Tuesday, July 17, 2018
Events

College Football Playoff brings the party to Tampa with big concerts

TAMPA — Picture a skyscraper-sized Usher dancing across the facade of Tampa's 31-story Rivergate Tower, a.k.a. the Sykes building.

It'll be one of the most striking visual components of this weekend's Playoff Playlist Live, a three-day concert festival at Curtis Hixon Park leading up to the College Football Playoff national championship game at Raymond James Stadium. And it wouldn't have happened without months of planning on the ground in Tampa.

"Having conversations between the Sykes people about what we want to do, getting that approved, working with TPD, and being able to call Claire (Lessinger) or Rob Higgins (from the Tampa Bay Sports Commission) and say, 'Hey, we're not down there right now, can you get us in touch with so and so?' They've been great," said Jonathan Foucheaux, co-owner of the New Orleans-based Solomon Group, which is producing the concerts.

Playoff Playlist Live, which features free concerts by Usher, Flo Rida, Eric Paslay, Gavin DeGraw and others, is the biggest of many public and private parties, concerts and fan fests surrounding Monday's Alabama-Clemson title bout. All are interconnected via the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, which orchestrated the city's bid for the game and is each event's liaison to the community.

Need a venue for your party? A licence for alcohol sales? Off-duty police for security? A restaurant to dish out local delicacies? The Tampa Bay Sports Commission has you covered.

"We kind of provide a one-stop shop of services," said Lessinger, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission's director of special events. "They check in here and see what we can provide and assist with, and we have layers and layers of what we can provide."

The three-year-old College Football Playoff is nowhere near as sprawling as the Super Bowl, which has had a half-century to evolve into a pop-culture party spectacle. But it's also much bigger than Tampa's 2008 and 2015 Women's Final Fours and 2012 and 2016 Frozen Fours.

"When you combine the fan events with the private events, and you break them out per night, we're probably well over 30 events," said Rob Higgins, the commission's executive director.

That includes new events unique to Tampa, such as the Championship Beach Bash in Clearwater Beach and Championship Yacht Village in downtown Tampa, where "we're basically managing and running the whole thing, and then college football is essentially supporting it," said Jenna Smith, manager of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission's Event Development Institute.

Some events don't require as much constant attention from local hosts, including private or corporate functions like an ESPN/Allstate party at Tampa's Kress building or an invite-only concert by Darius Rucker at the Seminole Hard Rock Hotel and Casino. But Higgins' team keeps tabs on them all, providing as much or as little assistance as needed.

In the case of Playoff Playlist Live, Solomon Group officials made about 10 advance trips to Tampa, including once for last year's Gasparilla Music Festival, to scout and prepare. The company is no stranger to events like this, having produced elements of festivals like Lollapalooza and New Orleans' Essence and Voodoo festivals. But the Tampa Bay Sports Commission helped them pin down local vendors to build infrastructure like tents, fencing and catering.

"Those guys have done a bunch of big events here — Super Bowls, Frozen Fours and all that," Foucheaux said. "All that knowledge has rolled in and helped us greatly."

As a result, the event will look like nothing Curtis Hixon Park has ever seen, with an interactive sponsor village in Kiley Garden, live broadcasts of ESPN's SportsCenter, and the largest stage ever to grace the park — 120 feet wide and 62 feet high. It's the same stage used for DJs like Martin Garrix and Hardwell at Lollapalooza. The company is preparing for a crowd of tens of thousands, though exactly how many the park can hold will be up to police and fire officials.

"If you want to get a spot," Foucheaux said, "get here early."

Throughout the weekend, Tampa Bay Sports Commission staff will be on call pretty much 24/7 to help out-of-town organizers put out fires and make last-minute adjustments. "Our days are scripted to the minute," Higgins said. Added Smith: "I just created a document called 'The Jenna Timeline' so that I know where I'm supposed to be at all times."

For his part, Higgins plans to be everywhere.

"We've all worked so hard and so long for so many years, I can't imagine not getting a chance to go and be a part and see and help in any possible way," he said. "I'll get to every one of them."

Every event? Every party, every luncheon, every concert? Is that even possible?

"That's a pretty firm commitment, isn't it?" he said with a laugh. "I will find a way."

Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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