When it comes to the economic impact of sports facilities, including some shiny new ones in the region, there’s a lot more to them than 'If you build it, they will come.'
With traditional leisure travel on the decline because of the COVID-19 crisis, Gulf Coast communities with economies that rely on visitors are hoping sports tourism will make up for lost revenue. Collier, Manatee and Pasco counties have all recently opened new or improved current major sports complexes intended to serve residents while also attracting big-time scholastic, collegiate and amateur athletic events and competitions.
In eastern Collier County, for one, the first phase of the $80 million Paradise Coast Sports Complex opened in early July. Operated by Sports Force Parks, it features four artificial turf fields and when fully built out next year it will boast more than 20 playing fields for sports ranging from baseball and softball to soccer, lacrosse, rugby, football and flag football.
In east Manatee County, Premier Sports Campus, with 23 athletic fields, is again up and running, hosting events such as a Labor Day soccer tournament that brought 1,500 players to the area and generated 1,100 hotel stays. The annual event normally draws 4,000 players but relieved hoteliers were grateful for the influx of room bookings after a slow summer.
“We love working with Premier, and we love the business it brings to the whole area,” Hyatt Place Lakewood Ranch Manager Cindy Moore told the East County Observer, the Business Observer’s sister publication.
Another jewel in the crown is the recently opened, 98,000-square-foot Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County, in Wesley Chapel. The $29 million facility opened in late August and is part of the county’s strategy to brand itself as “Florida’s Sports Coast.”
“We’re positioning the destination for what it's truly known for — the unique selling proposition of sports and leisure,” says Pasco County Tourism Director Adam Thomas, a former professional baseball player who suited up for the Los Angeles Dodgers, Oakland Athletics and San Francisco Giants during his 12-year career. “We’re not a beach destination — we don’t play in that arena.”
Two challenges loom over the trend: Timing, in the context of the pandemic and when large crowds will return, and, closely related, generating sufficient revenue to justify these facilities' existence given they are largely financed by tourism development taxes. Overcoming those obstacles and others is how these places can get to their ultimate goal — to play ball.
Thomas, 41, says the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus facility’s uniqueness makes it well worth the investment, which will rise to $44 million when an adjacent hotel is completed next year. In the short time it’s been open, the complex has already hosted four events that generated 1,000 hotel stays.
“Right now in the Tampa Bay marketplace, there isn't a facility like this,” Thomas says. “The design is going to cater to each event that we're trying to bring into the destination.”
'I’ve been doing this a long time ... designing the facility to match the programming is the biggest key to success.' Richard Blaylock, president and CEO of RADDSports
Thomas, in his third year with Experience Florida's Sports Coast, Pasco County’s destination marketing organization, says the county wanted something iconic for its marquee sports facility. He says the world-class rowing facility at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota provided some inspiration, but ultimately, the design was left up to RADDSports, a Gainesville-based company that will operate the facility and be responsible for booking and managing events.
RADDSports President and CEO Richard Blaylock says Pasco County officials made a smart business decision when they turned over the design of the complex to his firm, which also manages a 16-field baseball and softball facility in Newberry, west of Gainesville.
“I’ve been doing this a long time,” says Blaylock, 59, and “designing the facility to match the programming is the biggest key to success.”
When envisioning the design of public amenities like the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus, Blaylock says, municipal and county governments can be short-sighted and fixated on saving money at the expense of functionality.
“So many times in these projects, the government, they get the idea that they want to build an economic driver for sports tourism,” Blaylock says. “They get this idea of what they want, they go in and build it and then they start value engineering. But once it goes over budget, they value-engineer the programmatics right out of it.”
As an example, Blaylock cites a swimming facility in Waterloo, Iowa. Officials aspired to host high-level swim competitions but when the project ran over budget, they scaled it down, eliminating two lanes. The decision proved costly, because the facility’s design ultimately did not meet the standards for events the city aspired to host.
“They took themselves right out of the market,” Blaylock says. “We’re fortunate to have been able to work with Pasco County, to be able to do the design, to show them the programming and everything else.”
RADDSports seeks to maximize Pasco County’s return on investment by making the facility and its programming open to local residents — instead of just hosting splashy sports events and competitions that bring in visitors from across the state and country. Blaylock says sports complexes that are built to drive tourism sometimes squander their potential by “going dark” Monday through Thursday.
“Why not open it up and make it a community asset midweek?” Blaylock asks.
The Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus, which can accommodate 17 different sports, will offer three levels of sports programming — developmental, competitive and elite — for local athletes. Developmental leagues cost $125 per athlete, per season, while the competitive leagues cost $250. Fees for the elite programs, which will involve travel to competitions in other towns and cities, will range between $225 and $325 per month.
While these programs won’t generate tourism revenue in hotel stays, Blaylock says they will be economic drivers in that parents will be patronizing gas stations and drive-through restaurants as they shuttle hungry young athletes to and from the complex. “The idea is to develop a ‘minor league’ system for every one of our sports,” Blaylock says.
Blaylock says enrollment in RADDSports’ community programs has been slow to materialize, however. “It’s the one thing that the pandemic is kind of still hitting us on,” he says. “Parents are still not comfortable putting their kids in programs.”
So what must sports complexes do to ensure athletes’ health and safety — and put parents at ease?
“The pandemic has obviously had an effect on all DMOs throughout the global marketplace,” Thomas says, using the acronym for destination marketing organizations. “Pasco County does have a mask mandate in place, which is helping us out tremendously with booking events, because that’s what site selectors want to see.”
Thomas says some events have not gone ahead as scheduled but instead of canceling them outright, organizers worked hard to reschedule them. And to reassure site selectors that the Wiregrass complex can safely handle gatherings and competitions, he and his team sought out a partnership with the Global Biorisk Advisory Council that will provide objective, third-party certification that the facility’s cleanliness and hygiene standards are up to snuff.
In doing so, the county and RADDSports have evinced a powerful — and timely — business lesson: “We can’t control our reality, but we can control how we respond,” Thomas says.
The effectiveness of the response is reflected in the Wiregrass facility’s earning potential. Thomas says the complex was originally forecast to generate $3.2 million in gross revenue per year. Because of the pandemic, that figure has been downgraded to $2.6 million for 2021, but it certainly could have been much worse.
Blaylock points to other numbers when gauging how successful the county and RADDSports have navigated the pandemic’s myriad challenges. Numbers that not only don’t lie, but speak to the facility’s potential to drive tourism.
“We’ve got 53 events on the books over the next 42 weekends,” he says.
Play ball, indeed.