IMG, Benderson Park named finalists to host NCAA championship events

Herald staff writersNovember 1, 2013 

IMG Academy and Benderson Park have cleared another hurdle in their efforts to bring NCAA national championship events to Manatee and Sarasota counties.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association unveiled its list Thursday of finalists to host championships in 2014-18, and IMG Academy is in the running for Division II baseball, Division II track and field and the Division III football national championships. The football championship game, called the Amos Alonzo Stagg Bowl, was held at Hawkins Stadium in the early 1990s.

"It'd be huge. It'd be great for IMG. It'd be great for the community," said Gary Pluchino, IMG Performance vice president of business development. "When you look at this stadium, sure we have our events that are being held here. Our football team, our lacrosse team, our track and field team. ... It'd be great us, but it'd be great for Bradenton and Manatee/Sarasota."

Benderson Park, which already has secured the 2017 World Rowing Championships, is also in the running to host the NCAA Division I-III women's rowing championships.

The NCAA is expected to announce the winning sites in December.

This would be Benderson Park's first NCAA championship if awarded, said Nicole Rissler, director of sports for the Sarasota County Sports Commission, but the park has held collegiate competition in the past. The bid is a partnership between University of Central Florida, Sarasota County Sports Commission and Suncoast Aquatic Nature Center Associates -- the nonprofit that operates the rowing center.

Benderson Park's competition includes Lake Mercer in West Windsor, N.J.; Indianapolis Rowing Center at Eagle Creek Park in Indianapolis; and Sacramento State Aquatic Center in Cold River, Calif. More than 1,000 rowers would participate in the event.

Paul Blackketter, chief executive director of SANCA is cautiously optimistic despite the competition Sarasota faces.

"We're just trying to stay focused and move forward and not get too overly excited knowing Lake Mercer, Sacramento and Indianapolis are your perennial powerhouses to consider," Blackketter said.

Rissler and Blackketter are not sure what the next steps are to help secure the bid as this is the first time the NCAA has bid nearly all of its championships at the same time, and this is the first time Benderson Park has bid for a NCAA championship. Both anticipate NCAA officials will need help to make their determination, but Blackketter said he is reaching out to the NCAA to make sure the park follows all guidelines.

Choosing UCF, which has a D-I rowing program, was a natural fit to partner with the bid because the college has been at the park since its inception, and was part of the first regatta at Benderson Park, Blackketter said. Park officials considered partnering with University of Miami, but opted to go with a school they've worked with for a long time, he said.

The bids are for the 2014-18 championship seasons, and while it's possible one year could be awarded, Blackketter said he understands the bid is to host three years.

This would serve as a great preview and test run for the World Rowing Championships and having been awarded the world championships has created buzz for more events to come to Benderson Park, Blackketter said.

"Since winning the world bid, we get about three inquiries a week of new colleges and teams and events that want to come to the venue," he said. "It's pretty wonderful -- it's exploding, it's awesome."

Elliott Falcione, executive director of the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said IMG is driving the surge of sporting venue interest from the NCAA and others.

"Having an elite sports academy like IMG will no doubt bring our community many national and international events that will drive economic development for our area," he said. "This type of sports business helps us sustain visitation on a year-round basis, resulting in job growth and business development."

IMG is in competition with Cary, N.C., and Stockton, Calif., for the baseball championship and 10 other locales for the track and field meet. Its competition for the Stagg Bowl are Salem, Va., and Shenandoah, Texas.

IMG could be a finalist for even more national championships. The NCAA did not release finalists for all the championships up for grabs.

Now attention turns to impressing the NCAA.

"There will probably be a site visit," Pluchino said. "The NCAA will probably be coming down here. ... The finalists will all be visited by the NCAA. We'll be talking with them about business plan for the event, operational cost, revenue, that sort of thing. And then they will make their decision from there."

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