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Why Tampa is hosting the National Championship and could be 1st to do it twice

The Alabama-Clemson rematch has high ticket demand due to its proximity, but there are several reasons this is a good place to host a big game.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Features John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

TAMPA, Fla. — The epicenter of college football is in a gaudy avenue lined with chain restaurants, car dealerships, and strip clubs on one side, and a neighborhood that never saw the economic benefits of the local NFL team on the other.

What will go on at Raymond James Stadium on Monday night is why we’re all here. Alabama vs. Clemson, the No. 1 vs. No. 2 rematch.

America’s sports world has descended on the west side of Florida’s Mason-Dixon line. For simplicity’s sake, north and south Florida are separated by Interstate 4, where southern Georgia meets the Florida you recognize from movies and TV.

On its face, Tampa is a surprising location for this game, but if your team ends up in the natty after the year 2020, you might be here again.

Rob Higgins wears a blue blazer with a Playoff lapel pin. He’s the executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. It was his responsibility to make this event happen. And it’s his mission to do it again.

“We’re gonna bid the very first opportunity we have,” Higgins said. “We want a long-term relationship with this event. Just in the small amount of time that we’ve had with the event this week, I think you can tell that our community loves it. You can tell that our community’s wrapped its arms around it. We’ll stop at nothing to try and be a two-time host.”

They weren’t the first hosts, but they’re putting up a helluva argument to be the first to do it twice.

The inaugural Playoff title game in Jan. 2015 was given to the Dallas area. If you’re going to debut a sporting event, Jerry Jones’s exorbitant spaceship is the go-to palace, even if it’s plopped right next to a Walmart. You probably saw that choice coming. Many cities did, and sat out of the bidding.

Tampa went toe-to-toe with Texas excess and failed, but came back with a bid that wasn’t dissimilar from the first.

“It really just allowed us to take the next step in terms of detail,” Higgins said. “We don’t ever like to lose. Losses sicken us, but I think we treated that almost like halftime. We were gonna go in, we were gonna regroup, and if we came out on top, it was great, but if we didn’t, we were gonna be that much more prepared to be successful in the second half.”

Yes, there have been four Super Bowls here, the last in 2009. There has also been a woman’s Final Four, a Frozen Four, a Stanley Cup Final, and the 2012 Republican National Convention in the last five years. But as the city looks to further emerge, this is another step.

“I would say it is a coming-out party for our transformation,” Higgins said. “If the last event you came to was the 2009 Super Bowl, I’d have a tough time believing you recognize this. Raymond James Stadium, the renovations that have taken place there, have been phenomenal.”

In 1999, the Tampa Bay area hosted the Final Four. At the time, Bill Hancock was the director of the NCAA’s event. Now he represents the Playoff.

"Things have changed so much in this area from 22 years ago when the Final Four bid was awarded," he said. "What a great success story that you have in Tampa Bay. What an awesome job you've done with downtown Tampa. Please don't take it for granted and don't be ashamed to talk about it."

Tampa plays to its strength, and that strength is water.

Its southern tip juts into a bay that feeds the Gulf of Mexico.

The gleaming, chartered boats in Yacht Village buttress the convention center, which has events for fans right on the edge of Garrison Channel in Hillsborough Bay. A pirate ship sits in the bay with “2017” and the Playoff logo. It lights up at night in alternating colors.

The yacht setup was the brainchild of Joe Collier, who sits on the commission’s board. There’s a boat that’s 164 feet long, and all the vessels are docked this week at a cost of $15,000. You might recognize one of them, the Amurula Sun. LeBron James, Chris Paul, and Dwyane Wade took their infamous banana boat picture next to it in 2015.

To partake in the food and drink in the village is another $800. It is part of a concentrated downtown, where essentially everything you’d want is walkable.

And therein lies an interesting comparison between Tampa and Dallas.

Forgive me: “North Texas,” as it was referred to by the Playoff committee. The 2015 Championship featured events in different spots of the sprawling Metroplex, each about 45 minutes apart, plus traffic. Tampa has eschewed this by throwing everything in the same downtown. That’s not always the right solution, but for this event, it works.

Ask a resident what should happen with the Tampa Bay Rays, for example, and you’ll get any number of answers.

