The SEC Football Championship is booming in Pensacola for the first time
Moving the Southeastern Conference Women’s Football Championship to Pensacola has become one of the league’s boldest moves in postseason events.
The result was amazing. Just entering the area at Ashton Brosnaham Park and Escambia County Stadium where matches were played made a positive impression.
From the first game on October 30, to the championship game last Sunday, the crowds, concessions, parking and atmosphere created an unprecedented experience for the SEC Football Tournament.
“I think everyone in Pensacola, our coaches, our athletes and our conference, took a leap of confidence in coming here but just a fantastic week,” said SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey. 13th seed South Carolina upset No. 1 Alabama 1-0 in the championship match.
And look forward to next year. If we had set expectations, we would have greatly exceeded those expectations.”
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Pensacola Sports jumped at the chance to host the SEC Championship in Brosnaham Park, 17 years after the event in Orange Beach, Alabama. The organization signed a three-year agreement, ensuring returns in 2023 and 2024.
“Our wildest dreams have gone beyond our wildest dreams,” said Ray Palmer, longtime CEO of Pensacola Sports. “And I think it goes beyond the SEC’s wildest dreams. We promised them a real, dedicated effort to try and get people in the stands with fingers crossed and very hopeful about what it would look like. And what it would be… and we couldn’t be happier.”
“Yes, having Alabama as the top-ranked team was a huge draw, but we also didn’t have Florida or Auburn in this tournament (neither qualified in the 10-team field) and as everyone knows, those are two really big fan bases in our area. So. We couldn’t be more thrilled with the way things went.”
In fact, attendance for the entire week exceeded 10,000, which is close to what some SEC teams generate for their entire home schedule.
Nine of the ten teams that played in Pensacola have secured places in the 64-team NCAA tournament that begins Friday with Alabama as a #1 seed and hosting its first-ever NCAA Tournament on campus against Jackson State.
The nine teams match the SEC record for most teams in the NCAA Women’s Soccer Championship. South Carolina was the second-best national seeded in the league at number three and seven of the nine teams host first-round matches.
“Our student-athletes wanted to be on the coast[for the SEC Championships]and they wanted to experience warm weather and you don’t know[how Pensacola would do],” Sankey said. “We will bring our employees together to work with the community to see how we can bring in more people and provide more opportunities to experience what we had this year.
“We had the first (seeded) team in the country (Alabama) playing and ten teams in the top 50 (strength rankings) and it’s fun to get excited about. It was a well-performing, well-trained tournament.”
When Palmer brought Tiffany Daniels, the SEC’s associate commissioner in charge of the women to Sunday’s championship, the first challenge was finding a parking spot.
“I picked her up at the airport (Pensacola), so we got[to Brosnaham]about 20 minutes after it started,” Palmer said. “And while we were driving, you couldn’t believe the cars and how full they were.”
“I suspect the families of the SEC teams, and our local fans had no idea what it would be like. Maybe a lot of people didn’t go to Brosnaham and know about this medium, let alone this shift. Everything here has been top notch.
This is a completely new component of much of our community. Every building has been cleaned and painted. Nothing is overlooked. Now, do we have some things to learn, of course we are learning.”
The first priority will be to check if more bleached seats should be arranged and perhaps some seats placed on the other side of the permanent stands. Pensacola Sports knows there will be a few other elements to consider moving forward.
One of the big successes was the participation of youth football teams from Perdido Bay to Tiger Point in pre-match pre-matches, then on the field in the first half playing in a short scrimmage. It gave the girls and their parents the opportunity to participate in the tournament with some of the best women players in the country.
“I know the numbers we generated were more than some of the other (sports) tournaments organized by the (SEC),” Palmer said. “We wish we had more bleachers, we wish we had more food vendors, we wish we had more shade, we wish we had more parking, but all of the things that are big problems have to be addressed.”
Every match in the SEC Women’s Soccer Championship was broadcast live on the SEC Network, which is part of the ESPN platform. Pensacola awarded a national television show for each of the four days the tournament was staged.
“Media value is something we’re working on, to try and get our arms around the full impact,” Palmer said. “But the SEC’s footprint is our tourism footprint. Each of these schools are reporting to their communities about the wonderful time they were having in Pensacola.
“It’s going to move the needle in tourism and we might not see some of that for years. But you have these teams and the athletes staying at the beach, the parents, and you know when they get older that they’re going to want to go back to Pensacola with their families.”
Bill Vilona is a retired sports columnist for the Pensacola News Journal and is now a senior writer for the Pensacola Blue Wahoos. He can be contacted at email@example.com.
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