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Business Observer Friday, Apr. 29, 2011 10 years ago

Banking on Business

Orlando officials want to make the city Florida's leading sporting event host. To beat Tampa and Miami, the city will need plenty of help from the local business community.
by: Dan Ping Editor/Central Florida

Issue. Making Orlando the go-to a sports destination
Industry. Athletic events
Key. Central Florida business leaders' support is key to Orlando attracting marquee sporting events.

When Sam Stark talks about teamwork and the importance of having depth at every position, he's not referring to the Orlando Magic — or any other sports team, for that matter.

Stark is president of the Central Florida Sports Commission, and he's putting together a team of business leaders to help the commission make Orlando the state's top destination for marquee sporting events.

Top on the commission's list is landing a spot as a regional host for the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament. The Atlantic Coast Conference basketball championship is a goal, too, as are Olympic qualifiers in gymnastics, volleyball and other sports.

The commission recently launched an initiative called “We're Ready” that asks Central Florida business to sign pledges of support and contribute financially. The campaign is targeted at C-Level executives and prominent business leaders, many of whom Stark has built relationships with over the years working in sports marketing. In fact, except for a stint as the president of the Winter Park Chamber of Commerce, Stark has spent all of his professional career marketing sports in Orlando and Chicago.

The idea for the “We're Ready” campaign evolved from watching the success of other sports commission, particularly the Indiana Sports Corp (ISC). Founded in 1979 as the first sports commission in the U.S, the ISC has successfully attracted more than 400 national and international sporting events to the city of Indianapolis, including the 2010 Final Four, the city's sixth time to host the event.

Stark says the ISC has succeeded in recent years by bringing corporate partners to the table early in the bid process to utilize their networking prowess and dollars.

Reaching out to local companies for support is nothing new.

“The business community is the anchor for all types of successful events, from charity to art to sports,” notes Stark.

Stark wants to get a leg up on his colleagues in Tampa and Miami by lining up corporate support early.

“You need to know where you can go to get the money,” says Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions. “I remember one time having to raise $250,000 in a short period of time for an event. We did it, but it does give you pause.”

Stark is recruiting corporate sponsorships for signature events like the Mascot Games and aggressively selling individual and corporate memberships to the sports commission.

Stark wants to add to those private donations, and the strategy is to have a bigger war chest than other cities competing for the same sporting events.

The Central Florida Sports Commission's budget is about $1.5 million, with 50% coming from private donations.

The Miami-Dade Sports Commission has a budget of $800,000 to $1.1 million depending on the year, says Executive Director Mike Sophia. About half or those funds come from taxes.

Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, says his agency's budget ranges from $1.4 to $2.4 million, depending on the what events the commission is hosting. The commission receives about $700,000 in public money.

It's a pay-to-play business

Stark says if Orlando, or any city, wants to attract major sporting events, it's imperative that the local business community provide significant funding.

“This is a pay-to-play business, and it's expensive,” Stark says. “We don't expect government to provide the funding.”

According to Don Schumacher, landing an event like the U.S. Figure Skating Championship could require as much as $1 million in local funding. Securing the Final Four costs somewhere between $4 to $5 million.

Part of the financial commitment is an agreement to purchase any tickets the NCAA and participating schools do not use. The local commitment also includes more than just cash. Billboards, radio spots, and meeting facilities are all part of the support local businesses can provide as part of the official bid.

Stark says bringing corporate partners on board early helps in other ways, too.

For instance, broad support from the local businesses allows the sports commission to tap resources that might not be available otherwise.

“If we had 100 business leaders actively involved in helping us recruit events to Orlando, there's a possibility that one of them went to school or has some relationship with a member of the site selection committee,” says Stark. “We want to leverage those connections.”

In addition, sports organizers are demanding community involvement. It's no longer just about one sporting event. Festivities leading up to the event could include fan festivals, art shows, corporate parties and parades. Support from the business community helps assure these secondary events are successful through sponsorships, attendance and publicity.

“These big events want to know they have the support of the community,” says Stark. “In the old days, the decision on where to locate an event may have been based solely on money. Today, they want to generate as much buzz as possible.”

The payback

The benefits of attracting business support are obvious for the Central Florida Sports Commission, but what companies participate in such ventures and why?

Stark says the sports commission's “We're Ready” campaign has attracted a diverse group of businesses from hotels to car dealers.

“For some of these companies, there will be a direct impact on their business. For others, it's a matter of community pride,” says Stark.

That's one reason why the Orlando office of Baker Hostetler law firm become involved.

“These big sporting event bring notoriety and camaraderie to the community,” says Greg Lee, an attorney with the firm who oversees the firm's partnership with the sports commission.

There are tangible benefits beyond community pride, Lee notes. Sporting events provide a platform for Baker Hostetler to market the firm, as well as build relationships with existing and potential clients.

“Sporting events have increased in popularity in the last several years because unlike the golf course, you're not just limited to four people in a group,” Lee says. “Watching an exciting sporting event helps build those relationships.”

Lee says his firm has signed a “We're Ready” commitment card, but like most companies, Baker Hostetler has not set a specific dollar amount it will provide. That's because the new campaign is barely a month old and there are no events to sponsor.

“We're going to commit time, talent and treasure to this effort, but it's hard to say how much because we don't know what is needed,” Lee says. “I can say that we will participate in a meaningful way.”

The “We're Ready” campaign kicked off April 13 at an event in the Amway Arena just before the Orlando Magic's last regular season game. So far 50 businesses have committed to participate. Stark said the goal is to have 100 companies pledge support.

'In our strike zone'

Lee says supporting the sports commission's efforts also makes sense given Orlando's spot as one of the top tourist destinations.

“We do hospitality as good as anyone in the country,” Lee says. “It's in our strike zone. This is just a more specific type of tourist business.”

Stark says the new Amway Arena, the Citrus Bowl and the 2-million-square-foot Orange County Convention Center allow the commission to pursue all types of sporting events from major NCAA basketball tournaments and Olympic qualifiers to volleyball and fencing competitions.

The economic impact can be substantial.

Tampa officials estimate this year's NCAA tournament games generated between 9,000 to 10,000 hotel room nights and brought in $10 to $15 million for the local economy.

Smaller sporting events may produce just 10% of that revenue, but Stark says even niche events build Orlando's reputation as mecca for sports.

“The goal is to bring people to Central Florida through sports,” Stark says.

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