|By Garry Smits, The Florida Times-Union,
JacksonvilleMcClatchy-Tribune Regional News
Dec. 26, 2010--It took only the first matchup of the new Gator Bowl conference affiliation deal to begin paying dividends in terms of economic impact on the First Coast.
The football teams and officials parties of Michigan and Mississippi State arrive today and players for each team will begin practice Monday to prepare for their New Year's Day game at EverBank Field.
Fans of those teams will begin arriving later in the week, and from all indications, they will nearly fill all the available hotel rooms. Owners and operators of the area's biggest hotels and resorts report sold-out rooms and tee times for the two nights preceding the game and will receive a bit more business after the game because it's on a Saturday.
"We're finding that people are making the trip an extra-long getaway because of that," said Casper Van Eldik Phieme, director of sales and marketing for the Hyatt Regency downtown. "Instead of one or two nights, we're getting a lot of three- and four-night bookings. It's going to be a great week."
Leslie Tune, acting general manager of the Omni Hotel, said downtown hospitality and restaurant staffs "are very excited about the coming week."
"We're sold out [Dec.] 31 and [Jan.] 1, and we're trending towards that for the 30th and the 2nd," she said. "It's going to be a lot of fun."
Mississippi State sold about 20,000 tickets and Michigan about 12,000. Combined with stronger local ticket sales in anticipation of the first year that the game matches the SEC and the Big Ten, and the result is a sellout of EverBank Field based on a capacity of 77,000.
The impact will be felt all over the First Coast. For example, Ponte Vedra Inn and Club director of golf Jim Howard said he will have few tee times available the week of the game.
Sawgrass Marriott general manager Jeff Mayers also said it looks like a strong week from a room-nights standpoint at that hotel and for tee times at the TPC Sawgrass.
"If the intended result in getting the SEC and Big Ten in the Gator Bowl was to have more fans and more business in this area, they've achieved that goal," Howard said. "We're very happy with what the Gator Bowl has put together."
Michigan's team and official party will stay at the Omni and practice at Jacksonville University.
Mississippi State will stay at the Sawgrass Marriott and practice at the University of North Florida.
Gator Bowl president Rick Catlett estimated that direct spending the week of the game will be between $12 million and $14 million, with a total economic impact of about $30 million.
"Mississippi State and Michigan have responded just as we thought they would, and the local ticket sales have been strong from the time we announced our new conference affiliation," Catlett said. "This is why we went with the two most historic football conferences in America."
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