By TED JACKOVICS | The Tampa Tribune
TAMPA, Fla. – Come on down, you fans from Lexington, Morgantown, East Lansing and other citadels of college hoops. Same goes for country music fans between here and Nashville.
Tampa’s got it going. A marquee group of men’s college basketball teams is headed here for March Madness on Thursday and Saturday.
Meanwhile country pop star Kenny Chesney will perform Saturday night at Raymond James Stadium.
If that’s not enough, the Florida State Thespian Society’s annual festival is downtown Wednesday through Saturday and the New York Yankees play the Tampa Bay Rays on Thursday and Toronto Blue Jays on Saturday at Steinbrenner Field.
Local boosters have a right to brag. The hospitality industry could achieve a “Black Friday” financial moment by Thursday for the year’s first fiscal quarter. Officials estimate an economic impact of more than $10 million from the long weekend when more than 10,000 hotel rooms will be sold – though some rooms remain available – while thousands more fans from the local area join in the fun at restaurants and bars.
The eyes of the sports and entertainment world will be on Tampa, with additional spring training baseball games and a PGA golf tournament across the bay in Pinellas County.
Bars, restaurants and maybe rental car agencies foresee profits, though tourney assignments made Sunday mean last-minute airline bookings to Tampa are extremely expensive.
The main local downside might be trying to commute or drive around town.
But it’s reported that the epic traffic jams caused by
crowds attending the U2 concert at Raymond James Stadium in October
2009 have pretty much cleared out by now.
That has made room for Saturday night’s crowds predicted to produce fun and profit along with baseball and basketball, the plays and the beaches.
“My engineering team is putting up NCAA basketball banners outside the hotel and we’re the closest to the Chesney concert,” said Jim Bartholomay, general manager of Renaissance Hotel at International Plaza and chairman of Tampa Bay & Co., Hillsborough County’s visitors marketing group.
“We expect the same volume of excitement as when U2 was here,” Bartholomay said.
“The West Virginia men’s basketball team is staying with us. The hotel is sold out.”
The team’s followers who might be too young to have seen Jerry West and Hot Rod Hundley play basketball in Morgantown are well known in the modern era for traveling heavily to the Bay area for Mountaineers football and basketball games against the University of South Florida, along with hitting the Pinellas beaches.
While the Florida Gators normally are not the local hoteliers’ favorite team for Tampa’s Outback Bowl football game – they usually prefer teams and fans from out of state – this is different.
UF fans are likely planning to party Thursday night, when their team plays its first game against No. 15 California-Santa Barbara – and booking rooms into the weekend. A victory moves the Gators into Saturday’s game against the UCLA-Michigan State winner.
The Tampa tournament also has drawn the University of Kentucky,
with a legendary cadre of loyal fans and Princeton, which has a
rich hoops tradition including the upset of defending national
champion UCLA as the 13th seed in the 1996 NCAA tourney.
You guessed it. Princeton is ranked 13th in this year’s Tampa games and faces Kentucky on Thursday.
“We were kidding about UCLA coming here at our morning
meeting,” said Mary Scott, the general manager at the
downtown Tampa Marriott Waterside. “Then we realized their
basketball heritage. So who knows how many might come to attend
Scott expects the Marriott to sell out from hundreds of fans, including her hometown team, Michigan State, along with NCAA officials, a couple hundred attendees of the thespian festival and a defense industry conference.
“It couldn’t have worked out much better than it has
for us this year,” she said.
Then there’s the concert with Chesney.
“The sports and country music fans in the city could not ask for more,” said Travis Claytor, a UF alumnus and spokesman for Tampa Bay & Co.
This winter’s extremely inclement weather in the Northeast and Midwest is bound to help boost this weekend’s visitors, said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.
“Ticket sales started to uptick when we hit March and we’re pacing extremely well since this incredible draw was announced,” Higgins said.