CLEARWATER — Every year on Dec. 30, Clearwater Beach hosts an Outback Bowl Beach Day to lure hordes of Northerners from Iowa or Wisconsin or whatever college teams are playing in the bowl that year.
It's a huge pep rally on the sand. Cheerleaders and marching bands perform, football players sign autographs, and thousands of Midwestern college kids and their parents soak up some rays.
Now Clearwater is expanding this to a bigger, longer event in an attempt to entice more out-of-towners to stay at beach hotels and drive over to Tampa for the New Year's Day bowl game.
"We're trying to get more of the alumni and families to come down here, and encourage them to stay longer," said Anita Treiser, a consultant for the Clearwater Regional Chamber of Commerce.
On Thursday night, the chamber asked the city of Clearwater to kick in an extra $12,000 to help offset expenses for Beach Day. The city had previously budgeted $2,260 to support the event.
The City Council agreed to chip in. Why? Frustrated officials want to show the rest of the country that there's no BP oil on Clearwater Beach.
"The stigma of oil is still lingering," Mayor Frank Hibbard said. "People still don't believe that Florida beaches have not been affected by oil.
"And so this year, even more than past years, it is critical that we get all these visitors to come out and observe the fact that the beaches are absolutely pristine and perfect. And then go home and tell people about it."
One strength of Beach Day is that it draws tons of media coverage from the two states that send college teams to the Outback Bowl. The chamber expects more than 100 media staffers to be there.
"Everybody's having fun on the beach," said Outback Bowl spokesman Mike Schulze. "All the media covering the event pumps those images back up to their marketplace — back to Iowa or Wisconsin or wherever — at a time when those markets are under 3 feet of snow."
Typically, most Outback Bowl visitors stay in Tampa. But plenty of them bunk in Clearwater to be near the Gulf of Mexico. "Last year ,we had over 3,000 room nights," Treiser said.
This year, the bowl will have a higher profile than usual. It's the game's 25th anniversary, it has a 1 p.m. start time and it'll be on ABC instead of ESPN.
The Clearwater chamber is trying to capitalize on that. As the Beach Day event winds down Dec. 30, they're hoping to get the crowd to stick around for an expanded version of the nightly Sunsets at Pier 60 festival.
"We'll have more food vendors, artists, buskers and crafts," Treiser said. "We'll have a better-known band than we usually have. We'll have fireworks."
They'll also have four nights of free Sunset Cinema movies on the beach, featuring football-themed films like The Blind Side and We Are Marshall.
The chamber is also entering a float in the Outback Bowl Parade in Ybor City on New Year's Eve. The city was asked to chip in $2,000 for that. City Council members turned a skeptical eye on that expense Thursday night, questioning whether it was really necessary.
"Is the float really critical?" asked George Cretekos.
"What's in it for us?" asked John Doran.
Chamber vice president Kathleen Peters said tens of thousands of spectators watch the parade.
"It's added marketing exposure, to be in activities on both sides of the bay," she said. "One of the reasons we are so supportive of Outback Bowl Beach Day is because it puts heads in beds at Clearwater Beach. So there is a return on investment for the whole community."
The council voted 4-1 to chip in the extra money, with council member Bill Jonson opposed. He said he couldn't justify the expense when Clearwater is turning off lights at tennis courts and removing playground equipment from parks.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.