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Despite media fixation, maskless celebrations won’t stop region’s rise

Brian Hartz

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Tom Brady celebrates the Bucs' Super Bowl win on Sunday, Feb. 7. Photo courtesy of Ben Liebenberg/NFL.

Will our region’s new status as “Champa Bay” change national perceptions of the area, now flush with success, that we call home? Or will we continue to be subjected to headlines such as “Excited Tampa Bay Residents Wish They Had An Actual City To Tear Apart.”

Granted, that’s from satirical newspaper The Onion, but it still stings a little bit, considering how far we’ve come as a metro area since 2009, when the Super Bowl was last played in Tampa. Residents and regular visitors know the truth, but what will it take to change our reputation beyond state lines? When the Super Bowl inevitably comes back to Tampa, will we once again see a spate of news stories referring to Tampa as the strip club capital of the world?

“I think that’s old news, quite honestly,” said Santiago Corrada, president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay, in a post-Super Bowl interview with the Catalyst. “I’ve been in this seat for now eight years and we have changed that conversation.”

Santiago Corrada is the president and CEO of Visit Tampa Bay.

But what about the scenes of drunken, maskless revelry outside Raymond James Stadium and in Ybor City and South Tampa after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers demolished the Kansas City Chiefs, 31-9, in the big game? The national news media were quick to chastise Tampa Bay residents and condemn the celebrations as potential Covid-19 super-spreader events.

“You’re going to find [that behavior] in every nook and cranny in the United States of America,” Corrada said, adding that he saw almost no one wearing masks in public while he and his wife vacationed in Traverse City, Mich., a few months ago. “We have people who either don’t believe the virus is real or think that wearing a mask doesn’t make any sense. You’re not going to change those people. I’ve said it from the beginning: Travel is a personal responsibility and safety is a personal responsibility. We have ordinances upon ordinances upon ordinances here, and you still have people who misbehave, unfortunately.”

Indeed, Tampa Mayor Jane Castor and the NFL tried to run a tight ship when it came to officially sanctioned Super Bowl events, imposing fines of up to $500 for noncompliance with the local mask order, but there’s only so much they could do to regulate human behavior. Nearly a year into the pandemic, mask and social-distancing fatigue has become very real for certain segments of the population, and officials like St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who’s currently beefing with rapper 50 Cent, have publicly expressed their exasperation with people and groups who insist on defying Covid-19 protocols.

Santiago, however, thinks the handling of Super Bowl LV can serve as an example of how to balance public safety and economic interests. He said he’s already been contacted by the Tampa Bay History Center about contributing to an exhibit that will demonstrate to future generations how Tampa was able to host one of the most-watched sporting events in the world amid a global pandemic.

“Anything around the Super Bowl that was sanctioned by the NFL, the protocols were incredible,” he said. “Everybody went to great lengths to ensure public safety.”

That leaves the economic side of the ledger. Tampa Bay received more than a week’s worth of positive press in the runup to Super Bowl LV, but will fans’ gleeful flouting of pandemic protocols be the image that lingers, potentially making people think twice about visiting here? And are hoteliers satisfied with the bump in business brought by the big game?

Corrada hasn’t yet received hotel occupancy and bed-tax collection numbers from Hillsborough County officials, but he expects that visitation is “going to be better than it was, but how much better we’ll have to wait and see.” Tourism was already on an upward trajectory since the beginning of the pandemic, which “brought us to our knees,” he said. Heading into Super Bowl week, the Hillsborough County hotel occupancy rate was 55.3 percent, he added, “and we’ve seen gradual improvement every month since April of last year.”

These days, Corrada said, a quick web search about Tampa is more likely to bring up lists about friendliest places to vacation, or best business climates, than jokey headlines about strip clubs. And he expects the positive momentum from the Super Bowl to burnish the region’s image even more as it prepares to host WrestleMania in April as well as some major trade shows later in the year and, of course, start the work of bidding for a sixth Super Bowl.

“Whenever the name Tampa Bay is mentioned,” Corrada said, “whether it’s the Rays, the Rowdies, the Bucs or the Lightning, it creates buzz. We’ve seen Super Bowls lead to plenty of conventions, group meetings and even corporate relocations.”

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2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Danny White

    February 11, 2021at1:15 pm

    It will take Herculean spin to erase the scenes of thousands of maskless revelers in the streets around Tampa Bay, and most specifically Tampa proper. Tourism is primarily in Pinellas County where the world class beaches are, not necessarily Tampa, with its unremarkably common amusement attractions like Bush Gardens and the Aquarium. I’ve called Tampa Bay home for 62 years… I’ve watched it evolve from a country town to an emerging city to its current wannabe cosmopolitan world class destination aspirations. It will take more than sports achievements for the area to be recognized as international, artsy, glamorous, mystical, hip, progressive and culturally rich with diversity like Greater Miami. This Super Bowl, notwithstanding its undeniable historic significance, was an anomaly in that COVID-19 reduced stadium capacity by some 40k,meaning Tampa Bay’s infrastructure was not fully tested to prove the area is capable of sponsoring at-capacity national events. Visit Tampa Bay has a lot of work to do, to say the least, to leverage the worldwide exposure that SBLV brought.

  2. Avatar

    Rob Akins

    February 11, 2021at10:04 am

    It will take more than winning the Stanley Cup, Super Bowl, and baseball reaching the World Series to change the perception. Tampa and the Tampa Bay area as a whole need to promote and foster things that are emblematic of a city such as culture, i.e. one of the largest, if not the largest, performing arts center in the southeast, one of the oldest LGBTQ film festivals(TIGLFF) in the country, the largest collection of Dali art outside Spain, etc., our modern, world-class airport(TPA), our Latin culture, commitment to innovation, small businesses that give a place an identity, and so on. There is much potential and opportunity here, if we foster it and promote it. We need to drive the narrative and not allow the media to tell our story they way they want to tell it.

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