TAMPA — Starting Friday, Tampa will become a national epicenter for gay women, thousands of whom are coming to town for the Final Four of the women's NCAA Tournament.
Most of the activities will center on Ybor City, where clubs are hosting all-girl bands and an event called Bounce, promoted as the largest women's party in the Tampa Bay area. The National Center for Lesbian Rights is holding a mega party at club Underground. Restaurants are offering free specials to attract gay patrons.
No one knows how many of the 21,655 fans expected to pack the St. Pete Times Forum on April 6 and 8 will be gay. Last year, national leaders in the lesbian community who attended the women's Final Four in Cleveland estimated at least half of the fans in attendance were lesbians.
Some consider that low.
"I would say 75 percent," said Darlene Herrick, a former University of South Florida basketball player. "Of course, the other 25 percent would be in the closet."
Herrick, who played in the late 1970s, is executive chef at Streetcar Charlie's Bar & Grille and owner and promoter of Flirt Night Club, two businesses that are part of the growing GaYbor District Coalition in Ybor City.
The coalition has 67 members, including gay-owned or gay-friendly businesses that are investing in Ybor City. Many of the coalition businesses are looking to capitalize on the Final Four. Streetcar Charlie's will serve free appetizers Friday night, while Flirt will offer free admission to fans with an out-of-state driver's license or ticket stubs.
Theories vary as to why the event draws so many lesbians.
Herrick thinks it's because many players are gay, a claim backed by no scientific survey.
Karen Doering, senior counsel and Sports Project attorney for the National Center for Lesbian Rights, counters that lesbians love the game for the same reason any fan does: It's exciting, with a greater emphasis on team play than men's basketball, particularly the star-driven NBA.
Several years ago, Doering said, estimates that lesbians made up 75 percent of the Final Four crowd may have been accurate. But lately, she said, interest in the sport has grown among all women.
Last season, NCAA women's basketball attendance reached record highs.
Cyd Zeigler, co-founder of Outsports.com, a sports Web site that covers gay topics, said businesses drive the event's popularity among gays. They throw lavish parties and concerts that turn the games into a weekend of partying and networking much like the Super Bowl. Last year, sponsors brought the Indigo Girls to Cleveland during the Final Four.
But another reason for the popularity of women's basketball, gay leaders say, is the outspoken advocacy by role models such as WNBA star Sheryl Swoopes, who came out in 2005. As early as 2001, coaches and players in the professional basketball league began courting lesbian fans, advertising in alternative newspapers and making promotional appearances.
Businesses are taking note.
Many of the Tampa parties this week are being promoted by Twirl Girl and Fun Women at Play, two Tampa Bay area groups that host parties for gay women, as well as GaYbor District businesses.
"Business owners know to target the thousands more lesbians in Tampa Bay than there will be ordinarily," Doering said. "That just makes common sense."
And economic sense. A division of MarketResearch.com says the total buying power of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender adults in 2006 was $660-billion.
Gay populations are more concentrated in major metro areas, which can mean higher than average incomes, researchers say. Because same-sex couples are less likely to have children than married heterosexuals, both partners are more apt to be employed with dollars to spend.
Becky Fox, director of sales for Hampton Inn & Suites, said her hotel would have marketed heavily to lesbians this week if the Ybor hotel wasn't already booked by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, which holds its annual convention at the same time.
"We would have done something, because it's such a great and growing transient market," said Fox, a founding member of the GaYbor District Coalition.
The irony of Hillsborough County businesses throwing such a broad welcome mat for gays is not lost on Doering, who notes that the county doesn't officially recognize gays. In 2005, the Hillsborough County Commission mandated that county government "abstain from acknowledging, promoting or participating in gay pride recognition and events."
Officially, the NCAA and Tampa Bay & Co., the visitors and convention bureau, haven't marketed the Final Four specifically to gay women, officials said. But Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which is part of Tampa Bay & Co., said local lesbian groups were asked to join the volunteer force to put on the games.
"We've had a limited budget," he said, "so we've just tried to market to the community overall."
While last year's Final Four touted the slogan "Women Rock. Join The Team!" — a motto a gay blog insinuated held a double meaning — no slogan exists this year.
Businesses say they don't need one. They're already on board.
"We pretty much market for anything that comes to town that's for women," said Jersey Lane, a bartender at the Rainbow Room on MacDill Avenue.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or email@example.com.