itching to escape cold-weather doldrums with a social affair.

The simplicity and excitement of a one-and-done title game, rather than a stretched-out series, entices many non-sports fans. And elaborate halftime shows, which this year will feature Canadian artist The Weeknd, draw in others.

"The NFL has created this niche where their entertainment rocket can accelerate," said Andress, who's also the president and founder of the SheIS organization aiming to bring more attention to women's sports.

"They've done an excellent job building around the game — the halftime show, tailgate parties, home parties, bar parties. They've created a marketing machine that everybody can buy into."

While Andress says the collective social experience of sport fandom can be important for our mental health, a Super Bowl in lockdown might not be all bad. 

It offers some an opportunity to start new game-day traditions by connecting with their own households in new ways.

"In some instances you're creating a greater bond instead of just leaving the house to watch the game with other people," she said.

Horton, who's happy to hunker down with his wife and a few pounds of wings for an intimate game experience, is still disappointed to miss a crucial aspect of what Sunday night is supposed to be.

"Half the fun is experiencing it with a lot of people," he said. "There's that aspect of group camaraderie that just isn't there this year."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Thurs. Feb. 4, 2021.

Melissa Couto Zuber, The Canadian Press

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