3 Times Weather Nearly Delayed or Canceled the Super Bowl

Detroit Lions v Philadelphia Eagles
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Could 2017's Super Bowl LI be delayed or postponed due to inclement weather?

Given that the 51st Super Bowl game will be held at NRG Stadium, home of the NFL's Houston Texans, it's highly unlikely. Houston's average weather on February 5 (game day) includes a high temperature of 65°F, a low of 45°F, and a tenth of an inch of rainfall—hardly weather conditions to worry about. But thinking of Super Bowl weather may leave you asking the question, "Has it ever delayed or canceled a Super Bowl game before?"  

In NFL Super Bowl history, no game has ever been delayed due to weather. (Super Bowl XLVII in 2014 was the first, and so far, the only game to be delayed. The Ravens-49ers game was delayed for 34 minutes in the third quarter, thanks to an electrical mishap.) But that doesn't mean weather hasn't tried to. 

Super Bowls Turned Snow Bowls

Although a weather contingency plan has never had to be implemented in Super Bowl history, there have been a handful of close calls when the Super Bowl was at risk of being delayed. 

  • Super Bowl XLI. February is normally Florida's dry season, but in 2007, an active jet stream and a nearby stationary front converged, leading to monsoon rains in Miami. The game still went on, but not even ponchos were enough to keep fans in the stadium dry. Many left their seats and took shelter in the stadium concourse, or simply left the game early.   
  • Super Bowl XLV. At the start of Super Bowl week 2011, all eyes were drawn to Arlington, Texas, when the host city was hit by an ice storm. Later in the week, an additional 4 inches of snow fell. An arctic front helped the snow and ice linger all week long, and kept temperatures in the 20s and 30s. But by the weekend, the wintry weather had thawed.   
  • Super Bowl XLVIII. Weather contingency plans were in hand for 2014's Super Bowl -- the first to be played in an outdoor venue at a cold-weather city (East Rutherford, New Jersey). Not only did a winter storm drop a mountain of snow on the MetLife Stadium just before Superbowl week, but the Farmer's Almanac predicted another round of heavy snow was on tap for Super Bowl weekend. Luckily, when it came down to game time, the weather cooperated with cloudy skies and an air temperature of 49°F at kickoff -- nearly 10-15 degrees above normal for the city. (Oddly enough, a winter storm hit the next day, blanketing the city in 8 inches of snow and stranding many Super Bowl travelers.)

    The Warm-Climate Rule

    Surprised at the lack of weather delays despite the Super Bowl being played mid-winter?

    One reason for this is because football, like our US postal service, has a "Neither snow, nor rain, nor heat..." culture. But, a second, lesser-known reason is the league's "warm-climate rule" -- a sort of built-in weather contingency plan that must be met when choosing the Super Bowl's host city. 

    The NFL's warm-climate requirement mandates the host stadium location have an average temperature of 50°F (10°C) or above for that year's scheduled Super Bowl date.

    At least, that's the way the NFL and Host Committee used to pick potential Super Bowl cities. In 2010, this warm-climate requirement was waived, giving cold-weather cities with open-air stadiums a fair chance at also hosting a Super Bowl. What was the reason for the change? The chance to offer a new experience for football fans attending in-person and watching at home. In the sentiments of NFL Commissioner Roger Goodall, "...The game of football is made to be played in the elements."  

    Football in the Bleak Mid-Winter

    Why is the Super Bowl held in winter, anyway?

    It's certainly NOT a matter of preference. It's simply the timing of the NFL schedule.

    Opening season is always the weekend after Labor Day (the first Monday in September) in early fall; add in the 17-week regular season, three rounds of playoffs, and you land exactly five months later into late winter. Additional playoffs have pushed the Super Bowl date out from early to mid-January to February, but still winter nonetheless.      

    Winter weather can wreak havoc on football in a number of ways:

    • Snow. Snow makes for a slippery football field, but its primary threat is its color.  covering white goal lines, end lines, hash marks. If snowfall is particularly heavy, or if winds are driving winds, it can also mean reduced or no visibility for players on the field.
    • Sleet, freezing rain. Ice on the field poses a similar threat to players as it does to pedestrians and drivers on roadways and sidewalks: a total loss of traction.
    • Frost. If temperatures are cold enough, you don't even need snow or ice to freeze the grass (or turf) underfoot -- frost is enough to do the job. To combat this, many cold-climate stadiums are outfitted with a system of underground electric coils or underground pipes filled with antifreeze (yes, the same stuff that's in your car) to keep the field soft.
    • Cold Air. Even if you don't have to worry about a frozen field, cold weather still poses another threat to the game: under-inflated footballs. A football (which is customarily inflated indoors) can deflate by roughly 0.2 PSI for every 10-degree drop in temperature it experiences after being transferred outdoors. 

    Super Bowl Saturday???

    So, what would happen, if a major weather event DID threaten the safety of spectators on Super Bowl Sunday? A weather contingency plan would be enacted.

    Contingency plans more or less move the game from its traditional Sunday spot to the Friday or Saturday of Super Bowl week, or the following Monday or Tuesday. Which day the game is postponed to is a decision that's made closely with meteorologists. For example, if a snow storm was forecast for Super Bowl night, playing Saturday might be an option. Whereas, if a blizzard hit on a Friday (two days before the scheduled game) it could be the following Tuesday before the city had time to dig out roads and parking lots. 

    To date, the Super Bowl has never been changed from it's originally scheduled date. 

    If ever ill weather were to impact the Super Bowl for up to a week, a contingency plan may call for the game to be relocated to another city altogether.  

    Super Bowls with the Worst Weather

    Just because the Super Bowl has eluded all weather-related delays, doesn't mean its game day weather has always been sunny and 60 degrees. Here's a look at some of weather's most unsettled game days in Super Bowl history. 

    Super Bowl's Worst Weather Games
    Super Bowl No.DateHost CityWeather Record
    VIJan 16, 1972New Orleans, LAColdest Super Bowl played at an outdoor venue (39 F).
    XVIJan 24, 1982Pontiac, MIFirst time Super Bowl was held at a cold-weather city. First Super Bowl played in the snow.
    XVIIIJan 22, 1984Tampa, FLWindiest Super Bowl (25 mph wind gusts).
    XXXIVJan 30, 2000Atlanta, GAA rare ice storm hit during Super Bowl week. Atlanta's indoor stadium saved it from possible delays.
    XLIFeb 4, 2007Miami, FLThe first and wettest Super Bowl to be played in the rain.

    Interested in more facts about weather and the Super Bowl, including observed weather data for each game date? Check out NOAA's Southeast Regional Climate Center Super Bowl Climatology site

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