Busy sports tourism season lies ahead for Bradenton-Sarasota

cschelle@bradenton.comFebruary 19, 2014 

A two-man rowing team nears the finish line on the first day of the Masters Rowing Championship at Nathan Benderson Park in Sarasota. The construction on the Mall at University Town Center is going on in the background. Both things were huge events in Manatee County this year. TIFFANY TOMPKINS-CONDIE/Bradenton Herald File Photo

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MANATEE -- Sports tourism officials in the Bradenton-Sarasota area are gearing up for another busy season of tournaments and working to attract more.

A panel of sports tourism experts gave their insights to the hotel operator community Tuesday afternoon during a Sarasota-Manatee Hotel Committee meeting about what the panel looks for when bringing events to the area.

Some events coming this year include the Modern Pentathlon World Cup Final June 6-8 at Nathan Benderson Park, the return of the USA Ultimate Masters Championship at the Sarasota Polo Grounds plus plenty of rowing events mixed in between soccer, lacrosse, volleyball and more.

"No one cares when they get here if they're in Sarasota or Bradenton," said Pat Calhoon, Sarasota County sports development coordinator. "They're in Sarasota-Bradenton."

Major sporting events and tournaments are big business for hotel operators in Manatee and Sarasota.

For example, rowing events at Nathan Benderson Park are expected to generate 14,300 room nights this year, including 8,000 from the International Breast Cancer Paddlers' Commission Dragon Boat Festival set for Oct. 20-26.

Manatee County collected $9.28 million in bed taxes last year from hotels and resorts -- an 11.8 percent increase from $8.3 million in 2012. Bed taxes are charged when guests rent a room, and a chunk can be attributed to sports tourism.

Landing an event is harder than keeping repeat business, but regaining a lost event is even more difficult, said Nicole Rissler, director of the Sarasota Sports Commission. The Ultimate flying disc championships is a perfect example, she said.

U.S. Ultimate played championships in Sarasota and Lakewood Ranch for 13 years until it decided to go to Frisco, Texas, last year after a leadership change in the organization, she said. Part of the championships are returning in July, instead of October, to the Polo Grounds.

"I will honestly tell you we are paying a lot more money and we are doing a lot more as a community and as volunteers to get that event here," Rissler said. "I'm not saying we could have kept it, but we learned how to do things differently."

If a town doesn't support a sports tournament or endeavor with enough money, it will move to another town, she said. The Ultimate generates 1,500 room nights.

Sean Walter, director of the Manatee Sports Commission, said grants are vital to help start-up events. Grants also help give officials a chance to do a post-event review to see if the dollars are being spent here as promised along with hotel bookings.

"Our philosophy in Manatee County is we like to almost assist a start-up business if you will," Walter said. "We love to assist you come into our area, whether it is Sarasota-Manatee or regionally, and get them to the point where they're self-sustaining and back out."

IMG Academy wants to host the nation's largest international youth soccer tournament, Schwan's USA Cup, which now brings more than 1,000 teams to Blaine, Minn. IMG Academy will build a new school, student union building with food court and second residence hall soon to increase its student base by 50 percent, said Jason Puckett, IMG Performance director of business development.

Some events the Manatee Sports Commission is looking to recruit include a 15-team tournament to Ellenton USA Hockey's U-14 and U-16 women's hockey tournament being held in Syracuse, N.Y., in addition to some baseball and softball tournaments at State College of Florida, Walter said.

At Premier Sports Campus, a 5K race called the Color Vibe where runners are doused in colorful dye, already has 300 people signed up for April 19, said Antonio Saviano, director of Premier Sports Campus.

What helps, officials say, is the region is going after sports any other town can compete against such as baseball and softball with quality, unique facilities.

"Nathan Benderson Park, when complete, will be the only FISA Class A, permanent facility in the western hemisphere," Rissler said. "There's not many people who can compete with that."

More sporting events are coming down the pike while area organizations are bidding on some hard-to-get events.

The area is doing great at attracting a variety of sports, but Elliott Falcione, Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director, urged hoteliers to be cautious and diversify beyond attracting the sports-related tourist. He suggested film industry events and business conferences could fill rooms during the week.

"It's only imminent that we're going to see hotel development over the next couple years," he said. "We need to continue to diversify and really diversify more than just sports -- especially on the mainland."

Charles Schelle, Herald business writer, can be reached at 941-745-7095. Follow him on Twitter @ImYourChuck.

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