Addressing a press conference at Lakewood National Golf Club, LECOM Trustee Tom Wedzik remembered the first time he visited Lakewood Ranch in 2002.
He had been brought to the area from his home in Davenport, Fla., to check out a proposed expansion site for the Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine. He thought the idea was crazy.
"I saw all the cows, or steers, surrounding us," he said. "Thankfully, we had people who are smarter than I am. It was great to see this plan come together. The reality? This is a great venue. I am amazed at this county's growth."
Wedzik was a featured speaker Jan. 9 because LECOM was being announced as the title sponsor for the Suncoast Classic, a Web.com Tour event making its debut at Lakewood National Golf Club Feb. 11-17.
LECOM, the PGA Tour and Global Golf Management struck a five-year agreement. The monetary end of the deal was not announced. Wedzik confirmed it was "substantially more" than $100,000 a year but wouldn't confirm the cost.
Although LECOM, with more than 4,000 students at its main campus in Erie, Pa., and its two satellites in Lakewood Ranch and Greensburg, Pa., is the largest medical school in the nation by enrollment, it continues an aggressive branding philosophy in Manatee and Sarasota counties. The Lakewood Ranch campus currently has 1,610 students enrolled.
In February, 2017, LECOM purchased naming rights to the home of the Bradenton Marauders and the Spring Training site of the Pittsburgh Pirates, now LECOM Park.
LECOM, which opened its Lakewood Ranch campus in 2004 and added a LECOM Dental building in 2012, paid approximately $230,000 a year for the 15-year-deal.
Then in August, LECOM purchased Sarasota radio station WSRQ-FM from Sarasota's Jim Lampl. The station will play hits from the 1960s and 1970s along with delivering health-related programming and news updates about LECOM. The price of the sale was not announced.
"It is an opportunity to get LECOM's name out there and information about all its programs," said LECOM Director of Communications Pierre Bellicini in August. "It's about brand recognition."
So why golf?
"We are the largest medical school in the nation," Wedzik said. "But what do they say? If you are No. 1, don't rest on your laurels? We see the Web.com golfers to be much like our students. We have students studying their hearts out four years to be called a doctor. "These Web.com Tour players are doing the same thing, working hard to reach the ultimate level."
The LECOM Suncoast Classic will not be televised, but Wedzik said there is value because networks like the Golf Channel will make multiple references to the tournament and where it will be held.
"That's great awareness," he said.
He said that awareness in important nationwide in LECOM's growth in Lakewood Ranch.
"If students are smart enough to get into medical school, they are smart enough to come to this beautiful area of Lakewood Ranch," he said, noting LECOM is planning to expand the physical presence of its dental school in the near future.
Locally, he said LECOM would like to attract more students from the area. He said the tournament will generate plenty of local attention.
Besides branding, Wedzik noted the tournament will benefit the LECOM Scholarship Fund to help its students pay off the cost of attending medical school. He said proceeds from the tournament will go to other charities as well.
"This is about enhancing the lives of the community we serve," he said.
LECOM does have experience with the Web.com Tour as it has been the title sponsor since 2016 of the LECOM Health Challenge at the Peek'n Peak Resort in French Creek, N.Y.
"Those Web.com folks know what they are doing," Wedzik said.
Web.com Tour President Dan Glod said LECOM has been a great partner which will get it's money's worth because fans will see "the next wave of PGA Tour stars." The tournament offers a $550,000 purse.
Among the field of 144 will be two Lakewood Ranch golfers. One is Lakewood Ranch High graduate Danny Walker, who won the final stage of the Web.com's Tour Qualifying Tournament at Whirlwind Golf Club Dec. 9 in Chandler, Ariz. The other is Lakewood Ranch High graduate Seath Lauer, a former Web.com player who received a special exemption into the tournament.