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Digital currency and bowl backer Bitcoin seeks to broaden its appeal as a form of payment

Published Aug. 22, 2014

ST. PETERSBURG — Beer, museum tickets, hotel stays and hamburgers.

Those are some of the things now available for purchase in St. Petersburg using bitcoin.

BitPay, a bitcoin payment processing company, said Friday it hopes to have 100 local businesses accepting the digital currency in time for the Dec. 26 Bitcoin St. Petersburg Bowl — an NCAA-sanctioned post-season college football game.

It also wants to install 30 bitcoin ATMs across the region that customers can insert U.S. dollars for bitcoins stored in mobile wallets on smartphones.

"Our goal is to create a permanent bitcoin hub in St. Petersburg," said BitPay co-founder and CEO Stephen Pair, during a St. Petersburg Chamber of Commerce event.

So far, a handful of businesses have signed on with BitPay, including the St. Petersburg Museum of History, Ferg's Sports Bar and Grill, Green Bench Brewery Co. and Hotel Zamora in St. Pete Beach. Centerplate concessions at Tropicana Field, the site of the college football bowl game, will also take bitcoin.

"We think having bitcoin will put us out to a niche market that normally wouldn't ever think about us," said James Parrish, the history museum's marketing director. "We're expecting to get a lot more business because of it."

In June, BitPay became the title sponsor of the bowl game for the next three years, replacing Beef O'Brady's, a Tampa-based restaurant chain that held the naming rights since 2009. Terms of the deals weren't announced, but BitPay officials said they paid ESPN in bitcoin.

Introduced in 2009, bitcoin is a deregulated and, to some, still controversial form of currency exchanged without the 1.5 or 3 percent transaction fee charged by most credit card companies. Its value has fluctuated wildly, from a few U.S. dollars per bitcoin to more than $1,000. This week, after falling to its lowest point since May, it settled at about $516.

People can buy bitcoin through a private exchange (bitstamp.net is a popular one) or create them by completing a lengthy mathematical algorithm, a process known as mining that requires special computer equipment. At BitPay, all 70 employees receive a percentage of their pay in bitcoin.

Bitcoin users tend to be highly educated men ages 17 to 54, about the same audience that likes college football. St. Petersburg bowl officials expect BitPay's involvement will generate interest in the game beyond sports and boost awareness of bitcoin worldwide.

"I would hope that 50 percent of the stadium will be filled with people who want to spend bitcoin," Pair said.

Times staff writer Claire Wiseman contributed to this report. Contact Susan Thurston at sthurston@tampabay.com or (813) 225-3110. Follow @susan_thurston.

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