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Super Bowl provides a grand escape in these tough times

TAMPA — To attend his first Super Bowl, Kurt Bergmann left behind worries of falling income, failed investments and college tuition for four kids. With his wife's blessing, he left Albany, and four inches of snow.

Paella, sunshine and a nosebleed seat proved to be powerful antidotes. The Lockheed Martin program manager wasn't feeling the least bit anxious at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday evening, as he cheered for the Cardinals.

"It's a distraction from the stress," said Bergmann, 52.

If only for a weekend, Tampa, too, seemed struck by recession amnesia. The economy may have dimmed the sheen on the city's fourth Super Bowl, but it didn't douse the sizzle.

The city opened its nightclubs and strip clubs, and people stayed up all night, living large and long into the wee hours at venues such as the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino east of Tampa, where patrons waited two hours just to leave the parking garage.

Sunday, they clowned around outside the stadium, playing drinking games and dodging street evangelists. One man raced in a shopping cart. Steelers fans at a block party took turns stomping on Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald's jersey.

Liquor flowed at tailgate parties. Lines at the Mons Venus strip club wrapped around the building, and patrons paid as much as $60 to get in. And those lucky enough to get into the Big Game got a rousing halftime show by The Boss.

Sure, there were signs of caution. Playboy, Sports Illustrated and Victoria's Secret canceled parties, and other hosts cut ticket prices.

But by the time the team with the Terrible Towels squared off against the team with the terrible track record, most vendors, patrons and officials seemed to agree with Mayor Pam Iorio's pregame assessment.

"I'd rather host a Super Bowl during a recession than not host a Super Bowl with a recession," said Iorio, who sat in club level seats with her husband. "What I saw yesterday in Channelside and Ybor was packed restaurants, packed bars. Even the ladies at the Italian Club sold out of their cookies."

• • •

Limousine companies, party rental centers and caterers welcomed a much-needed shot of cash. The betting business boomed. Ticket vendors who saw prices drop to $1,200 going into the weekend rejoiced as a late influx of Steelers fans drove prices back up to $2,250 or more.

Counterfeit ticket and jersey peddlers raked in cash before landing in jail. Tampa police recovered more than $10,000 from a man they say tried to sell counterfeit jerseys to an undercover officer Saturday night.

A Sports City merchandise store at Channelside ran out of sweatshirts. Restaurant managers gushed Sunday about sales that surpassed their expectations.

"Busy beyond control," Hooters general manager Neil Krol said.

"Phenomenal. Definitely a record-breaking week," Bennigan's general manager Aaron Cook said.

The city might have made more in a stronger economy.

Fans cut trips short, traveled by bus or bought commercial flights that took them from Pittsburgh to Chicago to Orlando. They played less golf, flew on fewer private planes, bought fewer mementos. Beach hotels complained of lukewarm bookings.

Street vendors hawking goods with the fervor of carnival barkers said sales were weaker than expected. The news was the same for a number of Dale Mabry businesses. Some sold parking spots for big bucks to ticket holders but lost patrons Sunday as a result.

Rod Hamlet, owner of Florida BBQ Company and Catering of Lakeland, said that before Sunday, sales of his smoked chicken and sausage didn't cover his payroll or food costs.

"Today, we're doing good," he said. "If we had this kind of crowd all along, we'd be doing fine."

The economic divide between the haves and the have-lesses was perhaps best felt inside the stadium complex.

Revelers at the tailgate party for NFL sponsors sipped Bloody Marys and munched on fresh mango as John Legend sang on stage. No sponsors cancelled their trips, though General Motors brought a smaller contingent, NFL spokesman Brian McCarthy said.

McCarthy acknowledged that many sponsors were bracing for tougher times. The NFL itself plans to lay off 150 employees.

At the club level, a group sipped champagne and wondered about the alleged recession. Elizabeth Hunter of Glendale, Ariz., didn't see it at crowded Disney World. Bank of America manager James DuBois of New York didn't see it at the Hard Rock Casino, where he had watched with amazement as people threw money around.

Attorney Jeff Pribanic, 48, from McKeesport, Penn., paid $10,000 for five tickets for his family. He "sues everybody," he said, and business is always good.

"I'm the exception, not the rule," he said. "Our business is sort of inflation-proof."

They all saw a riveting game that wasn't decided until the final seconds.

When it was over, Bergmann snapped photos and watched fireworks explode over the stadium.

"With all this," he said, "you'd never know there was a recession. Everything's so elaborate, over the top."

He paused for a few seconds, confetti swirling around him.

"Then it's back to reality on Tuesday."

Times staff writers Michael Van Sickler, Alexandra Zayas, Justin George, Richard Danielson, Greg Auman, Luis Santana, Kevin Graham, Letitia Stein, Victoria Bekiempis, Susan Thurston, Chandra Broadwater, Bill Varian and Rodney Thrash contributed to this report.

Super Bowl provides a grand escape in these tough times 02/01/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 3, 2009 11:59am]
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