For a third straight holiday season, cheerleaders, marching bands and politicians paraded up Main Street in Annapolis on Monday, the sidewalks lined with fans and flags of the two college football teams facing off at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium.
But while the NCAA bowl system can often pit unfamiliar foes in Sun Belt locales, this year's Military Bowl had a more recognizable air to it — that of a Navy home game, but on steroids. (Never mind that at least half of the blue-and-gold-clad fans were wearing Pitt gear.)
"It's [Navy's] hometown," said Janet Anderson, who drove from Alexandria, Va., for the game with her husband, Naval Academy alumnus Dale Anderson. In bowl games, "most people don't get that."
With Navy's 44-28 win over Pittsburgh, season ticket holders and casual fans got one final chance to watch what is now the winningest senior class of Midshipmen ever, and on their home turf. More than 36,000 people attended — 2,000 more than watched Virginia Tech defeat Cincinnati in last year's Military Bowl, and the largest crowd since the event moved to Annapolis in 2013.
The legions of Panther fans that descended on Annapolis helped ensure it was a busy long holiday weekend for downtown restaurants and hoteliers. Officials estimate a $17 million economic impact on greater Anne Arundel County from the game, including hotel stays, shopping, dining and visits to other local attractions, such as the Maryland Live casino.
Mid supporters, as well as the Annapolitans who watch them take over the town half a dozen Saturdays each fall, were quick to also credit their loyal fan base.
"This is a lot more crowded than you'll normally find in Annapolis," said Lee Rutland, an Annapolis man who was trying to grab lunch at Stan and Joe's Saloon on West Street.
He and friend Mike Wiggins gave up when they saw how packed it was with fans grabbing a bite and a brew before the game.
"Navy has a great following," Wiggins said.
Fans of both teams lined Main Street and Rowe Boulevard around midday Monday. The parade always precedes the bowl game, but this time, half of the flags lining the street were the ones bearing a large block-letter N and "Go Navy" that Annapolis public works crews put up for Navy home games.
Mayor Mike Pantelides said it was nice to see "a lot of familiar faces" while he rode in the parade in the back of a Mercedes convertible.
"It's like a regular Navy home game, except bigger," he said.
Pittsburgh fans also came en masse. Outside the Westin Annapolis, designated the Navy fan hotel by bowl organizers, the blue-and-gold hats and sweatshirts were all Pitt.
"We were going wherever Pittsburgh went," said Bill Shearer, who came from West Chester, Pa., with his two sons and nephew. "We love Annapolis."
Richard Heltzel said he has traveled all across the country from his home in Langhorne, Pa., to watch Pitt football and basketball teams play in Orlando, Fla., Charlotte, N.C., and Tempe, Ariz. Monday's was his second game at Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium, but his first that pit the Panthers against the Midshipmen.
He said he wasn't afraid of the Mids' home-field advantage.
"I don't care where they play," Heltzel said.
Zoe Ruzecki and Bronwyn Patterson, two 13-year-olds who set up a stand on West Street to sell hot chocolate with marshmallows and two kinds of cookies, said they have gotten business from many Navy fans in the past, but they fielded a lot of questions from out-of-towners this time around.
"We had a lot of people saying, 'Where's the bay?'" Bronwyn said.
Joseph McGovern, owner of Stan and Joe's, said business started booming on Saturday as fans began arriving in town for the game. He said he noticed more Navy fans than would come out for a typical home game.
"There's great support here for Navy," McGovern said.
Annapolis spokeswoman Rhonda Wardlaw said city leaders hoped to encourage people to spend time and money downtown by offering service on trolleys directly from the stadium to downtown after the game.
Businesses were eager to take advantage. Red Red Wine Bar on Main Street opened 20 minutes early as crowds were waiting for the parade to start Monday morning.
Later, when the crowds had left for the stadium, a sandwich board outside advertised that the bar was "proud to televise the Military Bowl."
"It's busier than a normal Monday," bartender Chris Lauer said.
Even those who aren't football fans could appreciate the boost.
"It's pretty dead downtown this time of year if there's not a game," Annapolis resident Nancy Rosenshine said.
Her granddaughter agreed.
"I think it's more exciting because Navy is playing," Phoebe Sunshine said.