Buccaneers fans are living a dream, as their team is the first to play a home game in the Super Bowl. And the knee-jerk reaction is that what’s good for the team, and good for the fans, is good for the area’s business community. But that’s not what a lot of researchers have said.
Economists have long floated the idea that a Super Bowl featuring the home team, while historic for the NFL, would be a disaster for the local economy. Now, there’s a COVID-sized wrench in their ability to test that hypothesis.
Super Bowls typically attract about 200,000 people to the area, either going to the game itself or attending the week-long festivities prior to kickoff. Though this year’s total might be lower, the event isn’t expecting a huge drop-off, according to Will Weatherford, co-chair of the host committee.
Weatherford admitted that while the economic impact for the city is likely lower with the Bucs in the game, the hit is likely smaller this year because of the wider concerns associated with COVID-19.
“We’ll have more heads in beds this weekend than we have since COVID hit, at a time when many of those hotels and restaurants need it,” said Weatherford, a former member of the Florida House of Representatives. “I also think that the economists who try to figure out the economic impact of how many rooms are booked, how many restaurants, and how much money is spent, they’re missing the bigger point. Super Bowls are an opportunity to brand and market a broader community to the world.”
Economists, however, aren’t expecting to see much impact from this year’s contest.
“This is going to be a disaster of a Super Bowl no matter what, in comparison to the economic impact of a Super Bowl in non-COVID times,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at College of the Holy Cross. The biggest loser outside of the NFL will be hotels. “Hotels have been getting killed for the past 10 months as well, so this will be an improvement, but nothing close to normal,” he said. “Normally you get a 300% to 400% boost to hotel revenue during a Super Bowl weekend.”
Matheson said a hotel needs to be at 75% capacity day in and day out to stay afloat. “They’ve been averaging about 20% capacity nationwide during the pandemic,” he said. “There are 30,000 hotel rooms in Tampa, so again, if 15,000 hotel rooms [are booked] for the Super Bowl, that’s just 50% of their hotel capacity. Stack on 50% to the 20% in the background, and you’re talking about 70%. That’s what a city that might be experiencing a normal day pre-COVID.”
And that doesn’t come near the 95% capacity rate on a pre-COVID weekend, he said.
Joe Brusuelas, chief economist for RSM US, agrees. “The truth is, the hotels just don’t see the action—nor do the restaurants, nor do the bars, nor do the movie theaters, nor do the theme parks,” he said. “You’re just not going to get the same amount of people coming in from across the country.”
Bob Morrison, the executive director of the Hillsborough County Hotel Motel Association, said in April 2020 the county’s total occupancy was 17% for the entire month. This weekend he expects the occupancy to be in the range of 70% to 75%.
“There’s not a destination in America who would not give their right and left arm to be the host of the game in this economic season,” Morrison said. “Our hotels are guardedly optimistic … because if we did not have this piece of business there’s no way we would have projected that occupancy for the first weekend in February.”
Yet it’s not what it could have been—for which businesses can blame the Bucs. All other cities that have hosted Super Bowls have enjoyed two fan bases traveling to their destination. On top of the limited capacity allowed in Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay’s hotels and restaurants also have to contend with home fans not wanting to dine out and not booking hotels when they can simply go home.
One restaurant that will be dealing with these effects will be Bern’s Steakhouse. David Laxer, president and owner of Bern’s, is aware of the long-feared impact of a hometown Super Bowl. “Typically as a business owner if you have a football team,” he said, “you don’t want [the home team] to make the Super Bowl because the economics just don’t work. You want two out-of-town teams to play because they’re going to bring all the fans, and they’re going to bring all these additional people into the hotels rooms, rental cars, dining, anything else to [bring] dollars into the community.”
But the pandemic changed the equation, at least a little. “Given this unique situation we have and everything’s curbed down and there’s no corporate events going on,” Laxer said, “if you’re going to have a home team play in a Super Bowl, this is the time to do it.”
Laxer said before the conference championship games, his restaurant’s bookings were light. But after the Bucs and Chiefs punched their tickets to Super Bowl LV the phones started ringing.
College football’s Rose Bowl faced a similar home team situation in 2017 when hometown USC faced Penn State in Los Angeles. The region makes more money when that doesn’t happen. “We know that about 60%-70% of the people attending the game are from outside the five-county L.A. regional area,” said David Eads, the executive director and CEO of the Tournament of Roses. “So as an example when you have Ohio State playing Washington, 70% of those people are going to be from outside the area. There’s a large economic impact from them staying in town for three or four days. [They are] visiting attractions, eating meals, doing all the things that they do, in addition to going to the game.”
Having USC in the Rose Bowl isn’t a total bust. “When you have a local team that plays in the game, let’s take USC, for example, there are lots of USC fans that might have gone to USC, but they moved on to other parts of the country, and they come back to see the game,” he said. “But obviously, the numbers, we do not believe, would be as high [as with] out-of-area attendees. And so that would lessen the economic impact of the game.”
Despite this, Tampa’s Weatherford still thinks having the home team in the Super Bowl this year is better for the host city.
“We’re a title town,” he said. “We won the Stanley Cup. We went to the World Series. And now our football team is playing in the Super Bowl. It’s an amazing shot in the arm at a time when people need it … If there was a year where it would have the least negative economic impact, it would be in a year like this, when things are constrained anyway.”
Morrison agrees, though for a slightly different reason: No matter who shows up, the game puts Tampa on the map. “This game will be the poster child for why you seek events like a Super Bowl,” he said. “The whole Brady versus Mahomes discussion allows this destination to have a platform that quite frankly we could not write a check for.”