MANATEE -- Elliott Falcione took the blame Monday for a weekend of social media outrage aimed at Bradenton.
In response to the #BoycottBradenton craze that began Friday night, the executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau held a press conference to clear the air.
"I stand here being the sole responsible person who negotiated and cut the advertising deal for the Bradenton area," Falcione said. "It doesn't represent my staff, the residents of Bradenton or the governments of Bradenton."
The Tampa Bay Lightning and the Pittsburgh Penguins are playing in the National Hockey League Eastern Conference finals.
Bradenton, spring training home of baseball's Pittsburgh Pirates, draws thousands of fans to McKechnie Field each year.
Falcione made the $6,000 decision to place Bradenton-area advertising on 20,000 of the Penguin's yellow rally towels, sparking an uproar by Lightning fans. For Pittsburgh, using bright yellow rally towels dates back to 1975 when the first Terrible Towel was used in an AFC divisional playoff game between the Baltimore Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Though many of Bradenton's Tampa Bay Lightning fans were disgusted to see the name of their town on yellow rally towels, Falcione stressed the keepsake value of the towel to "Pittsburghers" is what made it a smart advertising buy.
"They like to save things and they like to collect items," Falcione said. "They like memorabilia. If we can keep our brand on that towel and they keep it as a souvenir in their house for many years, any time they want to come on vacation specifically to Florida, hopefully they'll think of Bradenton, Anna Maria Island and Longboat Key."
In the 2016 fiscal year, the bureau budgeted $100,000 to spend during Tampa Bay Lightning games, including banners behind the Bolts' bench, online promotion and in-game video displays. The $6,000 for the towels came from the bureau's advertising budget line item where they had money "still available," Falcione said.
But Falcione assured everyone that leftover towels would not be used at Monday night's Game 2 between the Bolts and Penguins.
He explained how Pittsburgh Penguins hockey team representatives reached out to him at the end of April with an advertising opportunity and advised him to act quickly.
"They offered advertising space on one of their rally towels," he said. "I needed to react quickly; it was a spontaneous decision, so I went with it and we bought it." Falcione "didn't think of who the opponent would be when I made that decision."
The bureau does not anticipate any more advertising in the National Hockey League market this year, but Falcione did say he won't rule out advertising with the Penguins in the future.
"I felt bad I didn't think it all the way through, but I'm not embarrassed and I'm not ashamed," Falcione said. "I need to let the community and stakeholders know that when we do things that make people upset that we could've done better, we just make sure we don't do it again. But will we partner with the Penguins in the future? Absolutely."
Manatee County saw 37 percent growth in visitation from Pittsburgh year-over-year, Falcione said. The bureau hopes to continue the growth as Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport tries to secure a flight between SRQ and Pittsburgh.
Airport president Rick Piccolo said they've been trying to obtain a Pittsburgh flight for the past two years.
"Mark Stuckey has gone up to Pittsburgh a couple of times with Elliott," Piccolo said. "We've met with the airport, with airlines and with the Pirates trying to get them to do a Pittsburgh service at least during the training season. We have been making efforts. but none of them have been successful yet."
One issue for airlines is whether there's a strong enough year-round market to support a flight, Piccolo said, and airlines weigh other factors such as how a new flight would fit into their schedule, profitability of the flight and price elasticity in the new flight's market.
County spokesman Nick Azzara said the #BoycottBradenton issue was a matter of poor timing.
"The more you learn about the situation, the more it makes sense," Azzara said. "I gained a lot of respect for Elliott out of this, too. He owned it, and nobody likes to make mistakes on the job."
Janelle O'Dea, business reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7095 or follow her on Twitter@jayohday.