St. Petersburg, Florida -- College football kicked off Thursday night and the USF Bulls get started Saturday. But it's the end of football season that has folks in St. Petersburg excited. In case you haven't heard, there's a college bowl game coming to Tropicana Field.
Gridiron matchup under the dome
It's not every day that folks tell you a baseball diamond will be ready for kickoff on December 20th. The St. Petersburg Bowl was approved by an NCAA committee this past Spring.
The game will feature a matchup between teams from the Big East Conference and Conference USA. That means South Florida's Bulls or the UCF Knights could play in the game, although they won't play each other; the organizers want at least one team from further away.
ESPN will not only be televising the game on its ESPN2 network, a regional unit of the company is actually organizing and managing the bowl game.
Fitting a square peg in a diamond-shaped hole
The Tampa Bay Rays take care of the field at the Trop. In the words of their top operations manager, Rick Nafe, at first, it sounds like they're "trying to put a square peg into a diamond-shaped hole."
But they've got a plan -- and here's how it'll work:
The field will start near home plate and run down the first base line into right field. The seats that are normally behind the home team's dugout and first base will make up the main stands for the football game.
Some fans will also sit behind the future end zones, in seats that are now behind home plate and the outfield. That seating arrangement should hold about 44,000 fans. A similar bowl game, the Papajohns.com Bowl in Birmingham, AL had 34,000 fans last year.
It's going to be a tight squeeze. The distance from home plate to the right field wall is 322 feet, and it takes 360 feet to hold a football field including its end zones. So, the Rays will use almost all of the space behind home plate to shoehorn in the gridiron.
Expect a (nearly) seamless surface
Every bit of the dirt base paths and pitcher's mound will be hauled away and stored during the game. They'll be replaced by custom-cut inserts made from the same Field Turf surface as the outfield. Those inserts will fill the empty base paths and lock together with the existing field to create one big grass-like surface.
Nafe says they're not planning to put any bleachers in the open outfield because they want to keep the cost of the game down, and renting bleachers isn't cheap.
The Trop's no stranger to other sports
Tropicana Field has hosted high school football before, as recently as 2006, Nafe said.
Under the Tropicana Field name and during previous incarnations as the Thunderdome and Florida Suncoast Dome, arena football, ice hockey, and basketball have all been played under the fabric roof -- taking advantage of what Nafe says is the largest uninterrupted enclosed space in the state of Florida.
New bowl means big business
The idea that the Trop will be busy during more than just baseball season has folks who run shops nearby mighty excited. Juan Carlos Leyton, who runs Isabelita's Cafe on Central Avenue, grew up a soccer fan. He has probably never been this psyched about a football game.
It's "a great thing... Because you get more people around, and hopefully, we get more business into this area. It's very exciting," he said.
For the past two seasons, Birmingham has seen its Papajohns.com Bowl grow with a similar Big East-Conference USA matchup. The city's convention and visitors bureau estimates the economic impact from last year's game to have been more than $13 million. That's money spent in the area that otherwise likely never would have come to central Alabama, the group said.
The St. Petersburg Bowl will be played on December 20th at 4:30 in the afternoon. Tickets are $30 -- click here for ticket information.
Grayson Kamm, Tampa Bay's 10 News