Jose Melendez, who lives in San Francisco, was visiting Miami about a week before the Super Bowl. He said he’s planning to cheer on his team from afar.
“I’m not going. I can’t afford it. It’s too expensive,” he said with a laugh, wearing a bright red 49ers jersey at the Super Bowl LIVE Experience, a free festival that the local host committee organized.
Among the football paraphernalia, Melendez was drawn to the Environmental Village, where several nonprofits and state agencies have put up booths focusing on ocean health and the Everglades.
“I was shocked. This is different,” he said.
There were virtual reality headsets that brought South Florida reefs to viewers without getting wet. People could also take photos on an airboat, a popular tourist attraction in the Everglades.
Melendez said the displays “opened his eyes” to the inextricable link between the region and its natural environment.
“I see how the Everglades is so important to the ecosystem with the ocean,” he said.
Miami has hosted the Super Bowl 11 times — more than any other city. But it’s the first time that the local host committee has decided to make this kind of awareness campaign focused on the environment — called Ocean to Everglades.
“Hard Rock Stadium sits right in the middle from the Atlantic Ocean and to Everglades to its west,” said Eric Eikenberg, who runs the nonprofit Everglades Foundation, one of the main groups putting on the initiative.
The foundation raises to money to support scientific research and runs a literacy program that aims to show how the wetlands ecosystem and life in South Florida are connected.
“When they turn on the tap at home, to drink water, to wash cars, to go in their pool, whatever it might be— the water supply that they’re benefiting from comes from the Everglades,” said Eikenberg, wearing a gray jersey emblazoned "Everglades" in place of a player's name.
Millions of Floridians get their drinking water from the Biscayne Aquifer under the Everglades. The ecosystem filters excess nutrients and keeps out seawater. That’s partly why some environmentalists are calling for restoration of the so-called "River of Grass." Its health impacts a large source of freshwater underground.
The focus is not only on the Everglades. The Ocean Conservancy, another main partner in the Super Bowl effort, highlighted marine debris, like plastics, coral disease and algae blooms, which have plagued Florida’s coasts over the past few years.
“This has become mainstream,” Eikenberg said. “You now have an administration and a governor who wants to fix it, who wants to change it.”
The Super Bowl campaign has been in the works for awhile. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis announced it in Miami on Earth Day last year.
“We see how the average citizen, regardless of party, regardless of what part of the state, they all want to see Florida’s environment tended to,” he said during a news conference.
Some environmental groups consider DeSantis' environmental policies a step up from the previous administration's. Under former Gov. Rick Scott, now a U.S. senator, staffers couldn’t use the words “climate change.”
"You just couldn’t go anywhere but up with Rick Scott,” said Frank Jackalone, who heads the Florida chapter of the Sierra Club.
DeSantis appointed Florida’s first chief science officer and chief resilience officer. He has also proposed $625 million for Everglades restoration and water quality projects.
“When you look at DeSantis’s record, the two places where he’s making some progress are on water quality and Everglades,” Jackalone said.
Despite this progress, the Sierra Club recently issued an environmental report card and graded the governor a "D," mainly for not doing enough to address climate change.
Jackalone’s group was not involved with the Super Bowl. He says the game can be a platform, though, and he wants organizations like the Everglades Foundation to go further in their messaging — specifically about fighting the causes of climate change.
“In some ways, we’re misleading the public by not talking about the bigger crises that are facing South Florida. The biggest one of all is climate change and sea-level rise,” Jackalone said.
Global sea level is likely to rise at least a foot by the end of the century, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
In another 50 years, South Florida might not be able to host a Super Bowl, Jackalone said.
“That’s how fast it’s going to take for the sea level rise to make life really bad in Miami,” he added.
The Super Bowl will be back in Florida next year in Tampa.