When college football fans in Louisville, Kentucky or Madison, Wisconsin look out the window in December and ponder making the trip to see their teams compete in the Russell Athletic or Capital One Bowls, the fact that they are being played in sunny Orlando Florida is an irresistible incentive. Soon, with over $200 million in renovations planned for the iconic downtown landmark, Orlando’s Citrus Bowl may be rivaling other major venues in the competition to land the Holy Grail of college football, the BCS National Championship. Guiding the development of the various bowls and sporting events is Steve Hogan, CEO, of Florida Citrus Sports.
THE EVOLUTION OF THE EVENT AND ITS LEADER: The Florida Citrus Bowl Stadium has been here since 1947 and has developed into one of the prestigious bowl destinations during the New Year season. I got involved in 1995 with event management; there was an attachment to the area since I was a UCF alumni and it sounded a lot more exciting than what I was doing. Then, in 2006, I took over as CEO. This job, like the advertising world from which I came, has a creative, business and relational component.
CREATING AND GROWING: We have an entrepreneurial approach to visitation. In some cases we have created new events; we ran a college all-star game for seven years. The bowl games are a spawned event, but to have success you need two conference partners – a television partner like ESPN and a title sponsor. When you do your job in putting those pieces together it affords you a selection at the end of the season between these two conferences, which has the potential to make a major economic impact on the region.
Our organization, though it is a nonprofit, makes calculated risks like any business. We don’t own the stadium; we rent it like everyone else. When we see an opportunity, we run the numbers and then put our money in and pray that we’re right. We’re a membership organization, but the members are more than just season ticket holders; they’re active throughout the year because they believe in the significance of college athletics. My role is to manage the operation, look for entrepreneurial opportunities, gauge them and decide where we will focus our energy and resources.
BUILDING RELATIONSHIPS: The industry is very relationally driven. I have to be on a first name basis with people in every quadrant of college athletics, whether that is NCAA officials, college conference commissioners or network television executives. There are 120 directors in Division 1A, and we have to have a relationship with all of them in our region, as well as bringing key sponsors to the table. It is a recipe that requires a lot of ingredients to be successful and you hope that in the end people like the soup.
The stadium is 70 years old and parts of those original structures are still here. It was built around itself but it was never renovated. The planning and logistics to accommodate some 65,000 people just wasn’t done; it had capacity, but not infrastructure. Now, we have the opportunity to rectify some of those disparities to compete with Tampa, Jacksonville, Atlanta, Nashville and Dallas, the premier NFL facilities. We already are a world-class destination; what we will have after the reconstruction is a world-class facility. The two upper decks will remain; the rest will be demolished down to the ground and rebuilt. This will start in January, and we hope to stage the Florida Classic in November here. Parts won’t be finished but we’ll move in and anticipate it to be completed for the Capital One Bowl in 2015. It’s aggressive but we have the best in the industry working on it.
OTHER OPPORTUNITIES: People ask all the time about bringing different sporting events, like college matchups to a neutral sight. The decision to update and upgrade the stadium was essential to that equation, as we were in jeopardy of losing the events that we currently host. That is $125 million in economic impact to the area, so we knew we had to fix the problem to save the business. We were able to do that as a community through decisive action and bowl games look secure for the next six-year cycle; now we will focus on new opportunities. We were actually one of the first to host neutral sight games; what we want to concentrate on are games in September or early October that have the potential to boost the area, when tourism normally lags. We can bring the biggest brands in college football to kick off the season, international soccer matches and even NFL games.