ESPN the Magazine offered a lavish opening to the Super Bowl weekend on Friday night, welcoming more than 1,000 VIP invite-only celebrities and guests to its annual NEXT party inside a 22,000-square-foot tent at the corner of Morgan and Bell streets in downtown Tampa.
Inside the tent, guests had their choice of three separate bars, including a center bar on an elevated stage, an outdoor bar and a bar inside a NASCAR garage complete with a souped-up race car. The spacious dance floor and stage was open-air, offering an impressive view of several Channel District condominiums. A small arcade was set up in one corner of the tent with old-school video games and a virtual golf driving range.
Headlining performer Wyclef Jean took the stage at midnight, opening with the 1996 smash hit "Ready or Not" by his former band The Fugees. Jean ripped through an impressive set that included covers of several popular songs plus tracks like "Hips Don't Lie," his 2006 smash with Shakira, and the acoustic "Gone Til November" from his 1996's debut solo album "The Carnival."
The packed crowd included such well-known personalities as 2007 American Idol winner Jordin Sparks and Jeffrey Wright, Golden Globe and Emmy-winning actor for "Angels in America."
Who's who of sports legends:
The ESPN party leaned heavily on professional athletes, both those whose glory days are still ahead and those whose prime time has passed.
But almost all of the players took time to say hello and share their thoughts about Sunday's big game.
The red carpet outside the tent was a revolving door of current and former sports superstars ranging from NFL greats like Jerry Rice, Shannon Sharpe, Eric Metcalf and Vinnie Testaverde to USA Soccer star Danielle Fotopoulos to former heavyweight boxing champion Evander Holyfield.
They mingled with current stars such as Cincinnati Bengals wide receiver Chad Johnson and rising superstars like Joe Flacco, the Baltimore Ravens rookie quarterback who nearly led his team to the big game.
Early sentiment seemed to favor the Arizona Cardinals, who are making their first championship appearance against the five-time Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.
Boston Red Sox outfielder Bubba Bell said he wanted to see the Cardinals, a team that hadn't been to the big game before, have a taste of victory.
Testaverde, a former Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback, said he was happy to see friend and Cardinals' quarterback Kurt Warner back in the spotlight.
"My heart's with the Cardinals," Testaverde said, "but I give the edge to Pittsburgh."
Media friendly and media shy:
ESPN also drew a healthy mix of recording artists and Hollywood icons.
Benji and Joel Madden of Good Charlotte chatted up reporters as they worked the red carpet. MC Hammer pushed his new album. And party headliner Wyclef Jean talked fashion and his love of old-school sports heroes like Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Dorsett and Oakland A's Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson.
"For me, I like to mix and match. Ever since I was with the Fugees," Jean said of his eclectic style. "I don't feel it's about one designer."
They were joined by an eclectic assortment of reality TV stars like former WWE Diva and Dancing With the Stars contestant Stacy Keibler and famous kid Brody Jenner.
But for every celebrity willing to spend a few minutes greeting the press, there were those who whisked by with barely a hello.
Christian Slater, who skyrocketed to fame with his turn as a twisted high school killer in 1988's "Heathers," waved but refused to stop. Oscar Winner Cuba Gooding Jr., whose memorable acceptance speech at the 1997 Academy Awards for "Jerry Maguire" cemented his place in Hollywood history, offered a quick hello but little else.
He later joined Wyclef Jean on stage to dance during a rousing performance of House of Pain's iconic hit "Jump Around."
And Lindsay Lohan, whose girlfriend Samantha Ronson spent the early part of the night deejaying for ESPN the Magazine, initially avoided the red carpet, only to venture out briefly for pictures before disappearing back inside. Lohan was spotted throughout the night, surrounded by security, but didn't appear to be having much fun. She left by herself about 1 a.m., flanked by security who ushered her down the red carpet, without saying anything.
Lil Wayne and the Subway Guy:
More than anyone else appearing Friday night, celebrity guests said they hoped to spot Lil Wayne, the rap superstar whose received eight nominations in December for the 2009 Grammys for his blockbuster album, "The Carter III."
ESPN the Magazine nabbed Lil Wayne to do interviews with many of the professional athletes on hand, including Flacco, the rookie phenomenon.
Chicago Cubs infielder Tony Thomas Jr., a Florida State University standout, said he listens to Lil Wayne to get pumped up before games. All he wanted, he said, was to meet his idol, even if he had to use his girlfriend to get the rappers attention.
"Any way possible I can meet the guy," Thomas said, laughing.
Maybe Thomas should have talked to Jared Fogle, the Subway spokesman, who met Lil Wayne last year during a taping of Saturday Night Live.
"He's a huge Subway fan," Fogle said. "He likes my commercials."
Sure enough, when Lil Wayne arrived on the red carpet about 11:15 p.m., he confirmed that the two share a mutual respect.
"That's my dude," Lil Wayne said of Fogle. "He's cool."