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If there was a Candy Land for sports, it would start this week in Tampa Bay

John Romano | The best of college softball. The NCAA tournament. The PGA Tour. WrestleMania! It’s all coming up in Tampa Bay.
Get ready, Tampa Bay. WrestleMania 36 is just one of many cool events Tampa Bay is hosting over the next few months. [Times]
Get ready, Tampa Bay. WrestleMania 36 is just one of many cool events Tampa Bay is hosting over the next few months. [Times]

You know they make fun of us. In New York. Boston. Even in Montreal, where they chased a baseball team out of town and last won a Stanley Cup five prime ministers ago.

As a sports market, Tampa Bay is like the Iowa caucuses. Kinda big-time. Sorta worthy.

And the critics have a point. When it comes to supporting pro teams, our wallets are light and our loyalties are mixed.

But you know what?

A lot of those critics secretly wish they were here. It’s not just the weather or the beaches or the meme-a-minute characters. Tampa Bay is one of the most unique and diverse sports markets in North America.

Yes, we have NHL, NFL and MLB teams. Yes, we have professional soccer and Division I-A football. But we also get Super Bowls and national championship games. We have spring training with six big-league teams within a 45-minute drive of most residents.

And in the next six weeks, we have a plethora of interesting and diverse events ranging from a major college softball tournament to WrestleMania 36.

That’s the true wonder of Tampa Bay. We come from everywhere and seem to love a little of everything.

Ours is a Candy Land of sporting options this spring. Come take the journey with us.

St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational softball tournament

Florida State's Anna Shelnutt, left, congratulates Elizabeth Mason at home plate after Mason scored on a home run during last year's St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

When/where: Feb. 12-16 ; Eddie C. Moore Softball Complex, Clearwater

How do I go: Tournament passes are sold out. Single-game tickets for Fields 1-4 can be purchased at the gate on the day of the game for $25 ($20 for youth). Tickets for the Wednesday game (Feb. 12) between Team USA and Liberty University will be available for $5 one hour before the 6 p.m. start. Find more info here.

Softball is coming. Not just to Clearwater but to your living rooms. The sport seems to be on the upswing these days with a return to the Olympics and NBC in 2020 after a 12-year absence, and with growing ratings for college games on ESPN last year.

And the second year of the St. Pete/Clearwater Elite Invitational is an opportunity to see some of the best in the college game. And we do mean the best. Five of the top 10 teams in the preseason ESPN.com/USA Softball rankings are in the tournament, including No. 1 Alabama, No. 2 Washington and No. 4 (and defending national champion) UCLA. Eleven of the top 25 teams are in the 16-team field.

The event also features the U.S. Olympic team playing on Wednesday against Liberty University and two games on Sunday against Oklahoma State and Washington.

With its quick pace and high energy, college softball is perfect for television and that was reflected in last year’s ratings on ESPN. Regular-season viewership was up 40 percent and the College World Series had a 23 percent jump.

Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic

Runners race along Bayshore Boulevard during the 8K at last year's Publix Gasparilla Distance Classic. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

When/where: Feb. 22-23; 15K begins at 6:40 a.m. at Brorein and Franklin streets in Tampa, while the half-marathon starts at Platt Street and Bayshore Boulevard.

How do I go: Late registration is still open through Feb. 16. Registration for the 5K (Feb. 22) is $45 and for the 15K (Feb. 22) is $55. Registration for the half-marathon (Feb. 23) is $115 and for the 8K (Feb. 23) is $50. Find more info here.

A burgeoning spring day in Florida. A route along the picturesque Tampa waterfront. Big crowds lining the streets. What could possibly be better for a runner?

Not much apparently, because runners from all over the world continue to flock to Tampa every February to take part in the various races associated with the Gasparilla Distance Classic. Last year, there were more the 11,000 participants in the 15K alone.

This event has been attracting world-class runners from its beginnings more than 40 years ago. Aspiring Olympians show up. Runners hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon show up. College athletes, weekend runners, even elementary students show up.

