Welcome to the Recession Bowl

Dan Wetzel

TAMPA, Fla. – A year ago in Arizona, top Super Bowl tickets went for $10,000 a seat on the secondary market. Two years ago at the booming South Beach clubs, it could cost you $500 for the cover charge alone.

In Jacksonville a few years back, cab drivers stopped charging by the distance and went flat fee – $100 a ride within city limits.

There are few events in America that bring out overindulgence, over-the-top commercialism and obscene wealth like a Super Bowl weekend. Over-hyped fans collide with corporate money to create a party that for some can overshadow the actual game.

It's why cities beg the NFL for the right to host one.

Tampa was one of those cities, and it will host the big game again Sunday, between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals.

Only this is no ordinary Super Bowl. This is the first Recession Bowl; the first Corporate Responsibility Bowl; the first Mortgage Meltdown Bowl.

It may have only been Monday of game week, but the mood and expectations for this Super Bowl are different than any in recent memory.

Even the cold-weather game three years ago in Detroit saw the city flooded with Steelers fans who made the four-hour drive, whether they had tickets or not.

Tampa has no such luck – including the presence of the once-lowly Cardinals, meaning there is no matchup between two big-market, big fan base franchises.

All of which explains why fans could get midfield, lower-level tickets on StubHub Monday for as little as $3,300. Upper-deck seats with $800 face value were going for $1,300 – a year ago they were fetching around $3,000.

By game time, prices might drop even further.

Bar and club owners, while bracing for what still will be an onslaught of drinkers, won't come close to the three-digit cover charges of Miami. They also are dealing with a softened market for parties that rent out the entire place for often splashy, opulent and expensive affairs.

Many of those events have been downsized if not cut altogether.

Regular party throwers such as Playboy and Sports Illustrated are sitting this one out. Major talent agencies say they’ve cut back. And while there are no official stats, the belief is there will also be fewer private bashes hosted by NFL players and smaller companies.

The Florida Aquarium hosted four parties in 2001, the last time the Super Bowl was in Tampa. It has none scheduled this year, according to Sports Business Journal.

And the cabbies?

"A hundred for even a short drive? Noooo," driver Absa Paracha said wistfully of the Jacksonville profits as he waited for business at a downtown taxi stand. "We have no customers right now."

There rarely is much business on a Monday of Super Bowl, when even the teams are just arriving. Usually it's just NFL workers and media, but even the media turnout is down this year due to struggles in the newspaper and radio industries.

The question on everyone's mind here is whether the big business will arrive by the weekend, or if too many people will be frugal and stay home.

Judging by availability on hotels.com, fears may be realized. There were over a dozen name-brand hotels (Holiday Inn Express, Day's Inn) with occupancy this weekend for under $200 a night. By comparison, similar hotels were going for $400 to $600 a night last year in Phoenix.

None of which is to say this is going to be a bad thing.

Barring some kind of disaster – natural or otherwise – the Super Bowl always is a good time. The weather is great. No one is going to suffer from unwilling sobriety. An economic boost will still occur.

And the game – remember that? – should be good.

The fact things are more "reasonably" priced actually opens up the event to a larger potential audience. The Super Bowl isn't cheap, but it's cheaper than normal.

If that means some regular fans get a chance to see the game rather than a Wall Street brokerage firm paying five figures for their executives – only to need a bailout a few months later – then perhaps this is a positive trend.

Then again, that assumes regular fans have any money right now.

Compounding the tourist problem is the local economy. Tampa specifically and the state of Florida in general are some of the nation's hardest hit from the mortgage crisis.

About the only people unconcerned about revenue are the “entertainers” of Tampa’s famed 43 strip clubs that have earned the city the title “The Lap Dance Capital of America.”

“The numbers will quadruple during [the] weekend,” Nick Polefrone, general manager of 2001 Odyssey, told the Associated Press.

So at least Tampa has that going for it.

But for Tampa, nothing was going to compare to last year's tilt. Having the 18-0 New England Patriots, a nationally popular, big-market, wealthy-area team, seeking history against the New York Giants and its incomparable old, Manhattan money, was a ticket-broker's dream come true.

Add in the location out West, not far from Hollywood and with plenty of Scottsdale cash of its own, and prices for everything were off the hook. The year before featured the glamour and money of South Beach leading into a game between the popular Indianapolis Colts and Chicago Bears.

The Cardinals, who struggled to sell out their first-round playoff game this year, don't have the fan base or cache. The Steelers do, but they were in the Super Bowl just three years ago, taking the "once-in-a-lifetime" motivation out of it.

So as the Super Bowl banners flap in the sun and the city does its final sprucing up, business people of all kinds are cursing the timing of the city's big weekend.

Why did they have to get stuck with the Recession Bowl?

"I'll take you wherever you want, only 75 dollars," Paracha laughed.