After 25 years, the Champions Tour is bypassing Tampa Bay.
The tour released its 2013 schedule Wednesday, and the mid-April stop at TPC Tampa Bay in Lutz has been replaced by the Greater Gwinnett Championship in Duluth, Ga.
"We just couldn't find a (title) sponsor in Tampa,'' tour president Mike Stevens said. "We had some nibbles. But at the end of the day, we were not able to get anyone across the line.
"If it wasn't for this downturn in the economy, we wouldn't even be having this conversation.''
The beginning of the end came when Outback Steakhouse, the title sponsor since 2004, pulled out after the 2011 senior event. Tournament officials scrambled to find another sponsor before Encompass Insurance came on board for 2012. However, Encompass was only a one-year fix because it hosts a new event in Glenview, Ill., starting in June.
On Sept. 1, with no title sponsor in sight, all full- and part-time employees were let go.
Tournament director Amy Hawk stayed on until the end of the year in a last-ditch effort to find a sponsor.
While exact figures aren't made public, Champions Tour title sponsorship costs about half that of a PGA event. Transitions Optical paid about $7 million per year to sponsor the PGA tournament at Innisbrook.
While there will be no 2013 event, Stevens said the tour has not given up on the bay area.
"We still have Tampa as a viable host city,'' he said. "When we have companies that express interest in sponsorship on the Champions Tour, Tampa is always a part of the market list. … I hope we can get back there in 2014 and if not, perhaps '15. We've got 25 years invested there. It's tough to walk away from.''
"It's really disappointing that it didn't work out," Hawk said. "I got at least 15 emails today about buying tickets, and I didn't know what to tell them. Hopefully we can get it back in '14."
The senior tournament started in 1988 at Tampa Palms and was known as the GTE Classic. Verizon took over sponsorship from 2001-03. Outback bought the title sponsorship rights and made it a pro-am. It drew celebrities, including actors Mark Wahlberg, Bill Murray, George Lopez and Michael J. Fox.
Past champions include Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus, Hale Irwin and Bernhard Langer. The 2012 champion was Michael Allen.
The tournament has raised more than $9 million for local charities since its inception, according to its website. TPC Tampa Bay hosted the tournament for 20 years, the second-longest streak on tour.
With the Champions Tour gone, the only professional golf event in the area is the PGA's Tampa Bay Championship in Palm Harbor. That tournament needs a title sponsor as well but will be played in March.
Stevens said the tour was flexible in its pitch to possible sponsors. They suggested format changes and dates in February, March or April. "It's a big loss for us,'' he said. "If I could wish for anything, it would be to have a sponsor come in and assume that role. I'm going to stay bullish on the market.''