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Football frenzy
Fans swarm stores, brace for big game
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Harold Sloat, co-owner of Gator Haven, 5330 66th St. N., said demand for University of Florida gear has been much higher than normal the past year.
PINELLAS COUNTY – With only a few days left before the University of Florida and Ohio State University collide in the BCS national football crown, excitement surrounding the game has reached a fever pitch in Pinellas County.

Whether a fan of the Gators or a follower of the top-ranked Buckeyes, sports fans in the area have definitely sided one way or the other and aren’t shy about displaying their allegiance.

From the Gulf beaches to the western shores of Tampa Bay, Ohio State fans have suddenly emerged more radically than ever before. Ditto for the Gators. Even if you hate the colors orange and blue, most fans have a lot of respect for the Gators’ national championship last April in basketball and the possibility of another in football Jan. 8 in Glendale, Ariz.

For the record, no major college athletic program has ever won back-to-back national titles in men’s basketball and football.

That’s why this game takes on some added dimension and perhaps one of the reasons a fun wager is taking place in Seminole.

Jim Sheets, the city’s recreation director and an Ohio State graduate, has a friendly wager going with city officials who are members of Gator Nation.

“It involves a two-lap swim in our swimming pool, which is not heated,” said Sheets. “The pool temperature is typically 50 degrees or so in January.”

Gators win and Sheets swims. Buckeyes win and the UF grads hit the water.

The excitement of the game extends beyond municipal government. Tickets are virtually impossible to find but, like anything, if the price is right, they can be bought.

“Ticket availability is tough,” said Rod Fischer, president of the Pinellas County Gator Club, who will be attending the game. “The university had some tickets available to Bull Gators and major supporters. But those $175 tickets through the university are selling for $1,200 to $1,500 or higher on the Internet. So, it’s certainly an expensive football trip.”

Most Gator fans who plan to attend are upgrading their wardrobes to look their best on game day. Same thing for those who plan to stay home and watch in a sports bar or with friends.

“It’s been just crazy,” said Harold Sloat, who with his wife Maggie runs Gator Haven, a Gator clothing and souvenir shop at 5330 66th N. “Before Christmas, we couldn’t keep merchandise in the store. Almost as soon as we put it out, it was gone.”

Sloat is also planning ahead for Florida’s second national football title in 10 years.

“After the national championship game, after we win,” he said, “we’ll have 200 to 300 shirts per day from three different manufacturers.”

Gator Haven isn’t alone. Other retailers have also enjoyed a spike in sales due to the Florida’s success.

“We’ve had a lot more people asking for (Florida gear),” said David Tamayo, a sales associate at The Sports Authority, 3700 Tyrone Blvd. “Everyone has been asking for it. You name it ... hats, shirts and everything.”

Michael Siebold, manager of the Sports Fan-Attic store in John’s Pass Village, said he’s noticed an increase in sales of both Ohio State and Florida items.

“They’re looking for everything,” he said. “BCS Bowl hats have been big, as well as SEC and Big 10 championship shirts. There’s definitely a lot of transplants from Big 10 country here. It’s a good mix.”

That likely will not be the case across the pass at Gators Cafe and Saloon, formerly known as Gators on the Pass.

Traditionally, the game-watching headquarters of the Pinellas County Gator Club, the waterfront restaurant and bar is planning a full day of festivities on game day. It begins with a live radio broadcast by Ron Diaz and Ian Beckles from 9 a.m. to noon on WDAE (620-AM), a live remote later in the day on ESPN Radio. Activities will culminate with a pep rally at Gators.

Other Gator Club watching posts in the county include the Dogwater Cafe, 18825 U.S. 19 N., Clearwater, and the Varsity Club, 24091 U.S. 19 N., Clearwater.
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