For Brandon Ahlgren, seeing the Tampa Bay Buccaneers advance to Super Bowl 55 was the best possible outcome from a bad situation.
Before the pandemic, his company, Elite Events and Rentals, was close to signing contracts to provide tents and fencing for several Super Bowl events in Tampa — enough that he would have had to hire additional employees and buy new equipment.
Then came months of wait-and-see and, eventually, cancellations. Elite pivoted to tenting COVID-19 testing sites and got a federally backed relief loan worth $221,250 to stay afloat. But Ahlgren still had to cut staff from 50 to 12, even with Super Bowl weekend on the horizon.
Only after the Bucs won the NFC Championship, becoming the first NFL team to reach a Super Bowl in their home stadium, did Ahlgren’s phone really start buzzing.
“Instead of doing large events, now we’re doing backyard parties,” he said. “There’s nothing wrong with that; it helps keep employees employed. But we are doing the minimum compared to what we would normally do in a situation where the Bucs are going to the Super Bowl locally.”
For business owners like Ahlgren, this Super Bowl — planned out for years, yet in countless ways unpredictable — is the capper on a frustrating year in the economic ecosystem of Tampa Bay sports.
Major events like WrestleMania and the NCAA men’s basketball tournament were lost. The Lightning won the Stanley Cup in Canada and the Rays reached the World Series in Texas. All those out-of-town visitors, all those hotel stays, all that business for the region: Poof.
Now comes a slimmed-down Super Bowl with fewer fans, fewer parties and many fewer millions changing hands. The historic involvement of the hometown Bucs should spur last-minute economic activity at the local level. But for most businesses, it’ll be more of a silver lining than a once-in-a-lifetime windfall.
“It’s sad, because it’s like Halley’s Comet: When will Tampa have another Super Bowl?” said Chris Visser, a veteran sports marketer and key figure in the Super Bowl hype machine known as Radio Row. “It is really, really heartbreaking for this city that has had so much to be able to show off, from the World Series to the Stanley Cup to now the Super Bowl.”
It’s not Tampa’s fault, he said.
“Everybody’s health comes first, absolutely,” he said. “But it is kind of a perfect storm of heartbreak.”
Most likely, millions lost
The economic impact of any Super Bowl has long been a matter of debate. The NFL and host committees around the country have put it at close to $400 million; independent economic studies have argued it’s far less.
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Local boosters remain optimistic in the game’s potential to shine a light on the region and spur future business, even if expectations are scaled back.
“We may not see that economic boom, but we have that once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be on the world stage,” Tampa Mayor Jane Castor said.
Ex-Buc Derrick Brooks, the co-chairman of the city’s Super Bowl host committee, pointed to more than $2 million that’s come to town through various NFL community initiatives. And Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, called business surrounding the game “a shot in the arm when we need it the most.”
Eight months ago, Santiago Corrada, the CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, speculated that the economic impact of all local events from October 2020 through September 2021 would be around $231 million, with the Super Bowl representing up to quarter of that. Today, with a stadium a third full and the home team in the game, Visit Tampa Bay won’t put a guesstimate on it.
“There are lots of cities that, if they could, would change places with us because of what the pandemic has wrought on the tourism industry,” Corrada said. “To start off 2021 with an event of this caliber, and the media exposure that you get through it — look at, just by the Bucs winning, all of the media exposure we’ve got on the sports side — we’re making history here.”
There’s little to compare it to. Ken Jones was CEO of the 2012 Republican National Convention in Tampa, and an adviser to the 2020 convention in Charlotte, part of which was nearly moved to Jacksonville. When the latter event was all but canceled in August, he said, the city likely lost out on hundreds of millions of dollars.
“None of those hotel rooms, all the catering, all the restaurants, all the events — none of that stuff happened,” he said. “It didn’t happen in Jacksonville, either. In that instance, the economic impact was definitely muted.”
The Super Bowl is different, he said, because unlike Charlotte, Tampa will still host thousands of league employees, media, support staff and at least a few thousand ticketholders willing to shell out five figures for a seat. Those folks will spend money somewhere.
“Is it the same as if you could sell out Raymond James and do corporate hospitality? No, it’s not,” Jones said. “But in my view, it’s still very significant.”
