Football and Florida go hand in hand. With multiple strong college teams representing the state, as well as the recent world champions, the Buccaneers, calling Tampa home, Florida is the place to be for gridiron fans.
That is especially true when Gasparilla comes around, Tampa Bay’s annual pirate season. Yes, you read that right. For nearly three months at the beginning of the year, Tampa plays home to a pirate invasion that’s really just code for a big party. The city hosts music, film, and arts festivals, a big boat parade, and, more recently, a college ball bowl.
It’s the best time to come to Tampa. The bowl game takes place at the end of December and is the unofficial kickoff for the whole season.
But where did the name come from, and why is Tampa Bay so obsessed with pirates? This is the history of the Gasparilla Bowl.
Did you know Florida has a rich history when it comes to piracy? It’s true; the state fell victim to many pirate raids back in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, back when it was still a Spanish colony. Those pirate roots are still alive and well in places like Tampa Bay — there’s a reason why they’re called the Buccaneers.
If you happen to get down to Tampa between January and March, you’ll see just how much the city embraces its treasure-hunting background. Gasparilla is essentially an annual pirate invasion that’s been held in Tampa Bay for well over a hundred years. It’s kicked off by an aquatic battle between a merry crew of pirates and a few boats attempting to defend the city.
Ultimately, every year, the Tampa defenders fail to stop the pirates, who make their way down to Tampa Bay Convention Center to snag the keys to the city from the mayor. It’s good old-fashioned Florida fun. The waterways in Tampa are packed with partygoers and parade observers, hoping to get some beads tossed to them by passing pirates.
The whole song and dance is based on the legend of pirate José Gaspar, who allegedly terrorized Florida’s west coast for over four decades. According to local myth, Gaspar was ready for retirement in 1821 and decided to pull one last raid on an unsuspecting ship. You know, to go out with a bang. Well, go with a bang he certainly did. It turns out the ship he intended to raid was actually a US Navy warship in disguise. After a bloody battle, Gaspar took his own life to avoid capture.
Did this all actually happen? Historians can’t exactly agree on that. More likely than not, Gaspar is a fictional character that actually is based on a variety of pirates from the seventeenth century. Either way, during Gasparilla season in Tampa, it may as well be true. People dress up like pirates and party like them too.
Over the years, the Gasparilla event has expanded to cover a whole season in Tampa Bay. There’s another parade at night in historic Ybor City. There’s an arts festival which attracts talent from all over the world and gives out prizes for best in show. There’s even an international film festival and a three-day concert series which features top-name acts. Basically, it’s the best time to be in Tampa Bay.
If you’re going to Tampa for Gasparilla, make sure to pick up our Beads, Booze, Bayshore t-shirt—three things Tampa does very well.
Gasparilla is an especially good time to be In Tampa if you are a football fan. In the last ten years, the city and St. Petersburg have been the home of a post-season college bowl game. The Gasparilla Bowl has gone by a few names over the years, but it has really embraced the pirate theme recently and almost always features a Florida team, like UCF or USF.
It may not be the country's oldest bowl game, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less fun. In just ten years, the Gasparilla Bowl has become a destination event for college football fans to get into the spirit of the season at iconic Tampa Bay Stadiums. You can even spot some pirates in the stands handing out beads.
The Gasparilla Bowl as we know it today was created in 2008 when the NCAA granted the city of Tampa permission for a post-season bowl game. At the time, it was to be played at Tropicana Field, the home to the MLB’s Tampa Bay Rays. Tropicana Field can be transformed into a football field, from the right-field line from home plate to the outfield wall, making for a unique experience in line with Yankee Stadium’s Pinstripe Bowl.
When the first bowl was held in 2008, it was called the magicJack Bowl, as ESPN agreed to a sponsorship with the telephone service provider. That sponsorship lasted for only one year, when Beef O'Brady's took over. Beef O’Brady’s is a restaurant franchise based in Florida. That deal lasted through the 2013 game, at which point Beef O’Brady’s decided not to renew their contract.
We hope you’re paying attention; there will be a quiz later. In 2014, Bitcoin became the official sponsor of the game, so it was renamed the ‘Bitcoin Bowl.’ Fans could actually use Bitcoin as currency to buy tickets and concessions at the game. In retrospect, that idea was a little ahead of its time. Bitcoin backed out in 2015, and for two years, the game was simply played as the St. Petersburg Bowl.
Then, in 2017, Bad Boy Mowers became the official sponsor and officially added the Gasparilla tie-in, naming the event the Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl. Their sponsorship lasted only two years, but the Gasparilla part stuck.
Today the game is sponsored by the Union Home Mortgage, who sadly had to cancel the game during their first year due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The good news is that the game came back in December of 2021 and the Gasparilla moniker seems to be here to stay.
In all those name and sponsor changes, the game has shapeshifted several times. After ten years of playing at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, the game officially moved to the Raymond James Stadium in Tampa Bay in 2018. The arena is home to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, so it’s better suited for a football game.
The bowl has also swapped conferences several times. Initially, the game featured teams from Conference-USA and the Big East. From 2014 to 2019, the organization entered an agreement with the Atlantic Coast Conference, which features teams from North Carolina, Ohio, and up and down the eastern seaboard.
Today, a number of teams could qualify to play in the game, from both the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC), as well as the Group of Five conferences (AAC, C-USA, MAC, MWC).
In the 2021 comeback game, the Florida Gators and the UCF Knights went head to head right before Christmas, a match made in heaven for Sunshine State residents.
The Gasparilla Bowl has hosted many nail-biting games. In 2010, Louisville beat out Southern Miss by just three points. In 2016, Mississippi State just narrowly beat out Miami of Ohio in a 17-16 win.
MVPs of the Gasparilla Bowl have gone on to play in the NFL, including Mohamed Sanu of the San Francisco 49ers, Aaron Dobson of the (championship-winning) New England Patriots, Jacoby Brissett of the Indianapolis Colts and Miami Dolphins, and T. Y. Hilton, also of the Colts.
In addition to a great game, the Gasparilla Bowl also serves the wider community of Tampa by partnering with local high schoolers to decrease hunger in the area. Teenagers that participate in the program are eligible for free tickets to the game. You’ve gotta respect an organization that understands how football can be a force for good.
Are you looking to get in on the action? We definitely think a trip down to Tampa for the Gasparilla Bowl is worth it. As the unofficial kickoff to the Gasparilla season, you can embrace your inner pirate and enjoy all the fun that Tampa Bay has to offer.
While you’re there, check out our full Tampa Bay collection, featuring nostalgia-inducing and defunct sports teams of Tampa’s history, beloved local arenas, and 813-area inside jokes for real ones. It’s the best way to say you’re proud to be a Champa Bay fan.