By KEITH MORELLI | The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA, Fla. - Tampa is not exactly known as a big hoops town, but next weekend the eyes of the college basketball nation will be watching.
The NCAA men’s basketball tournament – the whole March Madness thing – kicks off here with two opening rounds, featuring four games on Thursday and two on Saturday.
Tampa is more of a football town than a basketball mecca, though the University of South Florida Bulls play in one of the college game’s toughest conferences, the Big East. Still, attendance at home games here is at times dismal, typically about 10 percent of what the football team draws.
So, eyebrows go up whenever announcements are made that the Tampa Bay area has landed some sort of major college basketball event. And that is fairly often.
The area hosted the men’s Final Four in 1999, when the teams played at Tropicana Field and the University of Connecticut emerged as the winner.
In 2003 and 2008, the men’s tournament held first- and second-round games at the St. Pete Times Forum. In ’08 the women’s Final Four was held here.
Along the way, the Forum also has hosted the 2007 Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. The closest teams in the ACC to Tampa are Florida State University and the University of Miami, both nearly 300 miles away.
In 2009, the Forum hosted the Southeastern Conference men’s tournament. The closest SEC school to Tampa: the University of Florida in Gainesville, some 130 miles away.
Add to that the NCAA women’s volleyball championship at the Forum in 2009 and the NCAA women’s Final Four coming back here in 2015, and Tampa is rocking along.
It’s not by accident that an area without a pro franchise or a college powerhouse has drawn big-time tournaments.
“The more events we have, the easier it is to bid,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “We are building up our track record and that’s very important. The Final Four being here in 1999 allowed us to open the door for the ACC championship here in ’07, the SEC in ’09, and since then we have continued to have a great relationship with NCAA.”
Higgins’ commission prepares and submits bids for such events. Even though the past helps, making successful bids is getting more difficult, he said.
“It definitely gets more competitive,” he said. Six years ago, he said, there were about 100 cities placing bids to host tournament games and conference championship tourneys.
“Now there are more than 500,” he said. “Communities have had a chance to look at how big sports impacts not only economics but tourism and promotion. The return on investment for these communities continues to be huge. Everybody is making this a big priority.”
What makes the bids from Tampa so attractive, he said, is not just the weather but the whole package.
“It really comes down to this: We generally have great community partnership,” he said. “The Forum, the staff they have there; it’s a wonderful experience for folks.”
He said the promise by the Tampa Bay Lightning’s new owners to upgrade the Forum can only help in future bids.
Other factors: Plenty of nearby hotel rooms and the convention center, not to mention the weather, water, beaches, restaurants and established party zones like Channelside and Ybor City and accessibility to a world-class airport situated just a few miles down the road.
Higgins has been director of the commission since 2004 and his tenure has been marked by successfully landing myriad college events, not just basketball.
The ACC football championship was here in 2009, and next year the Forum will host the NCAA Frozen Four, the culmination of college hockey’s championship tournament.
But right now, college basketball takes center stage across the nation and here in Tampa. Even those not into NCAA hoops get swept up in the tournament action, he said.
“The way these events have layered themselves,” Higgins said, “it has given folks a great appreciation for basketball.”
In 2008, the first and second rounds didn’t look like much to the seasoned prognosticator, he said. But the 12th- and 13th-seeded teams playing fourth- and fifth-seeded teams offered spectacular hoops action.
“No site was treated to as good a basketball as we had here” in 2008, Higgins said. “We had two overtime games and a couple of buzzer-beaters, and some pretty good upsets. It was a day that has etched itself in NCAA record books. It became known as the ‘Turmoil in Tampa,’ ” he said, “It was our legacy.”
Not only basketball fans reap the rewards, he said.
“From an impact standpoint, there are lots of different ways to project it,” he said. “I’ve heard that it could bring into the area between $10 and $15 million probably.”
Hotels are expecting to rent between 9,000 and 10,000 rooms between downtown and the West Shore district when the tourney comes to town, Higgins said. A Kenny Chesney concert at the Raymond James Stadium on that Saturday night will account for many of the rooms, he said.
“We’re pleased with how the buzz is picking up,” he said. “Now it’s March and it’s a little more real for people.”
Reaping the rewards of the events are tourism-related businesses.
Next weekend “is a very big deal for Tampa,” said Travis Claytor, spokesman for Tampa Bay & Company which handles business for the convention center. “We have this reputation and the NCAA knows that when it brings events to Tampa, it’s going to be a success.”
Tampa is a known football town, he said, more than a hoops town.
“We’re not known as big basketball city,” he said, “But we are known as a big sports town.”