TAMPA — Although the NCAA Division I women's volleyball championship had never been held in Florida before last week, officials said the Tampa Bay area and the St. Pete Times Forum served up a winner.
"It's been a great experience," said Terry Gawlik, chairwoman of the volleyball committee, before Saturday night's finale between Penn State and Texas.
"The integration of what we wanted and what they were able to deliver was a home run," said Tina Krah, NCAA associate director of championships.
The Tampa Bay Sports Commission and the Times Forum, of course, are no strangers to hosting NCAA events, including men's basketball first- and second-round tournament games in 2003 and 2008 and the women's basketball Final Four in 2008. The ACC men's basketball tournament was at the venue in 2007, and the SEC men's basketball tournament followed in 2009. The NCAA Frozen Four is set for 2012.
But volleyball posed a different challenge.
Would there be the awareness or interest, especially in a football-crazed state? Local organizers configured the Times Forum for 12,800 (and not the 20,000-plus it has held for basketball) and announced a crowd of 10,246 for the semifinals Thursday night. But Sports Commission executive director Rob Higgins said attendance wasn't going to be the end-all, be-all in gauging if the event was successful.
"The intention, ever since we were awarded this three years ago, was to grow the sport of volleyball in the state of Florida," he said. "Whether it was the several hundred kids at our youth clinic (Saturday morning at the Tampa Convention Center), several of whom had never touched a volleyball before, to the record-breaking attendance at the (coaches) convention, to the exposure this event has gotten locally, there's no doubt that the roots of volleyball have grown deeper, not only in the state but our community."
Krah said it's not fair to compare attendance with, say, an Omaha, Neb., a hotbed for the sport that had Nebraska among the semifinalists when it hosted in 2006 and 2008 and drew 17,209 and 14,299 for the title games, respectively. Still, she said she was pleased with the turnout and the event might return to the area.
No BCS needed: The matchup between top seed Penn State and No. 2 seed Texas is the third such pairing in the title game in the past four years. The top seed won in 2006 (Nebraska), 2008 and 2009 (Penn State both years).
Did you know?: Penn State lost the first six times it met Texas but has run off nine straight including Saturday's finale.