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At ESPN Bitcoin Bowl, push is on for football — and cryptocurrency

MADEIRA BEACH — The Alligator Attraction is a classic Florida joint, the kind of place where tizzied tourists can toss turkey dogs to snappy reptiles. But this week, old-school fun will start accepting new-school funds: bitcoin, an online "cryptocurrency" that has gained buzz — if not exactly a stronghold in the financial realm — the past few years.

"There are so many benefits to bitcoin," says Sonny Flynn, business manager at Alligator Attraction, home of Chompers the star reptile, who, it should be noted, doesn't care how you pay for his snacks. "It's hack-proof. There's no transaction fee. It's almost as if you are paying in cash."

With the ESPN Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field on Friday, and thousands of football fans in town to watch the tilt between North Carolina State and Central Florida, some 100 bay area merchants will celebrate by accepting bitcoin — paperless digital currency that can be used in lieu of cash, checks or credit cards. (See our sidebar for a bitcoin tutorial.)

Madeira Beach — where a "Beach Bash" party will go down starting at 3 p.m. today for teams, cheerleaders and fans — is the hub of the bitcoin boom in Tampa Bay. Myriad John's Pass Village & Boardwalk stores are now equipped with the necessary technology to process bitcoin currency. Some software, a tablet and a consumer's smart phone are all that's really needed to make the cyberdeal. Want a scoop of strawberry at the Old Fashioned Ice Cream Parlor? Bitcoin can sate that sweet tooth.

"As a merchant, it's the greatest thing in the world," says Doug Andrews, recreation director for the city of Madeira Beach. A store sets up with a bitcoin conversion company, one of the benefits being lower fees than dealing with credit-card companies. Then, "every 24 hours, a merchant gets money" — converted back into U.S. dollars — "wired into their account. This is a very unique concept."

Next year, Madeira Beach will allow scofflaws to pay for parking tickets using bitcoin, making this one of the first towns in the world to uniformly adopt bitcoin as a prime source of payment.

"You can even buy diamonds with bitcoin," says Ashley Wheeler, the Bitcoin Bowl's director of corporate sponsorship and events. Indeed, Continental Wholesale Diamonds in Tampa will also gladly take your bitcoin. The conversion is basically the same: If a diamond ring is priced at $10,000 U.S. dollars, you're still paying $10,000 U.S. dollars even when paying via bitcoin.

Situated next to Tropicana Field, Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill in St. Petersburg will have a bitcoin ATM machine on the premises. Instead of dispensing dollar bills, it will gobble them up, converting the money into digital currency stored on your smart phone, which can then be used to buy, say, an $8.99 plate of nuclear wings.

Local restaurateur Steve Westphal is accepting bitcoin at his hotspots, including 400 Beach Seafood and Tap House in downtown St. Petersburg. John Ruetz, general manager of 400 Beach, says right now bitcoin is a "novelty" at best, although "good PR is good PR," so he's all in.

The brainchild of the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto (who is popularly described as either one person or a group of people), bitcoin gained controversial buzz over the past few years as a nerd-friendly alternative to the physical demands of cash money and the negatives surrounding credit cards, including fraud and charges. Merchants usually get dinged about 3 percent per credit card transaction.

One of the places that glaringly will not accept bitcoin this week, however, is the home of the Bitcoin Bowl itself, Tropicana Field.

"We could not reach an agreement with the Tampa Bay Rays," says Wheeler.

The bummer news doesn't end there. Despite its prominent bowl-naming feat, bitcoin's surge as a viable payment is still a curiosity at best. The value of the bitcoin is down roughly 52 percent compared to last year, a result of the limited amount of things that can be purchased via the digital currency. Due to bitcoin's relative anonymity and lack of a paper trail, it's also been linked to nefarious pursuits such as online gambling and drug purchases. And bitcoin's usage in the past year has been stagnant, the average around 66,000 transactions per day in the United States, not exactly a robust sign of momentum.

Whether all of the bowl-week merchants will continue accepting bitcoin into the future remains to be seen. But let it be known the Alligator Attraction has no plans to drop bitcoin as a payment system, says business manger Flynn. "We'll keep using it," she says, just one more way to buy Chompers his delicious turkey-dog treats.

Contact Sean Daly at sdaly@tampabay.com. Follow @seandalypoplife.

How bitcoin works

When thousands of gridiron fans stuff Tropicana Field on Friday for the ESPN Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl, many will be pondering the same thing: What in the heck is a bitcoin?

It's a fair question about a rather mind-bending modern concept. And don't feel dumb if, after hearing the explanation of the cryptocurrency — dollars are converted into online units, all stored in your invisible wallet — you still have zero clue what anyone is talking about.

Here's a quick primer:

• You can buy bitcoins and manage your bitcoin wallet through various online service providers, including Bitpay, the title sponsor of the Bitcoin Bowl. You use U.S. currency to purchase digital currency, the benefits including lower bank or credit card charges, no physical handling of money, more privacy and, at least according to fans, better fraud protection. In related news: Nerds love bitcoin.

• Now that you have bitcoin in your bitcoin wallet, it's time to buy things. You're still paying the same price, however. Among other benefits, no banking or credit card fees are assessed, and no cash is needed. The merchant uses a tablet with downloaded software to start the bitcoin checkout process, showing the buyer a QR code they can then scan using their smart phone.

• Still with us? Great! Now the QR code, after being scanned, links the merchant and the buyer's bitcoin wallet. The buyer then enters the amount owed, a private access code and payment approval. (You'll still pay tax on certain things. You can still tip your waiter at a restaurant. It's actually not that different. Well, kind of!)

• Go to bitcoin.org for more information and a list of merchants who accept bitcoin.

Sean Daly, Times staff writer

Bitcoin Bowl

UCF (9-3) vs. N.C. State (7-5)

8 p.m. Friday, Tropicana Field

TV: ESPN

Tickets: ticketmaster.com

At ESPN Bitcoin Bowl, push is on for football — and cryptocurrency 12/23/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, December 24, 2014 8:20am]
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