Imagine you're putting on the Super Bowl. It's a huge party and you need just the right host, so you invite Miami, New Orleans, Los Angeles and Tampa over to your place to hear their pitches. Miami salsas in wearing a slinky dress, sipping a mojito and beckoning everyone to sexy South Beach. New Orleans tosses beads, pours shots and boasts that hurricanes, whether cocktails or catastrophes, can't drown Bourbon Street. Lights shine and cameras flash when Los Angeles arrives in a stretch Escalade, accompanied by a skinny — and much younger — model. And what does Tampa bring? Sunscreen, cigars, a thick steak, a golf bag, a stripper named Crystal and a map to Ray Jay. Party time!
Of course, there is more to the Tampa Bay area than the beach, the Don, the Columbia and the Mons.
It's just that the other things don't matter once fans get to town.
Take it from Tom Henschel, one of five guys the NFL recognizes for having attended every Super Bowl. He'll extend his streak at Super Bowl XLIII today at Raymond James Stadium.
"I tell you what," says Henschel, 67, of Pittsburgh, "I'm a lover of art but I never get a chance to go to the museums or any of the theme parks. There's just so many parties, and people want to be with people."
Take that, Dali! When it comes to hosting the Super Bowl, some of the good things about the area (museums, theater, the orchestra) don't help it, and some of the unsatisfactory things (downtown Tampa, Malfunction Junction) don't hurt it.
Tampa doesn't have everything, but like Miami, New Orleans and Los Angeles — frequent hosts, all — it has what a football fan wants.
Rocky Mountain News columnist Bernie Lincicome told his snowbound Denver readers, "It is warm, it has palm trees out the window and a grouper sandwich on the menu.
"While the Super Bowl might wander off to outposts like Detroit or Houston or even Jacksonville (Dallas and Indianapolis await), nothing is more reassuring than a warm breeze and a cold drink, each under an umbrella."
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For decades, Tampa has teamed with St. Petersburg, Clearwater and Hillsborough and Pinellas counties to sell a palm-tree-shaded vision of Tampa Bay to the NFL and its millions of fans. And it has worked.
Growing up in frigid Minneapolis, novelist Steve Rushin watched the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play his beloved Minnesota Vikings countless times on television. He envisioned a single city with gulf beaches, palm trees, pretty girls and NFL football. Utopia, in other words.
"I thought Tampa Bay was a place," said Rushin, who wrote for Sports Illustrated for 19 years. Only after he came here as a sports writer did he realize that St. Petersburg and Tampa are "a hell of a far way away — even by car. It was a brilliant marketing move."
When the NFL awarded Tampa the Buccaneers franchise in 1974, its owners named the team after the region, not the city. Since then, Tampa and the local convention bureaus have relentlessly promoted the Tampa Bay mythology at Super Bowl bidding time.
They have to. Tampa wouldn't meet the criteria to host a Super Bowl all by itself. Cities need to have 19,000 hotel rooms within an hour's drive, and Pinellas County gives the region 19,500.
This is Tampa's fourth Super Bowl, proof that local big shots have become expert at pitching the NFL. In 1984, they established a "host committee" to plan the event, and it worked so well that the league now makes every city do it.
It also helps to know when to stop pitching. NFL owners met at the Ritz-Carlton in Washington in May 2005 to hear come-ons from cities interested in hosting the 2009 game. Team owners from each place stood and explained to the others why his city should win. Many droned on and on, said Norwood Smith of Tampa Bay & Co., Tampa's convention and visitors bureau.
Smith said someone from the Glazer family, which owns the Bucs, made three short points and sat down, saying, "You've been here before, you loved it and you know what we're going to do."
Tampa got a standing ovation. And the game.
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If you had to guess what single thing most influences who gets the Super Bowl, you would guess sunshine, right?
Nope. If warm weather counted so much, dreary ice boxes such as Minneapolis and Detroit would never have hosted the big show.
It's the stadium.
"It's critical. It's the showcase of the game," said University of Tampa sports management professor Ross Bartow, a member of Tampa's bid committee. Bartow has also helped other cities land or host Olympics, PGA Championships and Final Fours.
Owners often award Super Bowls to cities with new stadiums. New digs won the prize for Phoenix last year and for Dallas — building a $1.2 billion glass-enclosed palace — in 2011. Fans who spend thousands on a ticket expect to be able to see the field.
"They haven't had a game in the Rose Bowl in a long time," said Henschel, the Super Bowl regular. "It's so spread out the fans don't like it. If you're in the corners or the end zone of the Rose Bowl, you're way out in left field."
With its 103-foot-long pirate ship moored in the north end zone, Raymond James Stadium has been considered one of the league's most distinctive playing fields since it was built in 1998.
It's also in a sweet spot, sitting nearly between Pinellas and Hillsborough counties. West Shore hotels are a short taxi ride away, and downtown is just a few miles southeast. Contrast that to Miami, where you almost need a helicopter to get from the stadium to the South Beach hot spots.
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Let's talk steaks and strippers.
Sixty-five to 70 percent of NFL attendees are men, and luckily for them, Tampa has all the ingredients for one giant bachelor party.
It has a casino with blackjack.
It's home to Bern's, Capital Grille, Malio's, Charley's, Ruth's Chris, Sam Seltzer's, Fleming's, Shula's and Gallagher's steak houses. The Outback chain is based here.
And of course it is known by guys around the world for the irresistible lure of its churches. Oops — we meant to say strip joints.
"Strip clubs and sunshine are two necessary components for Super Bowl week," said writer Rushin, who ranked Tampa behind only Miami and New Orleans when it came to a "nexus of night life and major professional sports."
Tampa has lots of steak and sizzle, but some fans are unlikely to leave the bubble called the "NFL Experience" during Super Bowl weekend. League- and celebrity-sponsored events and parties take up hours of fans' time, leaving many with little sense of the city they are in.
Actor Carmen Electra, in town to co-host the Leather & Laces Super Bowl party, has a sense of it.
"In a way, I guess the first thing that comes to my mind is retirement," she said. Her grandparents live near Tampa, so maybe that influences her perspective. "I know a lot of people that like to move away from the (big) city go to Tampa to start over and sort of relax and enjoy the sun and the ocean and start retiring."
Electra won't be at the Super Bowl today. She was scheduled to fly back to Los Angeles after her event.
Somehow, we're sure, the big party will go on without her.
Justin George can be reached at email@example.com or (813) 226-3368.