EAST COUNTY — Elliott Falcione, executive director for the Manatee Convention and Visitors Bureau, knows the growth of the sports segment in Manatee and Sarasota counties is a game-changer on the economic level.
When it comes to attracting visitors, sports are now second only to the two-county area’s white-sand beaches.
“It used to be a niche market, but it’s become its own segment,” Falcione says. “The sports segment allows us to diversify our business programs, and this segment caters to our shoulder season (off-peak tourism season) that begins around Aug. 1 to Jan. 15.
“(It’s really about) how do you continue to bring an influx of business?” he says. “The sports segment is doing that really well for us. The sports business creates an influx in new dollars to our mainland community (and) helps support the hospitality industry by sustaining and growing jobs on a year-round basis.”
Sports as a market segment has evolved over the last five years, with the renovation of the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Pirate City, the development of Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, which hosts soccer, lacrosse and other tournaments and sports leagues, and the decision by IMG Academies to begin hosting tournaments, Falcione says.
Statistics from local sports commissions are great indicators.
Nicole Rissler, director of sports for the Sarasota County Sports Commission, a division of Visit Sarasota, says growth has been “tremendous” in the sports-tourism market and segment, largely because of the area’s growing facilities.
And because of the quality of the venues, Rissler says, larger, more prestigious international and national competitions are finding a home in the area.
“In 2013, right now we are scheduled to sponsor, just on the Sarasota County side, 66 events,” Rissler says. “I think the (biggest difference from last year) is (the number of) high-profile events we’re going to host.”
Already secured are the 2013 Pan American Masters Swimming Championship and the 2013 U.S. Masters Rowing Championship, among others.
“We (expect) to secure more,” she says. “We anticipate adding additional events as we go into 2013. Our big ones are probably on the schedule now, but we also are host every year to the Super Boat Grand Prix, and some of the new things that are unique to us is that we are expanding into some different things for us, like the Tough Mudder (adventure race held Dec. 1, at Hi-Hat Ranch).”
Although Sarasota is sponsoring only six more events in 2013 than in 2012, Rissler says she expects the economic impacts to be significant. Last year’s 61 events generated a direct economic impact of $43.5 million, with more than 53,612 hotel rooms stays on record, compared to 2011’s 59 events, which generated $34 million.
“It’s strategic,” Rissler says, noting the year-over-year increase is significant. “We are putting more dollars into larger events that are going to give us the best return for our investment.”
Joe Pickett, founder of the Bradenton Area Sports Commission, also says his organization is being more strategic with events — attracting several larger sporting events in 2013.
In 2012, the Bradenton commission scheduled 95 events, with an estimated impact of about $38.8 million. (Pickett notes the calculation by Sarasota and Manatee’s sports commissions for economic impact are different.) In 2013, Pickett expects to host about 84 events, with an estimated economic impact of between $40 million and $46 million.
“We’ve got some larger events that are staying for longer (periods of time),” Pickett says, adding event duration has significant impacts.
On a larger scale, however, Falcione says the long-term impacts of sports tourism, and tourism overall, is to bring residents and business owners to the Sarasota-Manatee area — an impact greater than tourism dollars alone.
When you have a demographic of a household income of $100,000 a year and an average age of 49 that’s visiting the area, future visits are virtually guaranteed, he says.
“Once they are exposed to it one time, they come back for future vacations and eventually try to relocate to the area,” he says.
Although construction at Nathan Benderson Park, just south of University Parkway and west of I-75, is still under construction, the venue will take an international spotlight starting in 2013.
The center, which, when finished, will include a 2,000-meter rowing course, grandstands, a boathouse and other amenities, is designed to meet most requirements for national and international sports competitions, says Paul Blackketter, the project manager for Benderson Development and chief operating officer for the SunCoast Aquatic Nature Center Association, the non-profit tasked with managing rowing facilities in both Sarasota and Manatee counties.
The park will host its first international triathlon in March and will also host the U.S. Master Rowing Championships in August.
