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NCAA Tournament

NCAA fever grips downtown Tampa

TAMPA — Today the doormen at the Hyatt Regency will wear Clemson orange. The waitresses at Hooters in Channelside will pour rivers of cold domestic beer. And early this evening, on an upper level of the St. Pete Times Forum, a retired teacher from upstate New York will appear wearing nothing on his upper body but a giant green "S."

The "S" stands for Siena, as in Siena College, a Franciscan school in Loudonville, N.Y., whose men's basketball team won the right to play in the NCAA tournament that is played here today. The teacher is Bob Hermann, 59, who blames peer pressure for his impending shirtlessness.

"I don't think anyone over 55 should be in body paint," he admitted. No matter: Win or lose, he's going to Disney World.

March Madness has come to Tampa, bringing boisterous fans with money to spend. The economic impact of these early rounds of the NCAA tournament is projected at nearly $20-million. Naturally, local business owners are pleased.

The Hyatt might otherwise be sparsely populated on an Easter weekend, which tends to be thin for hotels, said Dave DiSalvo, director of sales and marketing. But this time they're hosting the Clemson Tigers team, not to mention cheerleaders, band and alumni. Thus the orange doormen.

Revenue at Channelside increased by about 75 percent during last year's Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament, said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. He expected a similar increase this weekend.

Indeed, at 3 p.m. Thursday, not generally a peak time for hot wings and alcohol in the presence of polyester-clad women, Hooters was bustling. Outside stood three friends from Johns­town, Pa., who said they have made a vacation of the tournament's early rounds every year since about 1992. They had fled from 20-degree weather, and were thrilled to be wearing shorts.

"I had to go up to the attic and find 'em," said Terry Hubbard, 49, a bank manager.

Inside the Forum, the region's eight teams took 40-minute turns practicing on the main court. The bouncing balls sounded like popping popcorn.

The audience included a group of 18 from Iowa who had come to see the Drake University Bulldogs make their first tournament appearance since 1971.

They had already played tennis and visited Busch Gardens. Now they were planning to watch the game — if only they could find 18 tickets.

As sometimes happens in situations like these, a guy walked by in the hallway. What should he have but 10 extra tickets? Dan Sorensen, 50, who directs operations at a church, helped negotiate the deal. Soon it was done. They were more than halfway there.

"Hope he's legit," Sorensen said.

It was lunchtime, and they were standing near Five Guys Burgers and Fries, and the potatoes were sizzling.

Thomas Lake can be reached at tlake@sptimes.com or (813) 226-3416.

Fast Facts

Downtown traffic

Because of the NCAA tournament games, traffic today will be congested downtown from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and again from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tampa officials say streets to avoid during these times are Bayshore Boulevard, Platt Street, Channelside Drive, Ashley Drive and Tampa Street.

NCAA fever grips downtown Tampa 03/20/08 [Last modified: Friday, March 21, 2008 11:50am]

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