There’s something surreal about cruising through the Gulf Of Mexico with the mountains of western Cuba visible on the horizon to the east while deep inside the bowels of the ship there are a few thousand passengers watching the 2011 Super Bowl beamed live via satellite to a giant-sized screen inside the main theatre.
A day earlier, tens of soccer fans were gathered around their television sets in the bars on the cruise ship as well as the TVs in the room as aficionados watched Cagliari against Juventus followed by Villarreal versus Levante via ESPN Caribbean and Maritime Media.
But this wasn’t a typical cruise by any sense of the imagination. Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines and ESPN Caribbean teamed together to present the second annual Super Bowl At Sea, an opportunity for cruise passengers to watch the gigantic game at sea. And a chance for ESPN Caribbean to promote its unique array of cricket, soccer, rugby, Formula 1 racing and other sports programming to clients, affiliates and to the media.
The four-day cruise featured both football players and futbol players. Representing the American football code were Verron Haynes (former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and now NFL free agent), Rod Coleman (former Oakland Raiders and Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle) and Mike Logan (former Jacksonville Jaguars and Pittsburgh Steelers defensive back).
From the futbol variety, the cruise featured Robbie Earle (MBE, who scored in the World Cup for Jamaica and was one of the main reasons why Wimbledon achieved so much success in the early 90s in England), Michael Thomas (who played for several clubs but is best known for scoring that goal for Arsenal to clinch the 1988-89 league title), Shaka Hislop (the former West Ham United and Newcastle United goalkeeper) and Tommy Smyth (ESPN’s soccer pundit who has been at the network for more than 18 years).
In addition to the football players from two different codes, West Indies cricket fast bowler Courtney Walsh was also present.
During the four night cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Cozumel, Mexico and back, ESPN and Royal Caribbean hosted events throughout each day to pit Futbol versus Football. These ranged from scavenger hunts where cruisegoers were invited to join the team of athletes as they scurried around the ship looking for clues, to ‘Sports Deck Game Day’ where passengers and athletes participated in different sport events together to win prizes. All of the activities seemed to be as much fun for the athletes as they were for the passengers who participated.
In addition to fun activities throughout the four night cruise, the ESPN crew were hard at work filming segments aboard the ship for the ESPNsoccernet Press Pass show. Many of them were Super Bowl themed in topic, but there was also plenty of time for serious soccer debates and discussions between Smyth, Earle, Thomas and Hislop. Joining them too was Dan Thomas, one of ESPN’s newest soccer analysts, who is best known for his work with Real Madrid TV.
The concept of combining a vacation with watching the Super Bowl seems to be growing. Compared to last year’s attendance aboard the same ship for Super Bowl At Sea, the 2011 edition was better attended and there was a better atmosphere. It’s not only at sea where the concept is growing in popularity. Several of my friends flew to the Bahamas to experience Super Bowl parties at Atlantis on Paradise Island. I can see the concept continuing to grow as people look for new, adventurous and relaxing ways to enjoy the biggest sporting event in the hemisphere each year.
And what would a Super Bowl cruise be without a Super Bowl? ESPN Caribbean and Royal Caribbean worked together to provide passengers with several different options of watching the game live on the ship. Passengers could watch the game live on televisions in the different sports bar. Or they could watch it on a giant television screen in the Metropolis Theatre. Or, the best option was to watch the biggest American Football game of the year in Studio B where the satellite TV signal was beamed on a large projection screen. The Studio B setting was where I and the ESPN personalities congregated to watch the game while passengers nibbled on hot dogs and chicken wings, and joined in the festive spirits. There in Studio B, Green Bay and Pittsburgh fans, many of whom were wearing the colors of their favorite team, sat on opposite sides of the stage and joined in the party atmosphere as they cheered their team on.
Prior to the game, at half-time and after the Super Bowl ended, ESPN’s crew of NFL athletes on board got in front of the mic and provided their analysis of the game. This provided passengers a unique experience of having experts share their wisdom about the game so they could see and hear it first-hand. That’s something that most people don’t get the privilege to witness. And it’s even more unique when you consider that it’s happening while at sea while the ship cruises through the warm waters between Florida and Cuba.
A fascinating aspect of the coverage of sports in the region is how ESPN Caribbean beams soccer games, especially the Premier League, to cruise ships throughout the Caribbean. As the cruise industry grows in popularity, more passengers want to watch English Premier League matches at sea. As Bernard Stewart, Vice President and General Manager of ESPN Caribbean and Maritime Media, explained, the rights work very similarly to how other rights are sold whether they be television, Internet or radio. ESPN Caribbean owns some of those rights. For example, while I was aboard the Navigator of the Seas cruise ship during Super Bowl weekend, cruise passengers throughout the Caribbean could watch the early Saturday kick-off between Stoke City against Sunderland. The feed is the same one used that ESPN in the United States uses with Ian Darke at the helm as commentator. However, as I experienced, the rights come with a caveat. They only work when you’re in international waters. When the ship was docked in Cozumel, the Premier League match was blacked out. Despite still being aboard the ship, the boat was technically in Mexico, so the match could only be shown on whatever channel in Mexico had the television rights.
Overall, the four night cruise aboard Royal Caribbean’s Navigator Of The Seas was a smooth sailing experience for ESPN Caribbean. They were able to showcase some of their top talent, entertain their clients and affiliates as well as providing passengers with a unique experience of watching a top sporting event at sea.
In the coming weeks, stay tuned to EPL Talk for one-on-one interviews with many of the soccer experts including Michael Thomas, Robbie Earle, Shaka Hislop and Tommy Smyth.
I was sent as press to this event, and ESPN paid for my attendance and meals. I wasn’t paid to write this post, nor did this post have to be cleared for publication. My opinions are my own.