ST. PETERSBURG — The inaugural St. Petersburg Bowl, a new entry in an already bloated college football bowl lineup, has taken its share of ribbing in the national media.
Foxsports.com ranked it the worst out of 34 bowl games, and other sites such as SI.com have ranked it in the bottom five. With two teams that likely wouldn't have played in bowls a decade ago — hometown University of South Florida, which has won seven games, and Memphis, which has won six — the bowl has had to justify its existence against critics who have seen the prestige of playing in a bowl diluted.
"The magicJack St. Petersburg Bowl in particular is a great addition to the bowl lineup … because it will become a destination game," said Bill McGillis, USF's executive associate athletic director. "As the bowl grows, fans will become more familiar with it, and the fans of participating teams coming from outside the region will respond really well."
St. Petersburg has a built-in advantage because the bowl is owned and operated by ESPN Regional, which has five other bowls ranging from Hawaii to Las Vegas to Birmingham, Ala. There's a built-in national TV audience on ESPN2 and the promotion that comes with that, allowing the network to create new, inexpensive programming.
Having USF in the debut game Saturday, with its main campus just 32 from Tropicana Field, gave organizers optimism about chances of selling out the arena, which seats 33,000 fans for football. USF has been given additional tickets beyond its initial allotment of 10,000, but Memphis has returned a majority of its seats.
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Baker, who helped pitch the game to the NCAA, said he wasn't sure what to expect. On one hand, he said USF's participation should boost attendance. But it's also the bowl's first year, and word may not yet be out.
"I think it will become a tradition that the city embraces," Baker said.
Teams are filling up at least two St. Petersburg hotels — the Renaissance Vinoy and St. Petersburg Hilton — during traditionally one of the slowest tourism weeks of the year. And there is some marketing benefit to a nationally televised game.
"It's of great value to our community to have a 3 1/2-hour infomercial for St. Petersburg and the Tampa Bay region. That's not easy to come by," McGillis said.
But the economic impact of the game, "won't be huge the first year," Baker said.
There's exposure for everyone involved. For a team like Memphis, it's a chance to put its program on a platform against a BCS-conference team. The Tigers haven't beaten a team from college football's top six conferences since 2004.
Both Memphis and USF have stated that beyond winning their conference and landing the lucrative bowl contracts that go with a league crown, St. Petersburg was their next choice, with exposure and location playing a big part in their interest.
If the first two years go well in St. Petersburg, the bowl could land more lucrative conference affiliations.
"I think this bowl is going to be tremendous," Memphis coach Tommy West said. "It's a can't miss, and it's not going to be 10 years down the road getting there, it's going to be two or three. The exposure for us of playing in a Florida bowl game, I don't know how you can put a price on it, from a recruiting standpoint and the overall perception of your program."
Times staff writer Aaron Sharockman contributed to this report. Greg Auman can be reached at [email protected] and at (813) 226-3346.