CLEARWATER — When you're a rabid college football fan and the wind chill factor in your hometown is plunging below zero, a little thing like a tanking economy won't stop you from driving 1,300 miles to cheer on your team in a Florida bowl game.
Especially if you can hit the beach in December.
It's true that the grim economy is hurting the Outback Bowl, which will likely draw its smallest crowd since 2000. This is the first time in seven years that the New Year's Day game in Tampa isn't sold out.
But bowl officials say the game will still approach what they contend is a typical $40-million tourism impact. Hotels are packed and hordes of Iowa and South Carolina fans converged on Clearwater Beach on Tuesday.
It was the annual Outback Bowl Beach Day, which is what you might get if you cross a pep rally with spring break. Cheerleaders and marching bands performed on the sugary sand. Midwestern college kids and their parents slathered sunscreen on pale flesh and soaked up some rays on a gorgeous day.
In this economy, many of these out-of-town visitors confessed that they're pinching pennies wherever they can.
"We brought a lot of our own food — bread, cold meats, chips, crackers. We're in an extended-stay place in North Tampa with a kitchenette," said Diane Rios, sitting in an Iowa Hawkeyes portable chair with her toes in the sand.
Others are living it up, splurging on nice hotels and seafood dinners.
"Not having any money has never stopped us," declared Tommy Rollings of Myrtle Beach, S.C., opening another can of beer on the beach.
"We're trying to stimulate the damn economy," deadpanned his friend David Sox.
Several Tampa hotels — including downtown's Marriott Waterside, Hyatt Regency, and Westin Tampa Harbour Island — are sold out or nearly full of football fans.
In Pinellas County, the Hilton Clearwater Beach and TradeWinds Island Resorts in St. Pete Beach are hosting the competing colleges' marching bands.
The Outback Bowl has sold about 55,000 tickets, its smallest crowd since the game on Jan. 1, 2000, that drew 54,059 to see Georgia beat Purdue. Last year's game drew 60,121 for Tennessee against Wisconsin.
Still, this year's ticket sales are enough to cover the bowl's expenses. "I'm thrilled we are able to get this many people in extraordinary economic conditions," said Outback Bowl president Jim McVay.
Iowa and South Carolina both took the minimum allotment of 11,000 tickets required under the bowl's contract with the SEC and Big Ten conferences. Iowa later took an additional 4,000 for a total of 15,000.
On the beach Tuesday, Iowa Hawkeye fans in black and gold outnumbered South Carolina Gamecocks. Hard times notwithstanding, a lot of Iowans made the trip at least partly to flee from frigid weather back home. Today's high in Iowa City, the home of the university, is expected to be near 20 degrees. In Columbia, S.C., the weather will be a bit nicer with a high in the upper 50s.
To save money, many said they drove instead of flying. They carpooled, taking shifts at the wheel on the 21-hour road trip.
"The gas prices are making a huge difference," said Sue Hockom of Carroll, Iowa. "If it was still four bucks a gallon, a lot of people wouldn't come."
Overall, the economic picture is gloomy. Job losses are expected to mount in the months ahead.
But on the beach, people were throwing footballs in the surf. They made muscle poses in front of a giant sand sculpture.
Bass drums rumbled from the marching bands. The beer line got longer, the big game got closer, and the sun shined brighter.
Mike Brassfield can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 445-4160.