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BCS Goers Spent More Than $25 Million In South Florida, According To Preliminary Reports

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Nick Saban's Crimson Tide and their fans jubilantly rocking out to "Sweet Home Alabama" late Monday at Sun Life Stadium weren't the only winners from the BCS National Championship Game.

The tourism industry is also singing a happy tune after benefiting from the flood of Alabama and Notre Dame fans during the past week. And South Florida's hopes of hosting the 50th Super Bowl could get a boost from the success of college football's biggest game.

The BCS brought 30,000 visitors to Broward County, spurred by two programs with national following, especially Notre Dame, which had not won a national title since 1988. They sold out more than 45 hotels, and preliminary reports indicate they spent more than $25 million, according to Nicki Grossman, president of the Greater Fort Lauderdale Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The influx of visitors far exceeded the previous BCS finale in South Florida, when Florida battled Oklahoma in 2009, and the majority stayed in Broward County hotels, Grossman said. She attributed that to cheaper hotel rates than in Miami-Dade and Palm Beach counties as well as the ease of access on low-fare airlines from Alabama and the Midwest. Southwest Airlines added several nonstop flights between Birmingham and Fort Lauderdale, and AirTrans added flights connecting Chicago and Fort Lauderdale via Atlanta.

The luxury Il Lugano on the Intracoastal in Fort Lauderdale, sold out its 104 suites during the BCS at more than $200 a night without any promotional effort, said Rebecca Kendig, director of sales and marketing. It did not sell out the week before during the Discover Orange Bowl, she said.

"It was bigger [than 2009] because there were probably another 20,000 people in South Florida that never had a dream of getting a ticket into the game but just wanted to be where the teams were," Grossman said.

"I think that South Florida really had a great opportunity to show off our hospitality. It's something worth fighting for in the future."

The big question is when the college championship will return, as South Florida can no longer count on being in a four-year rotation when the BCS begins a four-team playoff with the 2014 season and continuing through at least 2026.

The Orange Bowl will be one of six bowls in rotation for the semifinals, but hosting the championship games will be open to all bidders, similar to the NFL's Super Bowl selection process.

Bill Hancock, executive director of the Bowl Championship Series, said this week that 12 to 15 cities have expressed interested in hosting the first playoff championship in January 2015. Cowboys Stadium at Arlington, Texas, is considered the likely choice. The Rose Bowl and Sugar Bowl are set to host the semifinals that year.

"There is going to be a lot of competition out there," said Eric L. Poms, CEO of the Orange Bowl Committee. "We're ready to compete and we think South Florida has as good a resume and as much to offer as any community in the country."

To make the case, Poms' committee needs only to point to the spectacle surrounding Monday's game, played in front of a Sun Life Stadium record crowd of 80,120. The mismatch on the field disappointed, but South Florida enhanced its reputation as a big-event host before a national audience.

"Just love this city. I think there's not a better city to have a game like this," said Paul Clemens, of Tuscaloosa, Ala., a Notre Dame alum married to the daughter of a former Alabama player. "Awesome experience."

Bomber Brown, of Russellville, Ala., attending his 271st consecutive Alabama game, said, "All our friends at home are jealous. It was 23 [degrees] back home [Monday] morning. It's been great. We went to Key West [Sunday], just having a fun time."

From warm weather, water, beaches and golf courses, to the nightlife and BCS Fan Experience at South Beach, the region had a chance to remind fans, college bowl officials and national media of its virtues as a prime site for championship events.

The timing was particularly fortuitous with South Florida bidding against the San Francisco Bay Area for the 50th Super Bowl in 2016. NFL owners will vote in May to award the milestone game as well as the 2017 Super Bowl.

Rodney Barreto, chairman of the South Florida Super Bowl Bid Committee, said the success of the BCS Championship will aid in making its pitch to the NFL. A television commercial debuted Tuesday highlighting notable championship games that have been played here.

"I think that a lot of people watched that game and saw it for themselves, and will take note of it," Barreto said. "I think that South Florida scored another touchdown in respect to putting on an incredible event that seemed to go seamless, in my eyes. Kudos to the Orange Bowl Committee; they did an incredible job."

Even Sun Life Stadium, often criticized as a liability in bidding for championship events, presented well on television. Fresh sod, installed after the Miami Dolphins' last home game, was immaculate, and auxiliary seating was added to bring fans closer to the field on one side.

Traffic congestion was eased somewhat by many fans arriving hours early for tailgating. The complaint heard most often was that there weren't enough portable toilets in the parking lots.

With competition for events from cities with new facilities, including a $1.2 billion stadium to open next year near San Francisco, Sun Life Stadium will need more than temporary fixes to keep pace in the race for BCS Championships and Super Bowls.

"We understand that's a part of it. We're also going to advocate the things that we have that are unique," Poms said. "But, clearly, one of the key elements will be the facility. We hope that when the time comes that we are able to put our best foot forward."

The Dolphins are working on a plan for stadium improvements expected to be revealed soon. The team has not said if public money will be sought for the project.

Grossman, a member of the Super Bowl bid committee, said the BCS experience with teams headquartered in Broward and Miami-Dade can be cited as reasons why the Super Bowl doesn't have to be confined to one downtown setting. That idea has found favor since Indianapolis won praise for a very compact Super Bowl last year.

"It just may be that what we have going for us is the exact opposite of what other Super Bowl cities have," she said. "You can be staying in one area in South Florida and get to an area where the party is or the meetings or the interviews are in a matter of 25 or 30 minutes. We've got to pay attention to the plusses of South Florida and not get pigeonholed into something else."

Steve Hatchell, a former Orange Bowl chief who now heads the foundation that operates the College Football Hall of Fame in South Bend, Ind., said this BCS should ensure that South Florida remains a key player in the new playoff system.

"I've been around big events. I can tell you, the attention to detail here on everything from where you stay in the hotels, how everything happens, it's absolutely first-rate. You'd have to work really hard to not include this," Hatchell said.

cldavis@tribune.com ___

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