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Thursday, Oct 23, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Otto: Nothing compares to Tampa's first Super Bowl

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Published:   |   Updated: January 29, 2014 at 08:42 AM

A decade after being awarded an NFL franchise in 1974, the Super Bowl came to town.

It was an extraordinary combination of wins for a town still not quite sure it belonged up there with the big boys of sports.

Credit for landing both events goes to any number of people, but at the top of the list were the twins, Leonard and George Levy.

“Most of it was Leonard,” George says. “I only get credit because all the NFL people kept thinking I was Leonard.”

It was actually when Bill Marcum of the Tampa Jaycees organized a series of exhibition games at the old Tampa Stadium that the effort to win a franchise got serious. Leonard Levy remembers they initially sold seats in every other row in case the stadium didn't sell out, so at least it would look full on television.

Levy was chairman of the task force that went everywhere and talked to every owner before they finally got their franchise.

“That was the difference,” says brother George. “When it was decision time, they knew us.”

***

That first day we had a team it was Leonard who told NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle that we needed a Super Bowl. The payoff came because of that group of men and women who did the legwork and made the contacts.

The city, of course, went bonkers.

Here at Mother Trib the strategy for how we were going to cover the Super Bowl made the plans for D-Day look like amateur night. We laid out the entire stadium complex and blocks around it into a giant grid. A reporter was assigned to each space in the grid, which meant we had someone in different sections of the parking lots and even one business writer who was told to hang around the men's room.

“It was like a circus,” Leonard remembers. “Going into the stadium, our son Jay, who was 12 at the time, saw a man waving five $100 bills he was willing to pay for one ticket.

“I believe the face value of a ticket to the game was $60, and Jay wanted to sell his and wait in the car. He went to the game with us.”

***

Thirty years ago, the Super Bowl was still evolving into not just a game but an “event.”

“We knew that,” Leonard says. The task force “wanted to generate a place where fans could congregate, so we planned a Super Fest downtown with food and drink vendors. It rained and was pretty much a washout. However, what we did became the footprint for the pirate fest that is now held on Gasparilla Day.

“There were other things. Since we had few, if any, hotels close to the stadium, where corporations could entertain, we created a corporate village in Al Lopez Park and charged the companies $100.

“Today the NFL stages a corporate village and charges several hundred dollars a person.

“I think one more indication of how it has changed is that in 1984 the game was broadcast in eight languages in 27 countries. In 2009 it had grown to 30 languages in 232 countries.”

So now that it has become more of a national holiday than a game, I asked Leonard where he would be watching this weekend, and he said “at home.”

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