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East County Wednesday, Nov. 18, 2020 1 year ago

Longer winter season could boost Premier in Lakewood Ranch

Manatee County hopes to schedule more soccer tournaments during the traditionally busy tourism months because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
by: Brendan Lavell Staff Writer

Manatee County officials are banking on the hope that sports continue to be an avenue for people to return to a semblance of normalcy during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Elliott Falcione, the county's Convention and Visitor Bureau Department director, said sports tourism generates about 13% of Manatee County tourism each year, resulting in an economic impact of $175 to $200 million according to third-party firm Research Data Services.

He estimated about three-quarters of that amount is generated in the Lakewood Ranch, Parrish and the University Parkway areas.

During the pandemic, though, the county has seen a drop in activity at the Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch. Due to lost tournaments and other events, Premier brought in $96,991 less ($475,655) than the previous fiscal year (572,646).  

Although sports tourism lagged for much of the year, the county is now eyeing additional local and regional tournaments as an opportunity to bring visitors back to the area and help kickstart an economy that has struggled.

Falcione said Premier should be able to secure tournaments from organization's that had to cancel their major events earlier during the pandemic. The thought is that Premier could host those make-up events through next March to make up for some of the lost revenue.

"In non-COVID years, we've always stayed away from sponsoring sports tournaments in the months of February and March, just because we're at peak leisure season," Falcione said. "And there's really minimal hotel rooms available."

Boys U19 Clearwater Chargers midfielder Jack Righter  defends the ball during a match against Hunter's Creek SC (Orlando). Photo by Ryan Kohn.

Falcione doesn't expect international tourism to have its usual impact during this time. However, he said Premier can target regional tournaments which would draw from Florida and other Southeastern states.

It will be a critical period for Premier since the county has to pay for the maintenance of the campus, including expenses such as  utility services and operating supplies, whether tournaments are being held or not.

“Premier, traditionally, is not a sustainable operation when you look at just revenues and expenses,” Falcione said. “[It exists] to drive new dollars into the community. So that's what we focus on. Do we want to run sustainable venues at some point? Absolutely. We will always work hard to minimize any kind of financial shortfalls year in and year out. We will always work hard to operate venues in a sustainable manner. But more so, it's important to find business that drives new dollars into the area.”

Falcione said the county aims to hold two major tournaments per month from September through December in a normal year. But this year, the goal is to hold one or two tournaments per month through March in an effort to make up as much lost revenue as possible. The uncertainty of 2021 Spring Training season also contributes to the county's aggressiveness to schedule late-winter tournaments that would fill hotel rooms at a time when no-vacancy signs are more the norm.

Falcione is in negotiations with major tournament organizers but he said he can't release information on the events until contracts are signed.

“I think if we can push hard this winter — maybe that will get us to Easter — hopefully we'll see those vaccines kick in or better treatment to get this COVID behind us,” Falcione said.

Premier was essentially vacant from March through June. The campus started recouping some revenue when practices were allowed to restart in July, but tournaments are, ultimately, the big prize.

Premier started holding tournaments again beginning on Labor Day, when it hosted almost 200 teams. The Labor Day tournament was followed in October by a tournament, hosted by the Lakewood Ranch Chargers, that brought in about 80 teams.

“We were excited it fed the 'mainland' properties, the restaurants in East County,” Falcione said.

Falcione said the cancelled Nike International Friendlies tournament, which would have been held in December, was a loss of $6-8 million in economic impact. An 80-team regional tournament, which the county hopes to grow in the future, is in the works as a replacement.

Premier has a list of about six clients that schedule tournaments on a regular basis. Sometimes, Premier reaches out to some of its strongest partners, such as the Lakewood Ranch Chargers, to let them know there is an available weekend and to see if the partner has any interest in scheduling a tournament.

Falcione said the the county has scheduled the new Dimitri Cup soccer tournament in January.

“It helps us plant seeds this year with these smaller tournaments, with the hope that they can come back next year and maybe be a little bit more robust,” Falcione said. “It will really help the recovery period. We look at 2021 as a full year of just total recovery. Where hopefully we'll get back to normalcy in 2022.”

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Brendan Lavell is a general assignment reporter for the Observer. He earned degrees in journalism and history at the University of Missouri. He has visited 48 of the 50 United States, has a black cat named Arya and roots for the Eagles, Flyers, Phillies, 76ers and Chelsea FC.

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