By Jason Siegel
College football is not just about the eye on the prize and national championship confetti dropping down from the skies. It’s about ordinary heroes playing a sport they love.
“In a sport that has probably 8,000 to 9,000 student-athletes playing, 100 of which maybe will go on to do this for a living, we often forget about the fact that fans love their schools,” said Steve Hogan, CEO of Florida Citrus Sports, a nonprofit based at Camping World Stadium. “They love the name on the front of the jersey and on the back of the jersey. And they root for them. They root for that next generation of kids who are now getting their first playing time and are probably going to be starters next season. They want to see their heroes play one last game.”
Orlando proudly stands in the epicenter of that experience. The region hosted an unusual five college football games during this past bowl season: The Florida Blue Florida Classic (played Nov. 20, 2021), the Cure Bowl (Dec. 17, 2021), the Cheez-It Bowl (Dec. 29, 2021) the VRBO Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1) and the Hula Bowl (Jan. 15).
All five games have their unique shape and character, but together they are one, delivering a strong message with a common denominator:
Orlando is the place to be if you want to go “bowling.”
For sure, the national championship game held in Indianapolis and the two playoff games in Miami and Arlington, Texas, got a lot of attention. But for the complete bowl experience, nothing beats Orlando when it comes to entertainment, heads-in-hotel-beds economic impact, media exposure, game-day atmosphere and other assorted pluses.
Hogan had the honor of having three of those games under his watch at Camping World Stadium: the Florida Blue Florida Classic, the Cheez-It Bowl and the VRBO Citrus Bowl.
“There are some other cities now that host two bowl games, but not three, literally in the same place,” he said. “So it’s a blessing. It’s exciting for our community. It’s a seal of approval from the college football world, and fans in general, that Orlando is that kind of market. It’s a market built for neutral-side events.”
It was also a welcome relief that everyone was back in business without the ominous threat of the pandemic. With COVID-19 still in play but much more manageable, the bowl season of 2021-22 was much different than that of 2020-21.
“Last year, we managed our games at the height of positivity rates in Central Florida, and it was brutal,” Hogan said. “You feel horrible thinking about sports and entertainment as a business in the pandemic, because so many people from around the world have lost their lives, literally, and families have been affected.
“But the reality of our business over the last two years in sports and entertainment was that large gatherings were under threat in a big, big way. We were blessed enough to play our bowl games last season — very safely, I might add. Four teams came into town and put on a good show for many people around the country on TV and for limited fans in the stands.”
Fast-forward to 2021-22.
With COVID-19 protocols in place, the bowl market was ripe with philanthropic and charitable causes. The Cure Bowl — now in its seventh season — had raised a collective $3.88 million before 2021 to help fund cancer research. More than $1 million has gone to Dr. Annette Khaled, professor at the University of Central Florida College of Medicine’s Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences and head of the medical school’s cancer research division.
“We put a face to our research,” said Alan Gooch, executive director of the Cure Bowl, which was held at Exploria Stadium, home of the Orlando City Soccer Club. “Our goal is to use the great game of college football to make everyone aware of the current state of cancer research, and it’s gone very well.”
It’s a positive vibe, despite the sobering backdrop etched in the word “cancer.”
For the December 2021 Cure Bowl, for instance, Gooch and his staff launched a “Go Pink on Game Day” event and encouraged fans to meet downtown at the train depot on Church Street. There, they were joined by the two marching bands of the competing schools for a fan fest. The “March2Cure” event concluded with a march to Exploria Stadium shortly before kickoff.
The Hula Bowl came to Orlando in January because of a twist of timing and a desirable location. The game, which features all-star players from across the nation, was moved from its traditional location in Honolulu, Hawaii, because Aloha Stadium was undergoing renovations. Organizers instead took it to the stadium at UCF, nicknamed the “Bounce House,” home of the Golden Knights football team.
“They reached out to us via the governor’s office,” said David Hanson, UCF’s senior executive associate athletics director and chief operating officer. “They pride themselves on the experience of athletes. Orlando can deliver an exceptional experience, and UCF has all the components to host an event like this, including training facilities and the ability to accommodate leisure events.
“We have everything that they need to have a first-class event,” he said, “and hopefully a better one than they had in Hawaii.”
The rental payment to UCF for the event was designated toward the athletic department’s 2021-22 budget. The UCF Athletic Association also received revenue from food and beverage sales, parking fees and sponsorship deals.
It’s obvious to see why Orlando is the epicenter of the bowl experience — one that is now into its 75th season as Florida Citrus Sports commemorates its benchmark anniversary. “Our college football infusion in Central Florida is a $100 million-plus economic engine, year in and year out,” Hogan said.
The benefits are not just from the people attending in person, but also those visiting virtually. “A lot of times, we underestimate the sheer power of the viewership and the exposure delivered by these events to the country and, in some cases, the world.
“New Year’s Day a couple years ago, we had as many as 15 million viewers,” Hogan said. “Think of the value of that, the investment the community receives. People turn on TVs from around the country, many in maybe not-so-warm climates, and they see folks in shorts and golf shirts and say, ‘Hey, Orlando looks like a pretty great place to visit.’”
Jason Siegel is the president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. Longtime Orlando sportswriter George Diaz contributed to this article.