They could stay across the Bay in St. Petersburg, in their current home. It’s a tough drive for Tampa residents to make a 7 p.m. first pitch, and the team wants out. You could put them out by Tampa’s fairgrounds to the east of downtown, but the team doesn’t want to. North of downtown is an old greyhound track, but then there’s the problem of public transportation.

And you can’t slap them downtown near Amalie Arena, near the Tampa Bay Lightning, because there isn’t space. Oh, and Lightning owner Jeff Vinik owns some 40 acres of the extended Amalie footprint. He’s got his own ideas, and they don’t seem to involve the Rays.

But while the packed downtown doesn’t work for the team, it is all good for fans.

St. Petersburg or Clearwater are too far away to include, and visitors would be criss-crossing Tampa Bay. There’s one official event on sterling Clearwater Beach, which Higgins acknowledged is a nod to fans who came to Florida to get the beach experience.

But as far as Playoff-sanctioned stuff goes, there isn’t much else. A night spent in St. Petersburg gave no indication there was a massive event 25 miles across the bridge in Old Tampa Bay.

Besides the fans, Tampa showed it can roll out the red carpet.

Robert Eubank apologizes for his office, but if you know anything about the stakes at this downtown hotel, it’s easily excusable. He heads up the sales and marketing department at Alabama’s hotel. The Tide arrive later in the day, and three years of planning will culminate in comfy beds for players chasing a championship.

The papers spread across the desk are topped with various Playoff letterhead. Three years ago, this hotel was tapped to host one of the teams. It’s been the Stanley Cup headquarters and hosted teams for the Frozen Four, women’s Final Four, and Outback Bowl in years past.

Eubank won’t say how many players, staff, or other personnel will be in rooms this weekend, but he would say that since September, it’s known it’ll host whichever team prevailed in the Peach Bowl.

“They need the space to be able to meet and feed. That’s kinda our lingo,” he said. “You want to be able to accommodate the meetings: offense, defense, quarterbacks, head coach. So they need a certain amount of meeting space, and they need to be able to break out into certain amount of individual rooms.”

“Ideally, the team wants the players to be able to be, like, on as few floors as possible. From a security standpoint, it’s easier for them to kinda manage that way. They wanna make sure. And also the mix of kings to doubles, certain teams have different mixes. There certainly needs to be some mix on that. Number of suites for VIPs and stuff along those lines.”

The result:

Clemson’s hotel setup a little farther outside of downtown, but nearer to Tampa’s world-renowned airport:

The mood of this game is much more focused on business, as opposed to a bowl. There are no charitable visits or fun trips to bowling alleys for the media to see. Players arrive Friday to play Monday, and there’s little publicized fun in between.

Clemson’s Jordan Leggett did say some Tigers headed to a casino before curfew the night they arrived. Leggett went in with $400 and came home with $325 at the Seminole Hard Rock’s blackjack tables.

If you’ve got $400 to blow, you might consider grabbing some apparel.

And this brings us back to RayJay, where John Lilliard stops mid-sentence to deliver an order as he sees the wrong boxes arriving at one of his prime vending locations.

“That’s B, we don’t want B. This is A site,” he says a couple times.

This is one of three locations the Sports Mania sportswear store has set up across Tampa. There’s one a block from Raymond James Stadium and another even closer. The third is in Ybor City, a popular downtown historic district that will see its share of inebriated foot traffic.

He’s got shirts for both Alabama and Clemson that say “champion.” They’re not the Nike ones that the winning players will put over their pads right after the game, because the Swoosh won’t let him sell those in the tent. As for the losing team’s shirts, the ones you assume get sent to a developing country? Lilliard ships them back to the manufacturer.

Lilliard estimates four companies like his are in town this weekend. He points out a competitor less than 50 yards away, who primarily does NFL games and bigger events like the Super Bowl. Another’s gig is typically MLB. Sports Mania’s brick-and-mortar location carries a heavy load of Jacksonville Jaguars apparel.

But this is college football’s biggest game, and there are vendors outside of the stadium expecting to make up to $500,000 this weekend. Inside, $500,000 isn’t out of the realm of possibility on Monday alone for the Playoff’s official provider, Fanatics.

Apparel sellers will be the caboose on the train out of town on Wednesday.

While most fans and media who are flying out will likely do so the Tuesday after the game, Lilliard & Co. will take the I-4 back whence they came, among the last to leave Tampa. And they might not have to wait long to come back for the next National Championship.

NCAA Football: CFP National Championship-Features John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports