To the growing list of amenities that make Southwest Florida such an irresistible place to be—including our internationally-acclaimed beaches and cultural scene—we can add sports as yet another calling card that attracts tens of thousands of annual visitors to the region.
On the face of it, sports tourism is hardly new to an area that has officially hosted spring training baseball for the better part of the last 88 years; and whose warmth and year-round sunshine routinely attracts golfers, fishermen and all manner of recreational enthusiasts. What is new are the scope and variety of the international sporting events being awarded to the region.
Our blossoming image as a sports tourism hub is thanks in no small part to several world-class venues—some old, some new—that continually garner worldwide attention. Some, like IMG Academies, have been attracting top tier athletes and their families for many years, growing in the world’s awareness as they grew in size, scope and reputation. Others have leapt to prominence more recently; even—in some cases—before their designs left the drawing board.
Late last November, during what had once been the annual lull between our summer and winter tourist seasons, 21,000 people converged on the Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch for the 2012 Nike International Friendlies Tournament. Barely two years old, the facility welcomed 6,000 gifted young soccer players—representing 176 teams from as far away as Brazil, France and Turkey—for the second year in a row. Along with their coaches, families and at least 14,000 spectators they unleashed an estimated $11.3 million in economic impact on the area—all in just four days. More high-profile tournaments and events are planned for the Premier Sports Campus in 2013, including the Florida Winefest and Auction’s hot-air balloon festival from April 4th-7th.
Sports are contributing to one of the fastest growing tourist segments in the region, according to Visit Sarasota County. Sports tourists spent nearly $62 million in Sarasota County last year and generated more than $42 million in economic impact. We think the impact is much higher, perhaps immeasurably so, as the seed for many a future home purchase is often sown during the buyer’s first visit to the region.
On the calendar for 2013 is the U.S. Masters Rowing Championship which will be held at Nathan Benderson Park, east of downtown Sarasota, August 15-18. We can take great pride in this competitive rowing facility, which is very near completion, as its state-of-the-art design was apparently enough to secure an ironclad commitment from the event’s governing body well before construction began.
Also coming in 2013 is the Pan American Masters Swimming Championships, (June 1-5) at the Selby Aquatic Center of the Sarasota YMCA. This will be the first time the U.S. has hosted the biennial event, which is expected to draw up to 2,000 adult swimmers from North, South and Central America, as well as from the Caribbean.
Doing justice to the variety of signature sporting events currently scheduled for our region is well beyond the scope of this column. But the list reads like an Olympics events calendar.
With such events occurring year round with greater frequency, the line between Southwest Florida’s high and low tourist seasons is becoming increasingly blurred. No longer do hotels, restaurants and other service-driven businesses suddenly go from feast to famine the moment the last snowbird departs. Typically affluent, “Sports-birds” are fast becoming a much-welcomed migratory phenomenon.