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Bowl games bring tourism dollars to St. Petersburg

The Super Bowl is, of course, the golden egg of economic impact. Studies over the years show the average fan stays four nights in the host city and spends $1,500 to $2,000. About 68,000 fans will fill Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis tonight. Another 50,000 people without tickets will come to town just to be part of all the hoopla.

The three football games played at Tropicana Field recently are a long, long, Hail-Mary-long way from having such economic impact.

Still, city boosters and some businesses say the games brought added dollars to town for immediate impact and national exposure with long-term payoffs.

"We are always looking to grow the brand of St. Petersburg/Clearwater," said David Downing, deputy director of Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater. "During the ESPN broadcast (of the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl), there were two 30-second (commercials for St. Petersburg/Clearwater), two 30-second spots in the stadium, four banners in the stadium and scenic spots that they panned in and out with."

The Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl on Dec. 20 between Marshall University and Florida International University drew an announced attendance of 20,072.

The Under Armour All-America Game on Jan. 5 featured 90 of the nation's top high school football players playing before a crowd of 24,700. It also aired on ESPN.

The East-West Shrine Game showcased college players to an estimated audience of 18,000 as thousands more watched on the NFL Network.

"Overall we were pleased," said Keith Overton, chief operating officer of the TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach. The hotel was a paid sponsor of the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl and hosted the teams' bands. It also hosted East-West Shrine Game teams, families and some scouts.

Each of the events accounted for $80,000 to $100,000 in sales. Comparatively, when the hotel is completely booked this summer for the Republican National Convention, Overton expects $1 million in sales.

"We spend $80,000 a year (for) the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl as a sponsor (but) we're not really getting our dollar-for-dollar profit back. But we get national coverage," he said. "Our signage is everywhere. We're listed on the website. We still feel the value of it."

The Renaissance Vinoy Resort was also a sponsor for the game and was the host hotel for Marshall players and their families, which accounted for about 500 room stays. General manager Russ Bond declined to say what the hotel invested to be a sponsor but said it was well worth it.

A slow week picks up

"As you look across the country, the third week in December is probably one of the weakest weeks of the year in terms of hotel booking in general," Bond said. "Corporate travel has all but shut down. People don't start traveling until a day or two before Christmas. For us to have the good fortune of having a team and fans venturing this way for one, two, three nights is definitely a home run or, I should say, a touchdown."

The Vinoy felt some impact from the East-West Shrine Game and the Under Armour game even though it didn't put money down to be a sponsor.

"We were pleasantly surprised in both cases," Bond said. "We definitely had some bookings from some scouts at both games. We saw a spike in business. We could tell on those given days with higher occupancy than a year ago, about 20 percent higher." When a professional or college team scouts players, four to five people usually come, he added.

TradeWinds was the host hotel for the all-star college players in town for the East-West Shrine Game. That game actually brought in a little more money because players and their families spent more time eating and spending money at the hotel than folks who stayed during the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl. Overton said he saw little impact from the Under Armour All-America Game.

Mike Harting, a co-owner of Bella Brava in St. Petersburg, credits the unusually warm weather for the restaurant's sharp increase in sales during December and January compared with a year ago. Bella Brava had a "huge night" after the East-West Shrine Game. However, the sales increase the day of the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl was the smallest during the month of December and the sales increase on the day of the Under Armour game was also small.

But Harting isn't complaining.

"There were folks in here with jerseys on, and it's always good to have tourists around," he said.

Wish you were here

Local tourism officials couldn't agree more. The county's Tourist Development Council spent $100,000 collected from tourism taxes to sponsor the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl.

In return, about 44,500 room nights were booked and there was an immediate economic impact of $1.9 million.

That's about 40 percent of Pinellas County's economic impact associated with the Outback Bowl in Tampa. That game drew around 40,000 fans this year, attracting visitors for five days or more with a week of activities including bowling, beach games, Busch Gardens and a New Year's Eve parade.

The three games played in St. Petersburg don't draw as many fans or as much attention, but they work in tandem to spread the image of a warm vacation spot to sports fans watching from varying climates around the country.

The city doesn't pay any actual dollars toward hosting the games. It helps market them and recruit volunteers to assist out-of-town guests, said Joe Zeoli, who oversees sports activities for the city.

"They generate not just local interest but national exposure," he said. "Other people see them, other promoters thinking about doing something."

Each game arrived at Tropicana Field in a different way. ESPN was looking for a home for a Florida bowl game in 2008 and chose St. Petersburg for the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl after working with former Mayor Rick Baker, Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater and the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.

The Under Armour All-America Game came to St. Petersburg from Orlando's Citrus Bowl in 2009 because the turnover time between it and another game was too short.

The East-West Shrine Game was also formerly in Orlando, but attendance was lagging. As part of Mayor Bill Foster's push for more sporting events, the city's sports consultant started courting the Shriners.

There's a two-year contract for the game to be played here with hope for an extension. This year's attendance almost doubled the number who went to past games in Orlando.

Katherine Snow Smith can be reached at (727) 893-8785 or kssmith@tampabay.com.

Bowl games bring tourism dollars to St. Petersburg 02/04/12 [Last modified: Saturday, February 4, 2012 3:31am]
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