TAMPA — They're coming in seas of orange and crimson red.
Some have tattoos of paw prints and others holler, "Roll Tide."
The country's biggest college football tailgate is taking over Tampa this weekend as tens of thousands of fans pour into the city for Monday's championship game between the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide.
And these fans are dedicated. Some don't even have a ticket to the game. They just want to breathe the same air as their beloved football team.
Hotels are packed, roads closed and Tampa is decked out in all things College Football Playoff National Championship 2017. There are concerts featuring A-list artists like Usher, along with food, a beach pep rally and a 5K run.
"It's like a tailgate times a million," said Clemson University alumnus and Tigers fan Dabny Lynn, 35.
It's not just a game, but a weekend-long event, said Santiago Corrada, CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, the tourism agency. The tourism agency notices a spike in visitors this time every year as people flee from the bitter cold up north.
More than 65,0000 visitors came to Phoenix for the championship game last year, according to data from the business school at Arizona State University. Organizers also estimated that up to 200,000 people attended game-related events in downtown Phoenix.
"That's a lot of fans, a lot of visitors on top of what we normally already have," Corrada said
Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park has been made over as the concert hub with huge golden footballs adorning the entryway. The Hilton downtown, headquarters for the Crimson Tide, is covered with championship game banners. Downtown restaurants have sidewalk signs out welcoming visitors.
Just before 1 p.m. Friday, a line of crimson buses rolled into downtown from the airport, halting traffic on Tampa Street. Earlier in the day, Crimson Tide fans Maddie Rubio and Olivia Van Praag eagerly awaited their team's arrival.
The college sophomores, both 20, were on campus last year when the team clinched the championship. This year, they wanted to feel the game-day atmosphere firsthand.
"You either have to be in Tuscaloosa or Tampa," Rubio said.
While Van Praag was able to score a student ticket to the game, Rubio will have to watch from a Tampa bar.
She doesn't mind. She's glad to be here to support her team. That's how a lot of hard-core college football fans are.
"There are individuals who really have a sense of pride in their hometown, college teams, university teams," Corrada said. "There's a different kind of relationship with the college athlete."
Dabny Lynn, the Clemson fan, is in Tampa this weekend with her parents, Jim and Susan Lynn. The trio has been to every Clemson game this season. The championship game will be No. 16.
Dabny was born in 1981. While she crawled on the floor, her parents watched the Tigers clinch a national title. The three went to the championship game last year. Dabny has two permanent tiger paw tattoos behind her ears to represent the championship games — last year's and this year's.
Dabny bought three tickets before her family knew for sure their team would make it.
"I had to have faith they wouldn't let me down," she said. "And they pulled through."
They were $650 apiece then. Now, similar seats are going for thousands.
The festivities are pulling in more than football fans. Kimberly Eberhard and Ashley Griffin, both 28 and Tampa grade-school teachers, sat near Curtis Hixon on Friday before the park opened for the night's free concert.
"When we got here I said, 'Oh my gosh, Ashley, look at that stage,' " Eberhard recalled. "It's huge."
Eberhard has spent her whole life in the Tampa area. She has watched her city grow and places like the Tampa Riverwalk and the waterfront park develop and take center stage.
Said Griffin, "It's making Tampa proud."
Contact Sara DiNatale at [email protected] or (813) 226-3400. Follow @sara_dinatale.