Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida, is possibly one of the most controversial sporting facilities in North America, if not the world. Conceived as a stadium purpose-built for attracting Major League Baseball, it was erected out of the wreckage of both an old coal gasification plant and surrounding working-class neighborhood in need of some rehabilitation. In its 22+ years, the tilted dome has hosted tennis' Davis Cup finals, arena football, hockey, the NCAA Men's Final Four, and football of all three skill sets (high school, collegiate, and professional). However, despite that massive variety of sports, the longest-service tenant, the Tampa Bay Rays are the "raison d'être" for the world's second-largest cable-stayed dome. However, much chatter about those Rays not drawing enough attendance, be it because of the dome's location, amenities, or the fact it's a dome at all. Attempts have been made by all interested parties to come up with a solution, but as of this writing (late 2012), there is no new stadium deal in sight.
That much-maligned stadium holds a special place in my memories. From 2007–2010, it was my "home away from home" during the summer weekdays. That said, even as a season-ticket holder, I never made it to the event that eventually became known the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl, which started as the "St. Petersburg Bowl" in 2008, though I did attend a football game there prior when the UFL's Florida Tuskers played one game in the dome in October 2009, before being eventually shipped north to Virginia. That experience was quirky and fun, and so I finally decided that I wanted to see what it was like for college football to host one of its postseason matchups inside the stadium I knew so well. With tie-ins to both the Big East and Conference USA — and alternates of Mid-American Conference and Sun Belt Conference — and only five years to find its place in the increasingly-crowded Division I FBS postseason, I wasn't expecting something like the Rose Bowl in my backyard, but I definitely expected for it to feel like a bowl game. Heck, with ESPN's financial backing, what could possibly go wrong...?
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During the Rays' season, there are more gastronomical delights than you can shake a hot dog at. However, as expected, about half of the concession stands are closed during the Bowl. While this doesn't affect the major specialties, including The Brewhouse, Outback Steakhouse's stall, and Everglades BBQ's kiosk behind where right field is during baseball - meaning you won't go hungry anyway - noticeable closures are the Batter's Eye Restaurant, most concessions in the upper deck (including the tbt* Party Deck...more on that in a moment), the gourmet burger stall, and the gluten-free food and beer stall near center field.
Another problem is since the Rays' season caterer, Centerplate, handles the food during this event, the prices don't change just because the bats are put down and the helmets are donned. You might go broke, as the prices are a little high. Not prohibitively so, mind you, but food for four will probably set you back about $80. All-in-all, it was still a good food and drink selection, but seeing as lesser places are open than during the Rays' tenure for the same price points, it just isn't the same.
I'll start with the bad news first: Things that gives the Trop its signature charm are not available during this event. Some of them are understandable, like the Ted Williams Museum and 162 Landing, both of which are shrines to the boys of summer and accomplishments far removed from the gridiron, but others just didn't seem to make sense. The Cuesta Ray Cigar Bar, for example, was closed off, as was the cownose ray tank behind the right field endzone. The most surprising closing to me, however, has to be the tbt* Party Deck. Yes, I can understand how offering bleacher seats far removed from the action could be bad, but with the way the field is aligned, they really wouldn't be that far removed from the action, and offer a unique "bird's-eye" view of the action in the distance; the distance from the tbt* Deck to the midfield logo can't be much further than sitting in the cheap seats at your local bowl-style college stadium. Offering those as an affordable alternative while opening the Ybor City-inspired concessions area up there would have helped add just a bit more Tampa Bay flair for students and alumni alike who might be visiting the Trop and St. Pete for the first time.
That all said, it's still a college game, and in the seating areas that were open, the teams' fans were definitely on their A-game. In the case of the Ball State fans, it might have to do with the fact that they were laying on the beach, jumping into pools, and lounging with iced adult beverages in-hand less than a week before Christmas while their compatriots up north have been bundled tight for months; that surely would pep me up if I were in their flip-flops. In the case of Central Florida, having to go only 90 miles for a bowl game also makes for some very happy and rowdy fans.
What enhanced it was the specially-erected Miller Lite Party Deck in what is normally territory patrolled by OF Sam Fuld. A reserved section that was off-limits otherwise, it creates the feeling of a true gridiron experience as much as possible on a baseball field, bringing those who would be sitting in the opposite field right to the forefront.
That's the biggest problem: At the end of the day, it's still a gridiron on a baseball diamond. I absolutely love the energy the fans from both teams brought to the match, but something tells me that if a Florida team wasn't somehow involved, it would be one of the most awkward bowls to play in. They're doing the best they can with making sure the atmosphere is top-bowl caliber, but it's just hard on a baseball diamond.
