The College Football Championship could bring 100,000 visitors to Tampa Bay, but from where?

Alabama: If the SEC champs beat Washing?ton in a semifinal game, they’ll head to Tampa, bringing thousands of fans with them.
Alabama: If the SEC champs beat Washing?ton in a semifinal game, they’ll head to Tampa, bringing thousands of fans with them.
Published Dec. 6, 2016

TAMPA — No matter who makes it to the College Football Championship in Tampa on Jan. 9, Raymond James Stadium will be full and rocking, hotel rooms across the region will be jammed with tourists and out-of-towners will be getting to know Tampa Bay.

The championship will be the biggest sports event to come to Tampa since the Super Bowl in 2009 and could rake in more money than even the 2012 Republican National Convention. As many as 100,000 people will visit.

A month before the game, most of the hotels in downtown Tampa and the West Shore area have already been reserved for the teams, officials, corporate sponsors and media, said Kevin Wiatrowski, spokesman for Visit Tampa Bay, Hillsborough County's tourism marketing agency.

Tourism officials say any of the four semifinalists — Alabama, Clemson, Ohio State and Washington — are welcome, but some business owners who stand to benefit from the crowds have favorites.

"I'd want to see Ohio State and Alabama just by the number of fans that come from those areas," said David Mangione, one of the partners of Hattrick's Tavern in downtown Tampa.

Mangione expects that weekend will be incredibly busy and plans to increase staffing by about 20 percent to handle the crowds, regardless of which teams end up competing.

"Ohio State always travels well, I don't know how big of a crowd we'll get with Washington," said Chris Lovett, director of consumer operations for Cigar City Brewing. "Even if it's not a big travel game for one school or another, I'm pretty sure it's going to be a sell-out game. It'll be all hands on deck."

Ohio State is right in the wheelhouse of Tampa Bay's tourism industry, as the Buckeye state drives the fourth-most domestic tourists to Florida, officials say. The school also has a loyal fan base of shivering Midwesterners who would love to fly south in January.

If southern schools Alabama and Clemson reach the final, it will be a rematch of last year's championship game, which may seem pretty same-old same-old. But last year's game was high-scoring and the rematch would attract Southerners who can easily drive here, as well as the vast numbers of alumni from each school who now live in the Sunshine State.

David Downing, executive director of Visit St. Pete-Clearwater, said one Alabama alumni group booked 50 rooms for three nights at the TradeWinds Island Resorts on St. Pete Beach.

"We thought there were plenty of hotels in Tampa to meet the demand, but we're happy to get some of the business," said Keith Overton, president of the TradeWinds.

And what about Washington, an intriguing (though unlikely, as they would have to beat top-ranked favorite Alabama to get to Tampa) option considering it's so far away? It has been years since that university has been in the hunt for a national championship, which means fans will be in full froth, and the nonstop Seattle to Tampa flight on Alaska Airlines that launched two years ago will make it easier for Husky fans to fly here.

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"I remember when Florida State played in the Rose Bowl (in 2015) the big question was, would students and alumni travel across the country? The answer was absolutely," said Bob Morrison, executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association. "This is no different."

Downing said Tampa Bay would benefit from visits from Seattle residents, who typically flock to Hawaii or Mexico for vacation.

Whoever makes it, local tourism officials have a singular strategy: Ensure people enjoy their visit here so much that they want to return.

"We just keep our fingers crossed for good weather," Downing said.

Contact Justine Griffin at Follow @SunBizGriffin. Contact Alli Knothe at Follow @Knothea.