Over the years, the non-profit organization that runs the race has donated $5.7 million to the Boys & Girls Clubs of Tampa Bay and Big Brothers Big Sisters of Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay Vipers home opener vs. Houston Roughnecks

Tampa Bay Vipers defensive tackle Nikita Whitlock (49) talks with defensive coordinator Jerry Glanville during a recent practice. [OCTAVIO JONES | Times]

When/where: 2 p.m. Feb. 22; Raymond James Stadium, Tampa

How do I go: Tickets range from $24 to $108 (along with resales at various prices) at Ticketmaster. Call (813) 499-9100. Find more info here.

For the time being, the XFL has curiosity on its side.

There are a handful of familiar names in the league — former Georgia/Plant High quarterback Aaron Murray plays for the Vipers — but that’s not the selling point. At least not for now.

The league has come up with a handful of rule changes that will differentiate it from the NFL, and potentially serve as a type of laboratory. Extra-point conversions, for instance, will no longer use kicking as an option. Teams can get one point by scoring from the 2-yard line, two points from the 5, and three points from the 10. The idea is to introduce more decision-making and quicker comebacks.

The clock will also stop after every play in the final two minutes of each half, making it easier for a team trailing to use the entire field and playbook. It also will force a team that’s winning to do more than just take a knee on offense.

Tampa Bay also has another selling point with former NFL head coaches Marc Trestman and Jerry Glanville on the sideline.

Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg

IndyCar driver Josef Newgarden celebrates with his team in the victory circle after winning his first Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg last year. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

When/where: March 13-15 ; downtown St. Petersburg (1st Street S. and 5th Avenue S.)

How do I go: Three-day tickets range from $60-$145 for adults ($35-$110 for children 12 and under). Single day tickets are $25 for general admission on Friday and range from $40-$110 on Saturday and Sunday ($25-$85 for children). Call 1-888-476-4479 or find more info here.

One way or another, history is going to be made at the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg.

It’s not just the first event of the NTT IndyCar season, it’s also the first series event under the direction of racing legend Roger Penske.

The 82-year-old billionaire, who was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, agreed to purchase the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and the NTT IndyCar series three months ago for a reported $300 million.

That means the season-opening race in St. Petersburg’s downtown streets is a new era of sorts for Penske. Although he’s done pretty well in previous eras.

Penske drivers, for instance, have won the Indianapolis 500 (using fingers to count) 18 times. Penske has also won the St. Pete Grand Prix nine times, including last season with Josef Newgarden, who is the reigning series champion.

Newgarden will be back in 2019 along with Scott Dixon, who trails only A.J. Foyt and Mario Andretti in career victories. Curiously, for all his success during a 20-year career, Dixon has never won at St. Pete. He’s finished in second place four times.

Valspar Championship

Paul Casey acknowledges the crowd at the 18th green at Innisbrook's Copperhead Course during last year's Valspar Championship in Palm Harbor. [DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times]

When/where: March 18-22; Innisbrook Resort, Palm Harbor

How do I go: Tickets can be purchased at area Publix stores, Ticketmaster or valsparchampionship.com. Tickets range in price from $10 for the Wednesday pro-am to $39 for Thursday, Friday and Sunday, and $49 tickets on Saturday (which includes a Chris Young/Big & Rich concert). Copperhead Crawl tickets (which include one drink at five different locations along the course) are also available. Call (727) 942-5566.

You want to see Tiger Woods? Watch ESPN Classic. You want to see the two best golfers in the world? Head to Innisbrook next month.

This doesn’t happen every week. Not just here, but anywhere. Take away the four majors and the PGA Tour Championship, and the two highest-ranked golfers in the world only played eight tournaments together in 2019.

So, yeah, it’s kind of a big deal that the Valspar Championship has both Brooks Koepka and Dustin Johnson in the field. Not to mention the two-time defending champion Paul Casey.

And that’s one of the beauties of attending a golf tournament. You get to choose who you watch. You can park yourself at one hole and see the entire field pass you by, or you can make it an interactive event and follow one group around 18 holes.

