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Business Observer Friday, Nov. 22, 2019 2 weeks ago

Go deep: Sports exec readies region for a tourism touchdown

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With Tampa set to host the Super Bowl for the first time since 2009, it’s time for the organization skills of Rob Higgins to shine brighter than ever.
by: Brian Hartz Tampa Bay Editor

The countdown to Feb. 7, 2021, is on.

That’s the date of Super Bowl LV — and it’s coming to Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium for the first time since 2009, when the Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Arizona Cardinals and Bruce Springsteen, and The E Street Band romped through some of their greatest hits during the halftime show.

But the 55th edition of the NFL’s annual extravaganza wasn’t supposed to be here. Los Angeles had been selected for the big game. A delay in construction of a new stadium for the Rams and Chargers left the league scrambling for a Plan B.

“We do everything we can to create 26 hours in a 24-hour day. It’s a perpetual process.” Rob Higgins, president of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission

Cue Rob Higgins. The long-time president of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission — and Tampa native — saw a golden opportunity to not only bring back the most-watched sporting event in the world to the city he loves but to also showcase the region’s transformation over the past decade to a global audience. In addition, Higgins is heading up a how-to masterclass on hosting big events. 

“Super Bowl LV in 2021 is a chance to show how far we've come as a community since 2009 and also where we're going,” says Higgins, 40, named TBSC president in 2004 at 25 years old. “I think the best days of our community certainly are still out in front of us. We have a mantra around Super Bowl LV that’s called ‘Forward Forever.’ Basically, it’s the belief that Super Bowl LV can help propel our community forward forever.”

But before that propulsion hits, Higgins and his team — TBSC has seven full-time staffers, plus three that have been brought on specifically to work on Super Bowl organization — have to build the engine. That means working with myriad entities, ranging from the NFL and its partners to TV networks, local hotels and Tampa International Airport, to ensure the two-week event puts Tampa's best foot forward.

A year and half out, that work has begun in earnest, Higgins says. 

“We’re already having site visits with NFL vendors to help give them familiarity with our community,” he says. “We've been visiting with the broadcast teams, so that they can start to identify ‘beauty shot’ locations. We’ve been working with the airport to make sure they're in great shape. It’s a ton of different moving parts.”

The enormity of organizing a Super Bowl is compounded by the fact that TBSC must simultaneously continue to bid on other events. It can’t just sit back and focus solely on the big game. So how do Higgins and his team do it?

“We do everything we can to create 26 hours in a 24-hour day,” he jokes. “It’s a perpetual process.”

A nonprofit supported by a mix of private partnerships and funding from Hillsborough County’s bed tax, TBSC operates on a budget that can vary from year to year, depending on what events are lined up. It averages about $2 million annually.

Under Higgins’ leadership, the organization has proven to be one of the soundest investments the county has ever made. Not only did it bring Super Bowl XLIII to Tampa, but it has also been instrumental in securing early rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the College Football Playoff National Championship Game, the NHL All-Star Game, the NCCA Women’s Final Four (basketball) and even the NCAA Men’s Frozen Four (hockey).

Such events are a big reason why Hillsborough County’s tourism revenue continues to surge. In 2018, visitors contributed $6.6 billion to the local economy, which generated nearly $1 billion in federal, state and local taxes.

That trend looks to continue in 2020. A case in point will happen in April, which will see the culmination of more than a decade of work on the part of the TBSC when Tampa, for the first time ever, hosts WWE’s flagship event: Wrestlemania.

“With the rich history of sports entertainment in Tampa, we couldn’t be more excited to finally have the opportunity to host Wrestlemania,” Higgins says. “We anticipate over 100,000 people traveling here from 80 different countries.”

The lucrative Wrestlemania, which took three TBSC bid attempts to land, is indeed a coup for Tampa. But Higgins— like a business who emphasizes repeat customers — truly doesn’t consider an event a success unless it comes back to the region.

“We do not view it as a short-term win,” he says. “We want to do everything we can to make sure the event goes off without a hitch and we get an opportunity to host again at some point in the near future.”

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