TAMPA — It was an odd sight at Channelside Bay Plaza: A crowded courtyard. All 360 Bennigan's seats were occupied with lines outside. No room to spare at Splitsville bowling alley.
And it was Monday, a typically slow day of the week. At 11 a.m.
"Our courtyard was more full at that time of day than I have seen it in three years," said Kathy Walsh, property manager of the 32-store waterfront retail complex.
These were some of the fruits of playing host to the Women's Final Four basketball tournament, which ended Tuesday night in Tampa.
The NCAA won't tally its estimates of the economic impact on the Tampa Bay area for weeks, but business owners were ebullient about the two-day event, which sold out the St. Pete Times Forum and drew about 30,000 people to Tampa.
"This is definitely our best group of days by far since we've opened," said Rob Wolfe, owner of Sports City, a Channelside sports retail store.
Business owners say the Final Four created a greater bump in sales than last year's ACC men's basketball tournament and March's first round of men's basketball games, both held in Tampa.
"There's no comparison," said Wolfe, whose University of Tennessee "Got Summitt" T-shirts flew off shelves. "I am completely impressed with how many folks are here."
Downtown hotels were booked since Sunday, said Cricket Wagner, Westin Tampa Harbour Island sales director. She lauded tournament organizers for making scores of stickers, vests, banners, column wrappers and signs emblazoned with the Final Four logo available to hotels to effectively market the games.
"I've been impressed with the signage," said Pat Kerr, 60, from Maryville, Tenn. She, along with three of her friends, said they found Tampa a friendly, hospitable city with a tricky downtown to navigate.
"I'm the driver, and I've been very confused with the one-way streets," said Kathy Stinnett, 53. "And we've been trying to find a grocery store and we haven't yet."
They also complained of a jump in event parking prices on game days. But they said they felt safe walking around downtown and loved the fact that most events were located near there.
The bump in business was even felt in Ybor City, where several bars and clubs held massive parties for a large lesbian fan base that was in town for the Final Four. Pamela Palumbo, owner of Twirl Girl promotions, said a Friday night event at the Rare Olive bar drew about 500 while the "Bounce" party, advertised as "Tampa Bay's Largest Women's Party," at club Czar drew more than 1,000 patrons.
Florida's Beach, part of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, couldn't estimate how much the Final Four impacted Pinellas County. But combined with Saturday's St. Petersburg Grand Prix, everywhere seemed busy.
"In terms of national exposure for the greater Tampa Bay area — fantastic," spokesman David Downing said.
Rick Nixon, NCAA spokesman, said Tampa met all expectations as a host city. Tampa has bid to seek the tournament again between 2012 and 2016.
While the Final Four was a major national event, organizers and business leaders say hosting next year's Super Bowl will be a different animal because more corporations will book blocks of rooms and restaurants during the massive event, which draws more than 100,000. But any practice is good, according to Tampa Bay & Co., the visitors and convention bureau.
"Experience is the key with these major events," said Rob Higgins, Tampa Bay Sports Commission director. "The more our community gets to experience these events, the more we get to appreciate being able to host."
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or firstname.lastname@example.org.