Veteran event producers Talent Resources Sports organized lavish Super Bowl parties for Sports Illustrated and Bloomberg last year in Miami and was planning to do the same this year. The company was “extremely bullish on Tampa,” said CEO David Spencer, but the health risk was too great.
“Any given event that we’re doing, we’re spending anywhere between $1.5 million and $4.5 million per event, and I would say probably 75 to 80 percent of that is going back into the local economy for the vendors that we’re working with,” he said. “There is obviously a big trickle-down effect by not being able to host these events. I know there are some events and some people that are willing to take that risk, but I could never live with a situation where somebody could come to our event and get sick, or even worse.”
This year’s game almost didn’t take place in Tampa at all. In 2016, Super Bowl 55 was awarded to Los Angeles, which had not yet completed its new stadium for the Rams and Chargers. A year later, construction delays forced the NFL to move the game to Florida.
Imagine the chaos had this year’s Super Bowl been slated for locked-down California instead of largely open Florida. The economic loss might have been even greater.
“Put the politics aside — allowing us to have events safely has been huge,” said Elite Events’ Ahlgren. “If not, I don’t know if we’d still be in business.”
The home field advantage
The Buccaneers reaching the game in their home market is an intangible that no one knows how to factor in.
After the Kansas City Chiefs advanced to the Super Bowl, American Airlines and Southwest Airlines added extra flights from Kansas City to Tampa International Airport. Had another NFC team beaten the Bucs, that would have meant more flights from another city — and more out-of-towners in local hotels. A successful Super Bowl, Corrada said, would bring about 80 percent to 90 percent hotel bed occupancy in Hillsborough County. As of this week, the county was at 50 percent.
“It’s a catch-22,” said Michael Mondello, a marketing professor with the Vinik Sport and Entertainment Management Program at the University of South Florida. “You’ve got the local team here, so you’ve got a whole fan base that’s not coming here at all. But then you’ve got maybe more local people who are more interested and enthused about it, so you may get a lot of people in the Tampa-St. Pete area just being out in the community.”
In St. Petersburg, Ferg’s Sports Bar owner Mark Ferguson said attendance for watch parties steadily increased during the Bucs’ playoff run, to the point where Super Bowl Sunday will have ticketed entry. While the city has clamped down on other Super Bowl parties, forcing Ferg’s to cancel a rock concert in its courtyard, Ferguson said he’s getting a sense of encouragement around the game itself.
“Things are changing every day,” he said. “I still have to go through all the issues of getting permits, but it looks like the city wants to have a big party outside, because there’s so many TV and radio (stations) that are going to follow them. So for the exposure, they’re going to give us more wiggle room.”
The World of Beer near International Plaza and Tampa International Airport is planning a weekend of indoor and outdoor watch parties, including one with a giant outdoor screen for the game. Permit applications filed with the city call for crowds of up to 1,000.
“We’ve been working on this for a little over a month and a half now, but it’s much more amplified now that it’s the Bucs,” said marketing manager Emily Barth.
Other event organizers downscaled to manage expectations — even those with Buccaneer ties.
Maven Sports Group, whose clients include the Bucs’ Mike Evans, originally planned to throw a star-studded party on Clearwater Beach. COVID-19 spikes forced the group to scale back to an invite-only party, a golf tournament and a series of socially distanced pop-up events.
“It’s not about making a huge financial windfall or profit,” said Terry Johnson, one of Maven’s event organizers. “In the traditional way, without COVID, we’d go: ‘Does it make good business sense? Can we make a certain profit? Can we cover ourselves?’ You answer that question, and then you move forward. In the pandemic, that can’t be the priority. Because if you do it the logical way, the answer is no.”
With the rollout of COVID-19 vaccines in 2021, this year’s pandemic Super Bowl might be just an economic aberration, with Tampa the unlucky city that caught it.
Almost as soon as Talent Resources Sports called off its party plans, Spencer set his sights on Super Bowl 56 in Los Angeles. There, event companies are already “doubling down” on plans for much more lavish parties, he said, in part because of all the money they’re saving this year in Tampa.
“People are ready to burst at the seams to go back out and socialize and to reinvest in the event space,” he said.
Next year’s Super Bowl, he predicted, might be one of the biggest ever.
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