By Tony Guadagnoli | Special to ESPN SportsTravel
TAMPA, Fla. - Young by sports standards, Tampa Bay has quickly matured into a capable host for major sporting events.
The area will show its sports diversity over the next several years with three NCAA championships and the Super Bowl.
Starting with the NCAA Women’s Final Four April 6 and 8 at the St. Pete Times Forum (401 Channelside Drive, Tampa, Web site), Tampa Bay also has been awarded Super Bowl XLIII for 2009, the 2008 and 2009 ACC football championship game, 2009 SEC men’s basketball tournament, 2009 NCAA women’s volleyball championship and 2012 Frozen Four men’s hockey championship.
Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, credits the region’s good fortune to a collaborative effort between the convention and visitor’s bureau, the Florida Sports Foundation and the area’s facilities – St. Pete Times Forum and Raymond James Stadium.
“Our county (Hillsborough) has made vital and significant financial contributions knowing the return on investment that these events have,” Higgins said. “Our city and USF (host institution University of South Florida) provide services to help make these events go. We have a well-oiled machine that pulls together and works to raise the bar with each of these major events.”
Since St. Petersburg hosted the 1999 Men’s Final Four, the Tampa Bay area has enjoyed tremendous growth, focusing on downtown. Areas once considered not worth visiting are taking on new life.
Downtown Tampa is undergoing many major renovations, including the revitalized Riverwalk on the Hillsborough River in the financial and cultural districts. This project involves the construction of a walkway from Curtis Hixon Park to Washington Street, which eventually will connect to the Tampa Convention Center and Garrison Seaport Center.
“The 2008 Women’s Final Four will have a tremendous social and economic impact on the Tampa Bay community,” Higgins said. “This is the event’s first trip to the Sunshine State and our goal is to create an atmosphere for the fans that puts us on the map as a future host for many years to come.”
Higgins did not have financial figures but said the Final Four has been sold out since July and will draw nearly 22,000 fans for both sessions. Close to 13,000 hotel rooms have been booked.
One of the more popular features of the Women’s Final Four is the fan-gathering spots at four restaurants based on the four regionals. Tampa’s Channelside District, three blocks from the St. Pete Times Forum, will be the spot to gather. All four restaurants are located at 615 Channelside Drive.
The Greensboro Regional will use Stump’s Supper Club (Web site), with self-titled “Great Southern Cooking,” as a home base. Splitsville (Web site) will be the base for the Oklahoma City Regional. Tinatapa’s (Web site) is the headquarters of the Spokane Regional and features what’s described as “a little taste of Spain.” And fans from the New Orleans Regional will gather at Howl at the Moon (Web site), an establishment with dueling pianos.
Another hot spot is Ybor City (pronounced E-bore), one of only three National Historic Landmark Districts in Florida and located 1½ miles northeast of downtown (between Seventh and Ninth avenues and bounded roughly by 13th Street on the north and 22nd Street on the south). Cobblestone streets and huge, old former cigar factory buildings make up this legendary town.
Ybor was revitalized in the late 1990s and attracts large numbers of visitors because of a variety of shops, restaurants, clubs and galleries. The former self-described “Cigar Capital of the World” now is referred to as the “Nightlife Capital” of Florida’s west coast.
The main attraction of the Final Four is of course the semifinal games April 6 (7 p.m. and 9:30 p.m., ESPN TV; all times Eastern) and championship April 8 (8:30 p.m., ESPN). But as you can well imagine, several other events surround the big games.
On April 5, the 4Kay Run (Web site) will be held in honor of Kay Yow, North Carolina State head women’s coach, who is battling breast cancer. Proceeds will benefit cancer research through the Kay Yow/Women’s Basketball Coaches Association Cancer Fund. Registration begins at 7 a.m. The race begins at 8 a.m. and takes off from the St. Pete Times Forum West Plaza. Registration is $20 in advance and $25 on race day.
After the race, elementary- and middle-school children are invited to partake in Bounce by the Bay. Participants will attend the “Bay Rally” at 9:30 a.m., which will include cheerleaders, bands and more. The “Bounce” (of basketballs) will begin at 10 a.m. at the St. Pete Times Forum West Plaza and end at the Tampa Convention Center (333 S. Franklin St., Web site). Check in is from 8:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.
From April 5-7, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Hoop City (Web site) at the Tampa Convention Center will be buzzing with activity. Fans can participate in competitions and basketball clinics and should expect autograph sessions with NCAA coaches and players, as well as surprise appearances.
A free practice and autograph session will run from 11 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. April 5 at St. Pete Times Forum. Practice times are based on team seeding.
Even more basketball is available April 5 at the University of South Florida Sun Dome (4202 E. Fowler Ave., Tampa, Web site), with the WBCA High School All-America Game at 4:30 p.m. Admission is $15. For more information, visit the event page.
Between basketball events, you might want to hit one of Tampa’s renowned beaches or the area’s dozens of golf courses. See Golf Digest’s top 10 Tampa links, which include The Westin Innisbrook Golf Resort (Copperhead and Island), Lake Jovita Golf & Country Club (South), Hernando Oaks Golf Club and The Club at Eaglebrooke.
If you don’t have tickets to the NCAA Championship Game and wish to drown your sorrows in baseball, the home opener for the Tampa Bay Rays (remember, Devil is no longer part of their name) is April 8 against the Seattle Mariners at 7:10 p.m. at Tropicana Field (One Tropicana Drive, St. Petersburg, Web site; buy tickets). The Rays also have unveiled plans for a 34,000-seat, open-air waterfront ballpark (complete with a retractable roof and sailboat design), which could open as early as 2012.
Tampa Bay Downs (11225 Racetrack Road, Tampa, Web site) offers thoroughbred racing April 5-6 with simulcasting April 3, 4 and 7. Post time is 12:25 p.m.
Whatever your passion, you most certainly can follow the bouncing ball to find a vibrant metropolitan area that has weathered well its growing pains.