“We’re already seeing a lot of new interest in the facility,” Blackketter says. “One big thing we discovered over the years is the true diversity of the venue and what it offers to sports, not just rowing. Rowing is about 15% of what is going to be available.”
Other events include dragon boat races, canoe and kayak sprints, running races and more.
“We’re hoping to be a major training center for the Rio de Janeiro Olympic games,” Blackketter says. “They’re looking for a similar environment in which to train.
“It brings the international, global community to Sarasota/Bradenton,” he says. “Elite athletes recognize Sarasota/Bradenton as an area for world-class training and competition. You have that identity on an Olympic level. This is the only one of its kind in the North American continent.”
Blackketter also hopes to have programming for the community and for military veterans, as well as corporate training opportunities at the park, once it’s completed.
Once the extension of Cattlemen Road from University Parkway to Fruitville Road opens in March, the park will have even more accessibility, making it even more desirable, as well, Blackketter says.
The site — although the most well-known — also serves as a complement to other training venues in the area, including rowing facilities at Fort Hamer Park, in Manatee County and a launch in Osprey.
“Fort Hamer is a training facility, mainly for collegiate,” Falcione says. “Once again, it will dump new money into that corridor of the county. It complements Nathan Benderson Park (and the) launch in Osprey. It allows other training opportunities. It’s so important we have these other launch areas.”
Additionally, Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch’s Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch, located adjacent to the Lakewood Ranch Post Office, east of Lorraine Road, has been making national headlines, as well, since opening in April 2011.
Host to the a Labor Day soccer tournament that drew about 19,000 amateur athletes and fans, and the 2012 Nike International Friendlies, at which the U.S. Under-17 Men’s National Team squared off against Brazil, Turkey and Portugal, the facility is having a significant impact on the local economy.
SMR officials estimate the Labor Day soccer tournament alone generated more than $13 million in economic impact to the region, as 3,500 cars delivered players from nearly 330 Florida-based teams for the three-day competition.
The Dunkin’ Donuts located in the Lorraine Corners shopping plaza did more than $8,000 in business in two days during the Nike tournament — more than twice its typical sales, says Premier’s Director of Sports Tim Mulqueen.
Gary Simone, owner of The Ranch Grill, in the same plaza, said the tournament increased his business’ sales by 30%.
“It’s had a very positive effect on us,” he says of the sports campus.
Mulqueen says Premier has started to enter into some longer-term agreements with major sports professionals, including an agreement with Tim Howard, of the U.S. National Soccer Team, to run his goalie camp at Premier.
“We have established ourselves as a national training and competition venue,” Mulqueen says. “I think the reason for that is the beautiful fields we have here, the amount of fields and the location; we’re in a beautiful part of Florida, a beautiful part of Manatee, surrounded by everything these organizers are looking for, outside the scope of competition — restaurants, movie theaters, beaches.”
“I look at 2013 as (a time) for us to really go to the next level, in terms of securing long-term contracts with our major organizers, such as U.S. Soccer, Nike and 3D Lacrosse,” he says. “I just think this (Sarasota-Bradenton) area is in for a great treat in seeing some of the fantastic sporting events, and it’s exciting.”
Even with such tremendous growth in the sports-tourism segment, more is on the way.
Lakewood Ranch developer Schroeder-Manatee Ranch announced in November it would build the Ancient Oak Gun Club, a sporting clay course on about 70 acres of undeveloped property within Lakewood Ranch, about one-and-a-half miles east of Lorraine Road and about a half-mile south of State Road 64.
SMR President and CEO Rex Jensen has already said the company intends to attract state and national level play at the course, once it opens later this year.
Additionally, Sarasota-based Good Sports Enterprises is in discussion with SMR to develop a 55,000-square-foot indoor multi-use facility near Premier, as well as 115-room hotel with dormitory-style housing options.
No formal plans have been released, because the deal has not yet been finalized and financing for the project is still being determined.
Mulqueen says the facility, if it is developed, would allow for some longer-term training opportunities for athletes utilizing Premier and other facilities.
Contact Pam Eubanks at [email protected].