Lakewood Ranch's sports culture draws international attention

nwilliams@bradenton.comNovember 19, 2012 

Editor's Note: This is the second in a three-part series of stories on the expected future growth of eastern Manatee County and its impact on residents and businesses.

By NICK WILLIAMS

nwilliams@bradenton.com

LAKEWOOD RANCH -- Lakewood Ranch is rapidly becoming a world renowned sports destination, and several Manatee and state-wide sports officials say the East Manatee community may become a premier magnet for sports tourism.

Aided by the attention brought to the area by IMG's Sports Training Academy in Bradenton and the Florida World Aquatic Center at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota, Lakewood Ranch can host national and international events in soccer, football, golf, lacrosse, cross country, polo and non-mainstream sports like Ultimate Frisbee, all of which

equate to millions of dollars spent in the sports tourism industry.

During the past 18 months, Lakewood Ranch has hosted national and international events at its $2.5 million, 22-soccer field facility sitting on 75 acres near the intersection of State Road 70 and Lorraine Road. Officials with Schroeder-Manatee Ranch, the developer of Lakewood Ranch, say the events have brought more than 100,000 visitors this year to the Manatee-Sarasota area and generated $65 million in economic impact.

Opened in April 2011, The Premier Sports Campus at 5895 Post Blvd., Lakewood Ranch, has already been used by U.S. Soccer, the national governing body of soccer, Major League Soccer's DC United and several youth and minor sport organizations. When U.S. Soccer returns to the campus this month for a week-long showcase, it will be aired on FoxSoccer, a specialty channel owned by Fox Entertainment.

If things go as planned, similar events scheduled at the campus, as well as the Sarasota Polo fields, will be broadcast to millions around the globe.

"We've been receiving interest from the NCAA and other college divisions, and because we will have a stadium, those events will be televised as well," said Tim Mulqueen, director of sports at Lakewood Ranch.

Officials at SMR are planning to make improvements to accommodate large events that will solidify the sports campus as an international, multi-use facility for training and sports events.

For the past year, Sarasota-based GoodSports Enterprises LLC and SMR have been in talks about building a 55,000-square-foot indoor multi-use facility and 115-room hotel with dormitory-style lodging at Lakewood Ranch. The indoor facility could be used for basketball, volleyball, martial arts, cheerleading, gymnastics and other indoor events. SMR officials also say additions to The Premier Sports campus will include permanent bathrooms, concession areas, stadium seating, a locker room facility, indoor strength and conditioning training facility, outdoor track and a scoreboard.

With these changes, sports officials around the state say Lakewood Ranch can become a hub for sports.

"The sports complex, for lack of a better word, was a game changer in terms of Florida, the Southwest Coast and the Manatee-Sarasota area," said Joe Picket, Manatee's sports commissioner. "It has the potential, and will be an epicenter going forward."

"Those multi-use fields can be used for a variety of things," said Nick Gandy, director of communications for the Florida Sports Foundation, the official sports promotion and development organization for Florida. "There's a lot of opportunity for this complex. There is a big demand for those kind of facilities."

That demand includes Lakewood Ranch becoming an offseason training destination for college and professional athletes.

A Canadian Football League team has inquired about using the facility, and there have been discussions between SMR and Pirate City, the spring training complex for the Pittsburgh Pirates, about housing visiting athletes at the Bradenton complex for events in Lakewood Ranch. In turn, there is potential for baseball players to use the campus for performance training.

"It definitely has huge potential, not just attracting events and visitors to the area," said Trevor Gooby, senior director of Florida Operations for the Pittsburgh Pirates. "It's a great asset and complements what we have here with the Pirates. It makes us a destination that stands out among other counties."

This past February, the campus was used to train several college football stars in preparation for NFL combines, an evaluation of draft prospects. Mike Gough, owner of Lakewood Ranch's Athletic Edge, an 8,500-square-foot athletic facility on Main Street, trained more than two dozen college athletes, including 15 who were either drafted or signed as free agents. Gough also trains pro baseball players, pro golfers and even 10-year old tennis prodigies at his facility and the sports campus.

"With the addition of more housing in the area, we'll see professional and national teams use our facility as a national training center," Mulqueen said.

Though SMR will not shy away from working with professional markets, SMR does not want to compete with facilities like IMG in Bradenton, which is regarded as one of the top athletic training facilities in the world, or the Olympic-style rowing facility in Sarasota, which is the first 2,000-meter course in the U.S. capable of hosting national and world championships as approved by FISA, the international rowing federation.

Instead, the campus will primarily cater to local and amateur events that will bring families to the area.

"That will spur the relationship into the tourism, the hospitality, and the restaurant business," said Rex Jensen, president and chief executive officer of SMR.

Unable to compete with hotels near the area's beaches, sports events have given Lakewood Ranch hotels a new source of customers. This past Labor Day weekend, more than 19,000 people converged on Lakewood Ranch for a youth soccer tournament at the campus that resulted in a $13 million economic impact.

"Our entire business mix has changed from a majority of corporate, to corporate, leisure and sports," said Rob Ferguson, director of sales for the Holiday Inn and Fairfield Inn in Lakewood Ranch. "Our weekends have done so much better since we're not at the beach. We probably can attribute 5 to 10 percent of our occupancy to the sports campus alone. It's not only benefiting owners, but employees because they're getting more hours."

The sports industry is better shielded from the still-weak economy, industry experts say.

"Sports tourism has shown it remains strong when other tourism numbers have declined or fallen flat," Gandy said. "With an indoor facility, people from up north would want to come down and get away. They might want to come down early and have some vacation time."

"It's going to start, No. 1, with additional business opportunities," Picket said. "Businesses are starting to purchase leases and training space. You'll see other sports and camps come around and they will buy real estate in the area. Then we'll see a housing boom. It will help sell residential and commercial in that area."

Picket's statement is backed by a recent analysis by the Manatee Economic Development Corp., which shows the sports performance industry has a large impact on county employment.

The sports industry in Manatee employs at least 1,969 workers through 156 business establishments, which include manufacturing, sports instruction, sports promotion, sporting good stores and spectator sports. According to the analysis, for every job added in sports performance, at least another 1.5 are created in different industries that in some way benefit. That multiplier peaks at spectator sports, which creates an additional 1.71 jobs for every position.

The potential to spread Lakewood Ranch marketability as a sports destination will only be amplified with its golf offerings. Lakewood Ranch is home to championship courses and has hosted PGA and LPGA events.

The Ritz-Carlton Golf Resort is rated one of the best in the world and has hosted several U.S. Open regional qualifiers and this year, co-hosted the Florida Open.

The West Florida Golf Tour, a development tour, frequently uses courses in Lakewood Ranch. During its two years of existence, several PGA Tour winners have played on the tour.

"It's a great area," said Christian Bartolacci, West Florida Golf Tour director. "This area is ready to boom and golf is the next best thing. It's only a matter of time."

Nick Williams, East Manatee reporter, can be reached at 941-748-0411 ext.7049.

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