The Valspar is the final stop of the PGA’s “Florida tour’’ after tournaments in Palm Beach Gardens, Orlando and Ponte Vedra Beach the previous three weeks

NCAA men’s basketball tournament

Could Rayquan Evans and Florida State be in Tampa for the start of the NCAA Tournament? Stay tuned. [MARK WALLHEISER | AP]

When/where: March 19 and 21; Amalie Arena, Tampa

How do I go: Upper level seats were still available at Ticketmaster on Friday. All-session tickets are $210. Sessions 1 and 2 tickets on Thursday are $49.25 and Session 3 tickets on Saturday are $79.25. Resale tickets also available for various prices. Find more info here.

This has been a long time coming for college basketball fans.

There was a time when the Tampa Bay area looked like an up-and-comer on the college basketball scene. From 1998-2008, the bay area hosted the first weekend of the NCAA tournament three times, a regional final once and the Final Four at Tropicana Field.

Turns out, it was a tease. The NCAA men’s tournament has only been back once since then, and that was nine years ago. (Tampa has hosted the women’s Final Four twice during that time.) And considering the increased venue size for the men’s Final Four in recent years, we may never see that event around here again.

In other words, you shouldn’t take this opportunity for granted. And with any luck, the NCAA selection committee will send Florida State our way. The bracketology forecasters at ESPN.com, USA Today, CBSSports.com and the NCAA.com all have FSU as either a No. 2 or No. 3 seed and opening the tournament at Amalie Arena.

WrestleMania 36

Hulk Hogan takes the stage during the initial announcement that WrestleMania 36 will be held in Tampa this year. [Times (2019)]

When/where: April 5; Raymond James Stadium, Tampa

How do I go: Standard admission tickets are available on Ticketmaster starting at $100 and go up to $625 for collector’s tickets. Tickets to the week’s supplementary events, like the Hall of Fame ceremony and WWE Friday Night Smackdown, are also available. Find more info here.

Is wrestling a legitimate sport, or a theatrical show? Who cares, it’s big business.

And WrestleMania is the biggest of the bunch.

The World Wrestling Entertainment event has drawn crowds of 80,000 or more to a stadium with more than 1 million pay-per-view buys. WrestleMania 23 in 2007 even featured a reality TV star named Donald Trump shaving the head of WWE CEO Vince McMahon to pay off a bet.

So forget Justin Bieber and the Rolling Stones, because WrestleMania 36 will be the biggest event at Raymond James in 2021.

Who’s going to be there?

Story lines are still developing but Drew McIntyre is expected to challenge Brock Lesnar for the WWE championship, and Charlotte Flair could face Rhea Ripley for the NXT women’s championship. The more intriguing rumors involve Sting possibly coming out of a four-year retirement to face the Undertaker for the first time. John Cena and Ronda Rousey may also make appearances, though they may not wrestle.

Potential matches could clear up after the WWE Showdown in Saudi Arabia on Feb. 27.

Don’t forget about ...

Tampa Bay Rowdies home opener: 7:30 p.m. March 21; Al Lang Stadium, St. Petersburg. After opening the season with two games on the road, the Rowdies make their 2020 debut against the North Carolina FC. The Rowdies got off to a hot start in 2019 before fading down the stretch and losing in the first round of the playoffs.

Tampa Bay Rays spring training opener: 1:05 p.m. Feb. 23; Charlotte Sports Park, Port Charlotte. Pitchers and catchers report to spring training on Feb. 13 before the Rays open their home spring schedule against the Yankees on the 23rd. The Rays have spring games closer to home on Feb. 27 (Yankees in Tampa), 9 (Blue Jays in Dunedin), March 14 (Blue Jays in Dunedin), March 18 (Phillies in Clearwater), March 21 (Phillies in Clearwater) and March 23 (Phillies in Clearwater).

Tampa Bay Rays regular-season opener: 4:10 p.m. March 26, Tropicana Field. Last year’s wild card winners open the 2020 season with an interleague game against the Pirates.

Skyway 10K: March 21; Sunshine Skyway Bridge (parking at Tropicana Field with shuttle buses to the event). The race, with a cap of 8,000 registrants, benefits the Armed Forces Families Foundation.

Tampa Bay Lightning final regular-season home game: 7 p.m. March 31; Amalie Arena, Tampa. The Lightning have 14 home games remaining, including the final regular season home game against Ottawa. The Lightning would like begin the NHL playoffs at home somewhere around April 8.

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