TAMPA — The College Football Playoff National Championship is something of a national coming-out party for the Riverwalk — downtown's designated artery for people and entertainment during the weekend celebration of the big game.
The 2.5-mile trail for walking, biking and skating between the Tampa Bay History Center and Water Works Park provided a traffic-free connection to all of Saturday's major fan events.
"This is the first major event that we've had with the Riverwalk completed, and it's the final piece of the puzzle," said Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn. "For us to have that now as part of our appeal really, really makes a difference."
Completed last spring, the Riverwalk underscores how Tampa's downtown has developed since it hosted the Super Bowl in 2009.
For one thing, neither Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park, the Tampa Museum of Art nor the Glazer Children's Museum had opened yet in 2009.
Water Works Park didn't exist. And Ulele wasn't packing in crowds every night because it was still a long-vacant pump house for the city Water Department.
Even if they had been open, Tampa had no easy way for people to stroll along the waterfront, nor was there any safe and direct pedestrian route between the park and the Tampa Convention Center.
Now there is. On Saturday, the Riverwalk gave fans a safe route from the activities at Playoff Fan Central inside the convention center to the free concerts at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park.
Along the way, it's studded with stages for live music, vendors selling beer, ice pops and bottled coffee and poster-sized decals pressed directly onto the pavers to point the way to various venues.
Dressed in crimson, Miranda Yeager and her boyfriend, David Worters of Raleigh, N.C., darted in and out of light crowds Saturday as they power-walked to the convention center. Still, the couple was able to hold hands.
"The people walk a little slow, but the signage and the stops along the sidewalk are fantastic," said Yeager, who traveled to Tampa for the first time to cheer on her alma mater, Alabama. "We've been using it to exercise, and I love it."
"We don't have anything like this in Raleigh," Worters said. "We were able to walk from our room at the Sheraton to almost everything."
Four decades in the making, the Riverwalk took six mayors and a major federal grant to complete.
The linchpin section of the Riverwalk just south of Curtis Hixon Park was the trickiest to build and thus among the last to open in spring 2015.
It was expensive and technically challenging because buildings along that stretch were built all the way to the seawall, so the walkway had to be set atop pilings sunk into the bed of the Hillsborough River.
The Obama administration awarded a $10.9 million federal grant to Tampa for the project, partly on the grounds that it would stimulate economic development.
It has — from restaurateur Richard Gonzmart's $6 million investment in Ulele, to water bike rentals and Tampa's new Pirate Water Taxi, to the city's move to allow bars, restaurants and hotels near the river to sell alcoholic drinks that can be taken onto the Riverwalk.
During the bidding for this year's championship, the connections created by the Riverwalk separated Tampa's proposal from its competitors, according to College Football Playoff executive director Bill Hancock.
Saturday's cold weather likely meant fewer people on the recreational trail, making for a slow workday for Taylor Tirotta, who works a second job selling ice pops.
She had sold just five in three hours.
"It's rough because it's really cold," she said.
Also on the Riverwalk was the Nason family from Greer, S.C.
After arriving in Tampa on Saturday morning, they headed straight to Playoff Fan Central to get former Clemson player Da'Quan Bowers to sign the Clemson baseball hat 11-year-old Cody received for Christmas.
Emerging victorious that evening, the family used the trail to find attractions to visit over the weekend. First on the list: the Florida Aquarium.
"We don't have a river like this in Greer, so we wanted to check it out," Lisa Nason said. "We're just going to take a walk and see what we can find to do."