Football Collides With Politics in Tallahassee

No recount is needed in this Florida crisis: The 5,000 hotel rooms in Tallahassee can’t accommodate both thousands of rabid football fans and hundreds of journalists who will be staying in the state capital this weekend.

And in this case, football appears to be trumping politics.

About 200 to 300 members of the media have been staying in Tallahassee hotels during the past week to cover all of the ballot recounts and legal wrangling of the ongoing presidential election. But this weekend, they’ll have to vacate their rooms when football fans with long-standing hotel reservations arrive for Saturday night’s game between the Florida State Seminoles and rival University of Florida Gators.

“We’ve got guests that have made reservations for this football game last year,” said Erica Outing, office manager at the Tallahassee Quality Inn. “So it’s not like we can very well boot those guests out because they’re here every year and every game.”

The collision of the two national pasttimes of politics and football appears to be the talk of the town.

“It seems like people are either interested in football or politics,” said Nevada Morris, a front desk clerk at the Tallahassee Red Roof Inn. “I, myself, am about sick of both of them.”

Room at the Frat House

This presidential election between Vice President Al Gore and Texas Gov. George W. Bush is one of the biggest news events in decades. But football is serious stuff in Florida, where three of the state’s teams are ranked among the top four in the nation, according to The Associated Press and the USA Today/ESPN polls.

The rivalry between the No. 3 Seminoles and the fourth-ranked Gators is particularly intense: Five times in the last seven years, the winner of the November game between these two teams has gone on to play for the national championship.

About 80,000 fans will attend the game at Doak-Campbell Stadium in Tallahassee, creating a hotel room shortage. In addition to the city’s 5,000 hotel rooms, there are another 1,000 rooms within a 50 to 60 mile radius, according to Charles Wright, executive director of the Leon County Tourist Development Council.

“We’ll get a little crowded, but we’ll clear off some church pews if we have to, to make room for everybody,” said Wright with a chuckle.

That might not be necessary. The private sector has stepped in — but boarders had better be able to pay and be willing to call even a frat house home for a couple of nights.

Some folks in Tallahassee and the immediate surrounding areas are renting out their houses for $400 a night, and others are offering rooms in their apartments or houses for about $150 to 200 a night, according to the Tallahassee Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Tallahassee Democrat reported Tuesday that even fraternity houses are clearing room for possible boarders. The Pi Kappa Phi fraternity has made 10 of its 24 rooms available for $150 a night in an effort to “beef up fraternity coffers,” fraternity member Ryan Owaski told the paper.

“I actually had a college student come up to me last night during one of my live shots and ask if anybody from ABC needed to rent his place for the weekend,” said ABCNEWS correspondent Erin Hayes, who will be forced to give up her Tallahassee hotel room this weekend. “I remember what college houses were like when I was in school — I hope it doesn’t come to that!”

But a few friendly Floridians are offering rooms for free for the media. “I don’t need someone to pay me $200 a night — it’s ridiculous what some people are asking,” said Sandy Zera, a secretary at Buck Lake Elementary School just outside Tallahassee.

As Partisan as Politics

The high stakes this weekend makes football as partisan as politics in Tallahassee.

“People here are either for the Gators or the Seminoles, or for Gore or Bush — there’s no in between, and we can be very opinionated about both,” said Zera, laughing.

Judi Davison, a member of the Tallahassee fire department, is letting her loyalties show. She is renting out a bedroom and bathroom in her home for $150 a night — but only to those people who are Florida State Seminole fans or Al Gore supporters. “That’s the great thing about America,” Davison said with a laugh, “is that I make those choices and set those limits.”

The convergence of a national event and football is not new to Tallahassee. In October 1995, the city made room for thousands of Floridians fleeing the panhandle after Hurricane Opal left a 120-mile path of destruction along the coast. Tallahassee was jammed with storm refugees, medical workers and reporters, only to have football fans descend upon the city for a big game between Florida State and rival Miami Hurricanes.

“The joke at the time was that the hurricanes were coming from two different directions,” said Wright. “So this isn’t the first time it’s happened. And while this is an important situation, it’s not life and death.”

Perhaps not. But the situation is nevertheless intense in Tallahassee.

“As was pointed out to me by an attorney for Vice President Gore, this post-election drama is the equivalent of a ‘bark-splitting cyclone,’” said ABCNEWS’ Hayes. “Add a high-stakes football game to this highest-stakes political battle, and I guess you come up with a game of musical rooms.”

ABC Radio contributed to this report.