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College football

UF fills stadium, not hotel rooms

Hotel owners around the bay area asked the Outback Bowl to consider not inviting the Gators, thinking fans of other schools might stay longer.

Published December 7, 2005

TAMPA - Bob Morrison is a big Gator fan.

He has a Gator sweatshirt, baseball cap and gym shorts - all a testament to his devotion to the University of Florida, where he earned a law degree in 1978.

But as executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel and Motel Association, he's not so stoked about Florida's selection to face Iowa in the Outback Bowl on Jan. 2.

Why? Florida fans can high-tail it home after the game and don't need hotel rooms.

"It's disappointing," Morrison said. "When we invite an in-state team to the Outback Bowl, that by definition translates to a reduction in the number of potential attendees who might need a hotel."

Out-of-state football fans would be more likely to come a day or two before the game and stay a day or two after, making a vacation of their time in Tampa.

"That incentive doesn't exist when the potential fans already reside in the state of Florida," he said.

The Gators have been half of the Outback Bowl matchup for three of the past four years, a fact that has some hotel and tourism officials in the bay area concerned.

"Over the years we've had an ongoing discussion regarding the association's desire that when teams are considered that hospitality industry revenue be considered as part of their decision," Morrison said. "They said, we hear you, but we have some other priorities."

Morrison puts the lost potential revenue at $1.8-million for hotel rooms alone. But other businesses also suffer, he said.

"All of the industry that would have benefited - the zoo, the aquarium, Busch Gardens. All lose that potential revenue because we have an in-state school play," Morrison said.

Last month, the Tampa Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau sent a letter to the Outback Bowl board intimating its concern with choosing an in-state team.

"We respectfully request that very strong consideration be placed on the two teams that are capable of producing a highly competitive event while at the same time generating a substantial economic impact for the community," wrote Mary Scott, chairwoman of the bureau's board of directors.

Jim McVay, president and CEO of the Outback Bowl, said he's dismayed by the complaints.

"Would they prefer that there's no bowl game at all? Whatever the Outback Bowl brings into the market is a plus. A huge plus for the Tampa Bay area," McVay said. "If the room night count is 500 because there's a bowl game, it's 500 more than there would be without a bowl game. Let's keep things in perspective."'

According to research provided to his organization, the Florida/Iowa game in 2004 resulted in 41,000 hotel stays, and last year's Georgia/Wisconsin game brought in only 38,000.

That may be, said Carole Ketterhagen, executive director of the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, but that's probably because Iowa fans are known for their willingness to travel. Hotel owners in the area tell her they didn't feel much impact from Florida guests during the years the Gators played in the Outback Bowl.

"It would be fantastic to have two strong teams with traveling fans," Ketterhagen said. "That's an ideal world."

The Ohio State/South Carolina Outback Bowl in 2001 generated at least double the room nights a Florida game does, said Karen Brand, vice president of communications for the Tampa visitors bureau.

"I understand and concur with the hoteliers' frustrations on this," said Mark Huey, the city of Tampa's manager of economic development. "It's a very different financial picture for hotels and economic development in general."

Some observers believe South Carolina fans would have been enthused about traveling to Tampa because this is the first time in four years the Gamecocks were eligible for a bowl game.

Alabama and LSU also would have been good choices, Brand said.

McVay said the bowl does plenty to encourage people to stay for several nights before the game. It promotes events, such as a team day at Busch Gardens on Dec. 28, a party on Clearwater Beach on Dec. 30 and a New Year's Eve parade in Ybor City. And a 30-minute video paid for by the Outback Bowl will be shown on ESPN at least twice the week before the game. The video includes images of the Tampa Bay area's palm trees, beaches and museums in addition to promoting the game.

"You cannot buy the kind of exposure the Outback Bowl generates for the community," he said.

McVay says the Outback Bowl board has to consider more than the economic impact to the area when selecting teams for the game. Corporate sponsors, broadcast partners and other business interests figure in prominently.

"The Outback Bowl has to make the decisions that make the most sense for our longevity and our partnerships," he said. "It's important that we sell these games out. It's important that there's a buzz in the community."

All 65,000 tickets to the game have already been sold, with Iowa taking 16,000 tickets and Florida taking 15,000.

The challenge now is to persuade people to stay in town a few extra days, Brand said.

"We'll work our butts off," she pledged.

Persuading Iowa fans shouldn't be so tough, she said.

"It was 8 degrees in Iowa yesterday."

[Last modified December 7, 2005, 00:32:06]

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