Wednesday, June 20, 2018

College football title game affirms Tampa is a major sports player

TAMPA — It's not always easy to be a sports fan in Tampa Bay.

Our professional football team is lousy and has been for a while now. The rest of the country makes fun of our baseball stadium and its empty seats. The Lightning's Stanley Cup feels like forever ago.

Then comes a day like Monday, and a reminder that this is a good sports town after all.

Next year, college football begins a long-awaited playoff system that culminates with a national championship game. That game will be a big deal.

Three years from now, in January of 2017, that championship game will be played in Tampa Bay.

And that's a very big deal.

It's not quite the Super Bowl, but it's pretty darn close.

In fact, with the way college football is growing, a national championship game has a good chance of becoming the next big thing after the Super Bowl, bigger than even the World Series and Final Four.

"This is just fantastic for the Tampa Bay area,'' Bucs co-chairman Bryan Glazer said. "This is so exciting. This is huge.''

Tampa Bay is known for beaches and Busch Gardens. We've had big events outside of the sports arena before, the biggest being last year's Republican National Convention.

But when the rest of the country sets a camera on our area, it's usually because of sports.

In many ways, sports have become our identity. It's how other people see us, whether they are sitting a couch in southern California or on a bar stool in upstate New York.

Think about it.

The PGA makes an annual stop at Innisbrook each spring. About the same time, IndyCars race through the streets of downtown St. Petersburg.

We've successfully hosted four Super Bowls and, undoubtedly, will host more. A men's Final Four, a World Series and a Stanley Cup final have all come to Tampa Bay.

The NCAA women's Final Four, after an overwhelming success in 2008, makes a second visit to Tampa Bay in 2015. The NCAA men's Frozen Four hockey tournament, after an overwhelming success last year, returns in 2016.

We've hosted early rounds of March Madness, the ACC basketball tournament and college football bowl games.

And even though we haven't seen much playoff success of late, we do have the Rays, Bucs and Lightning.

But this college football national championship? This is a game-changer. It once again puts Tampa Bay among the elite sports destinations in this country, right up there with the big boys such as New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Dallas.

In fact, San Francisco was one of the cities Tampa Bay beat out for the 2017 championship game. Tampa Bay also edged out South Florida, Jacksonville, Minneapolis and San Antonio.

"There were eight exceptional bids,'' said Bill Hancock, executive director of the college football playoff. "It just so happens that Arizona (which will host the 2016 game) and Tampa were a little more exceptional.''

Did you hear that? More exceptional.

Credit for that goes to Rob Higgins, the executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.

It takes more than one person to pull off something like this. There were a lot of hands in this project, including the Glazers, the Tampa Sports Authority, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa International Airport, the Lightning and others. Several politicians, most notably Tampa mayor Bob Buckhorn and Hillsborough County Commissioner Ken Hagan, as well as longtime civic leader Leonard Levy, deserve pats on the back.

But make no mistake, this is Higgins' baby. It was his leadership that put together a bid that allowed Tampa Bay to outclass the other contenders. An adequate stadium, lovely weather and plenty of hotel rooms only take you so far. At some point, you have to wow people, and Higgins and his team blew away the NCAA.

He doesn't swing a bat like Evan Longoria or a stick like Marty St. Louis, but Higgins just might be the most valuable player in Tampa Bay sports.

"From the moment the discussion began about the potential for a national championship game, it was an event we were truly focused on,'' Higgins said.

Higgins has a slogan: Gameday Everyday.

"What it is is a promise that every single day we will approach like game day,'' Higgins said.

Sounds hokey, right? Like the kind of thing you read in an airport book about leadership. And coming out of most mouths, it would be nothing more than a schmaltzy slogan. But when Higgins says it, you believe it because his track record is so good.

This game means so much to Tampa Bay. Not just the estimated millions to the local economy.

"It has a social impact as well,'' said Higgins, pointing out the local events and attractions surrounding the game.

And there's another impact as well: the impact this game will have on Tampa Bay as a sports community, as well on our psyche and our pride.

Yes, this is college football's big game, but it will be our big game, too.

On the night of Jan. 9, 2017, college football will celebrate a national champion. And we in Tampa Bay will celebrate our rightful high place in the sports world. In fact, it's a celebration that is already under way.


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