By Steve Keating
ATLANTA (Reuters) – After a night of partying, Atlanta woke up ready for more on Sunday as the final countdown to Super Bowl LIII between the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams began under a blanket of security and an online protest.
Aside from being asked who will win the Super Bowl, the biggest question in the lead up to kickoff was whether the ocular eight-pedal retractable roof of the eye-catching $1.6 billion Mercedes-Benz Stadium will be open or closed.
President Donald Trump, who has often been at odds with NFL over the league’s failure to discipline players who opted to kneel during the national anthem in protest of racial inequality and police brutality, will hold a Super Bowl watch party at his Florida Mar-a-Lago retreat and has tipped the Patriots to hoist the Lombardi trophy.
Speaking on “Face the Nation”, Trump said he would be backing his good friend and long time supporter Patriots owner Robert Kraft to win the Super Bowl for what would be the sixth time since 2002.
“They have a very special owner and coach (Bill Belichick), and certainly they have, I guess, the greatest quarterback (Tom Brady) of all time,” said Trump said during the Sunday morning interview. “So I would say they would win.”
At the same time that Trump was making his pick, the hashtag #ImWithKap began trending on social media urging football fans to stand in solidarity with former-San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kapernick and boycott Sunday’s Super Bowl.
Kapernick sparked a national controversy in 2016 by kneeling during the national anthem. He has not played since the end of the 2016 season and has sued the NFL, accusing owners of colluding to blackball him.
As late night party goers were returning to their hotels, the early shift of merry makers were taking up position in car parks to get the tailgating started as the sun began to peak above the Atlanta skyline.
More than 10 hours before kickoff, the party was in full swing as swarms of fans reveled in the atmosphere pouring into Centennial Olympic Park drinking beer, talking football trash and taking selfies.
“I’m extremely nervous. I couldn’t eat breakfast,” said Rams fan Steven Leslie, an 30-year-old airport worker from Scotland, who flew in on Friday. “If the Rams pull off the upset, we will party all night.”
Watching over the fun was a massive security operation with federal, state and local police as well as private security surrounding Mercedes-Benz Stadium as airplanes, helicopters and drones kept buzzing overhead.
On the ground bomb sniffing dogs were hard at work as thousands of fans patiently made their way through airport-style screening.
While Mercedes-Benz Stadium will offer fan friendly prices for the Super Bowl, including $2 for a hotdog, outside there were no bargains to be had with ticket scalpers demanding no less than $3,000 for a seat while parking a mile from the stadium was $100 to $150.
(Additional reporting by Brendan O’Brien, editing by Pritha Sarkar)