I can't say much more about downtown St. Pete and extoll its virtues in any other way, so I'm just going to just about copy and paste what I said in my review of the Rays' setup. The immediate area adjacent to the Trop has gone through a revitalization, with apartments, shops, and condos all going in around the Trop where old businesses tried and - sadly, thanks to little attendance for 10+ years - died. This time, however, with a winning MLB team and real residences being placed next to those same shops, the neighborhood is going much better than it was even just a mere year ago, and I believe it will continue to improve.
I highly recommend parking along Tampa Bay, either at the parking lot near Al Lang Stadium for $4 all day, or at any of the numerous public garages (rates vary) and making the mile or so walk to the ballpark down Central Avenue. This allows you to walk through one of the most vibrant neighborhoods in Florida and enjoy everything St. Pete has to offer, which is plenty. From a slew of bars for all walks of life, a burgeoning and relatively-new club scene, and more restaurants than you can physically eat at in a week, you will not be bored before and after the game.
I touched on this briefly prior, but the fans portion of this is a mixed bag. Every single one was knowledgeable and excited to be there, but I guess every fan at a bowl game would be. The deciding factor in this case, however, is one of the participants, Central Florida, is local when compared to Muncie, Indiana's, Ball State, thus making this essentially a home game for the Knights. It also showed in the stands, where Knights fans outnumbered the Cardinals' supporters by about a two-to-one margin. That fact is the only reason I can't say they're perfect. What would happen if two Northeast or Midwest teams comes down for the game? Will the enthusiasm and passion I saw still fill the dome, or will the attendance - the key to the noise level, and by extension atmosphere - dwindle below 20,000 for the first time in the event's history? Seeing as only one of the five bowl games held in the Trop had two non-Floridian teams, it's too soon to make that determination. I'd like to think the former would ring true, which is why I'm giving them benefit of the doubt that what I heard will stand in the future, no matter the teams.
Being conveniently located next to Interstate 275 - the main thoroughfare connecting Tampa International Airport, St. Petersburg/Clearwater International Airport, and points north and south to downtown St. Pete and Interstates 75 and 4 - makes for very easy ingress/egress for all patrons, no matter your point of origin in the Florida There is plenty of on-site parking (which is $20). With even more parking available downtown, traffic is never an issue. A lack of mass transit, however, does hurt the ability to attract people without other forms of transport, like college kids, so make sure if you're flying in that you rent a car; cabs can be expensive, and buses are notoriously unreliable crossing Tampa Bay.
Once inside, there are plenty of clean restrooms, and the corridors are of average width - especially on the main concourse - but with a good-sized crowd (25,000+) that can potentially come with a local matchup or better-ranked tie-ins, they can get jammed very quickly, thus easily making this the Trop's main weakness.
It's bowl season, so be prepared to pay. Tickets start at around $35, but the seat I ended up getting, along the right field foul pole, cost $55. All things told, these aren't bad price points for a bowl game in general, but with such weak tie-ins (#6 Big East vs #4 C-USA with alternates from the MAC or Sun Belt), the price of a ticket can be a bit high. As mentioned before, food is also at MLB pricing, so that's another hefty expense to expect.
However, if you're a student or alumnus of one of the schools participating, seeing your team in a bowl game is a "must see", no matter the strength of the tie-in or where it's located. So, as a committed fan, you should, and will, find a way to make it happen.
While you're obviously here for football, check out the murals commemorating the history of baseball in Tampa Bay along the right field concourse (if coming in the Gate 1 rotunda, they're to your left on the far wall). From Mayor Al Lang's successful attempt to bring spring training here, to Joltin' Joe's and Marilyn's glory days, to the days of the Cardinals, it's all documented in beautifully-colored and illustrated caricature.
The biggest extra, however, is the fact that downtown St. Pete is within barhopping distance. You can barhop straight down Central Avenue from the Trop to Tampa Bay, as well as stop and eat every so often. Don't be afraid to try a sketchy-looking bar; those are the most fun along Central!
If you've read my other reviews of sporting events at the three venues in St. Petersburg, you'll notice this was my lowest-scored review. That's not to say this is bad by any stretch of the imagination; on the contrary, a great time is to be had, especially if your team is fighting for the trophy. I love both the free press it brings to my adopted hometown as well as the tourism dollars the college kids spend at the bars, restaurants, and night clubs throughout the city. Overall, this is a fine event for St. Petersburg, and I know it will get better over time.
It's just missing that intangible feeling of passion the other events have at their respective venues. It might just be a matter of not having enough time to grow into its role in the city. Granted, the Rowdies have only been at Al Lang for a couple years, but they stem back from the team that's been in the area for almost four decades, while the Grand Prix is on its ninth edition in March 2013 (after some form of racing has graced downtown since 1985), and spring training - whether it be MLB or International baseball - has existed downtown for almost 100 years.
While not quite there yet, once the Beef 'O' Brady's Bowl grows out of its "awkward phase" in the next couple seasons, and I'm sure it will, it will be another of the gems in St. Pete's sports crown.
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