1. News

From yacht parties to media day to fan central, downtown Tampa is buzzing about the Big Game


So many fans came to watch Alabama and Clemson players being interviewed that organizers ran out of earpiece radios for them to listen in. Thousands more flocked to the Tampa Convention Center to kick field goals and enjoy other interactive experiences at Playoff Fan Central.

Add to that yacht parties, a teacher summit, VIP gatherings, and rapper Flo Rida headlining the second night of free concerts at Curtis Hixon park, and it was clear Saturday that the College Football Playoff National Championship party that began Friday night had kicked into high gear.

Security was tight with so many fans downtown braving chilly weather. There was a huge police presence on the streets and officers in plainclothes mingling with fans.

"This is a big weekend on a big stage and so far the execution has been flawless," Tampa Mayor Bob Buckhorn said. "The world is watching, and we are performing."

For Tide and Tigers fans, Saturday began at media day at Amalie Arena. Fans were allowed to sit in the lower tier and watch as about 1,000 reporters and camera crews quizzed coaches and players about the game.

About 2,000 earpiece radios were handed out so fans could tune in to different interviews that were shown on the arena's large video screen.

This year's game is the first time the event, once solely the domain of the media, has been held in its own venue and marketed to fans, said Michael Kelly, chief operating officer for the College Football Playoff.

"This is by far the biggest crowd we've ever had for media day," he said.

Among those tuning in was Carrollwood resident Jonathan O'Rear. He never went to the University of Alabama but is a Tide fanatic because his father, Jack O'Rear, played quarterback for the team during the 1970s. The family has paid $2,700 for six tickets to Monday's game.

"It's really special for it to come here," O'Rear said. "There's no travel fees, no hotels."

• • •

The biggest lines were at Playoff Fan Central at the Tampa Convention Center.

Fans waited more than an hour to throw footballs through a bus window or pose next to the National Championship trophy. Dads and their kids sprinted the 40-yard dash in a mock scouting combine. There was coaching on catching and tackling for younger children.

Lifelong Clemson fan Stephen Esposito traveled to Tampa from his Myrtle Beach home in South Carolina along with his wife, Kristi, and sons Zachary and Trevor.

They are staying in Orlando with friends to save money and traveling to Tampa each day. Game tickets set the family back $2,800.

Esposito, who is a sheriff's deputy in Horry County, grew up 40 miles from Clemson in a Tigers-obsessed family. The chance to see his beloved Tigers win a national championship was too important to miss, he said.

"In my family, you're born Clemson. I didn't know there was another team until I was 8 or 9," he said. "I've been waiting for this my whole life."

• • •

While Alabama and Clemson fanatics were the main focus of Saturday, the College Football Playoff Foundation honored dedicated teachers.

Nearly 1,000 educators packed into a Tampa Convention Center auditorium to be thanked and listen to speakers during the foundation's "Extra Yard for Teachers Summit."

The summit has been held in tandem with the playoff weekend since the first game in 2015.

"When we started the College Football Playoff, we realized we needed to think about a community investment," said foundation CEO Britton Banowsky. "Education felt right."

Tampa's summit included surprise visits (such as country star Clare Dunn kicking things off with a rendition of the Band's The Weight) and passionate speakers.

Lori Bradner, a Hillsborough County teacher and NASA educator, came out in space garb, explaining that teachers are also magicians.

"You make worlds that are devoid of limitations," she told the crowd. "Teachers, that is your magic."

• • •

Just steps from the hustle and bustle surrounding the Tampa Convention Center, the vibe at the Playoff's Championship Yacht Village was one of laid-back luxury. Twenty yachts are spending the weekend in temporary slips just outside Playoff Fan Central, guarded by a VIP tent serving complimentary brunches and happy hours catered by restaurants such as Armani's and Donatello Italian Restaurant.

But spending the weekend hopping from yacht to yacht with Buccaneer football players and Tampa business magnates comes with a price.

Anchoring their 75-foot Viking yacht Knot Guilty at Yacht Village cost $15,000, said Tampa native Cally Bekhor, an attorney, and her husband, David Bekhor, CEO of medical imaging equipment company MSI. Access to the food and drinks in the Yacht Village tent was another $800, VIP tickets to meet Usher at his free concert in Curtis Hixon Park were $250 and tickets to watch Monday's game from a suite were $850 — the face-value price given to season suite holders.

"We were thrilled because we keep our boat docked in Indian Rocks Beach even though we live here and we never get to have our boat in Tampa," Cally Bekhor said. "Being within walking distance of all the action has been an incredible experience.''

Even other yacht owners were eager to get a peek inside the Amarula Sun, a $20 million, 164-foot "super yacht" that has hosted the likes of LeBron James, Rihanna and Leonardo DiCaprio.

The boat's owners are from the Tampa Bay area, but Capt. Albert Rodriguez wouldn't reveal their names. Just a few of the amenities on board: a baby grand piano, jet pack, hot tub, slushie makers, attachable water slide and nine live-aboard crew members.

• • •

Miracle of miracles, the clouds actually parted over Curtis Hixon Park, ending the drizzle that prompted a dismal turnout for Friday's opening night of the concert festival dubbed Playoff Playlist Live.

Problem was, the temperature was also about 20 degrees colder. So the much larger crowd that turned out for Saturday's headliner, Flo Rida, had to come hunched and huddled in orange fleece and crimson flannel.

In a corporate tundra ruled by Dos Equis and Dr Pepper, there was nary a coffee or cocoa to be found. But hardy fans made do. Joshua McElroy, 38, walked around with a plastic cup of Heineken, his cold hands swaddled in makeshift mittens made from Visit St. Petersburg Clearwater's giveaway koozies.

"I'm from Buffalo, actually, which is crazy," he said as his gloved friends laughed. "I'm very ill-prepared."