TAMPA, Fla. — After years of meticulous planning, Rob Higgins was poised to roll out Tampa Bay’s red carpet for two sports events with global audiences, only to have the carpet pulled out from under him.
The coronavirus pandemic robbed the area of six men’s NCAA Tournament games (scheduled for last week at Amalie Arena) and WrestleMania 36 (set for April 5 at Raymond James Stadium). Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, estimates that those two events alone would have generated more than 60,000 hotel-visitor room nights for the region.
“I think we’re heartbroken for our hotels and restaurants. They were naturally looking forward to a couple of big economic wins when it comes to this,” Higgins said Wednesday in a phone interview.
“But naturally we’re gonna do anything and everything we can to be successful in the future to aid in that recovery once the time is right and safe to have mass gatherings again.”
For Higgins — and Tampa Bay in general — the granddaddy of all mass gatherings in North America still looms.
Super Bowl 55 is set to be staged at Raymond James Stadium in February. Higgins, forced to work mainly from his Tampa home and conduct meetings remotely these days, now envisions that weeklong spectacle through a slightly altered prism.
Instead of representing a boon to the region’s tourism industry, it could represent a life preserver.
“When you look at the economic impact, when you look at the social impact, when you look at the marketing visibility around it, every Super Bowl is a gigantic and monumental opportunity for a community,” he said. “But when you start to look at this one specifically, this could be the most important Super Bowl of our lifetime.”
One big reason: exposure.
The publicity that comes with hosting one of the biggest events in the world is always massive. But it has the potential to be even more important this time, said Michelle Gacio Harrolle, the director of USF’s Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program.
By the game’s scheduled date, Feb. 7, it is hoped the nation will have returned to a semblance of normalcy. Some people might be ready to travel again, and as those people consider possible destinations, the backdrop to the Super Bowl could be fresh in their minds.
“I think that the national, international awareness of us hosting that event is going to be huge,” Harrolle said. “The timing couldn’t be better from a marketing perspective of getting people to come here again.”
With so much at stake, Higgins said, the efforts of he and a staff of 11 (six others from the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, five from the Super Bowl’s host committee) actually have intensified — in accordance with social-distancing guidelines — during the coronavirus outbreak.
If anything, the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and the move of WrestleMania to Orlando — where it will be staged in an empty arena before a live pay-per-view audience — have afforded him more time to focus on Super Bowl preparations.
“I think the energy and urgency around that is at a really high level already,” Higgins said, “and we’re just excited to be doing everything we can to make our fifth Super Bowl our best one.”
When the time is appropriate, he said, he’ll speak with WWE officials about the possibility of Tampa hosting another WrestleMania sooner rather than later.
For now, his days are consumed with conference calls, logistical details, steady dialogue with NFL officials. He has no time to be disappointed about they events that were lost.
Not when there’s so much that stands to be gained.
“From the onset of our planning, we’ve had this mantra and this belief that our fifth Super Bowl can propel our community forward forever,” Higgins said.
“And now I think that ‘Forward Forever’ is really starting to take on new meaning that surpasses anything and everything we would’ve thought as we started to identify that as our belief system around this event.”
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