Youth sports tournaments give area economy a boost

BRADENTON -- IMG Academies has kept Simone Pratt plenty busy this week as she competes in the Eddie Herr International Junior Tennis Championships.

But when the 14-year-old isn’t courtside, it’s the local retailers and restaurants that are keeping Pratt and her father Sidney Pratt preoccupied.

“Oh, I think we’ve dumped a heck of a lot of money in your economy,” said Sidney Pratt, here from the Bahamas.

Youth and amateur sports tournaments of this caliber tend to do that, says Joe Pickett, sports commissioner for the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

The Eddie Herr tournament under way at IMG Academies this week has 2,200 registered players from 97 countries, and many came with coaches, families and friends in tow, said Kim Berard, spokeswoman for IMG Academies.

The tournament is estimated to generate about 3,000 hotel nights over the 10-day event as stays can last three to 10 nights.

Manatee County hosted 33 sports tournaments in fiscal year 2009-10. That doesn’t include sports tournaments held at private venues such as IMG Academies. The events generated 21,670 hotel room nights and 35,887 visitors who pumped $12.2 million into Manatee County’s economy, according to the Bradenton Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“We’ve built a solid reputation over the years with these tournaments, and I think we’re reaping the benefits now from that working relationship,” said Pickett, who has been Manatee County’s sports commissioner since 1999.

Baseball, softball and soccer are among the biggest tournaments that come to Manatee, but Pickett also has emphasized bringing a diverse range of other sports and leisure activities such as gymnastics, ultimate frisbee, hockey and bridge.

“Manatee County has a very good product for these tournaments,” Pickett said. “We’ve got very high quality hotels, we’re near the beaches, we have the ability to be right off I-75.”

Fiscal year 2010-11 looks to be profitable, too.

Manatee County has booked 52 events that are projected to generate 36,803 hotel room nights and 78,870 visitors. And those projections are probably low given the formula Pickett uses. In his projections, he estimates that for every three players on the roster, one additional guest will attend. He also estimates that four athletes share a room and that 75 percent of the teams on the roster will stay at a hotel.

“We really get the numbers down so low so we’re not over-estimating,” Pickett said.

Holiday Inn Lakewood Ranch Director of Sales Rob Ferguson says he’d hate to think how slow business might be without the soccer tournaments and rowing events that have been drawn to Lakewood Ranch.

“It’s now become such a major market for us we’ve refocused our energies on the sports market,” Ferguson said. “We sometimes see a 50 percent increase in our business with these tournaments.”

Business could become even greater for the hotel and Lakewood Ranch businesses as Nathan Benderson Park is slated to undergo $25 million in renovations to become a world-class rowing facility. A rowing event hosted at the facility in May 2010 generated 712 room nights, and the facility is expected to attract more than 100,000 attendees a year.

That’s why Ferguson says Holiday Inn Lakewood Ranch is becoming aggressive about capturing the business that comes to the area. Ferguson works with the local tourism bureaus to get leads on tournaments and reaches out to the teams via their websites.

“Even though money is still tight, parents are still willing to spend it on their kids to get them through these tournaments,” Ferguson said.

IMG Academies, too, has spent recent years focusing on main events such as the Eddie Herr tournament due to the economic weight it carries.

“Beyond the core business at the Academies, which is youth academic and athletic development, within the last year, events have become a big part of the fabric of this place,” Berard said.

Nearly a year ago, IMG Academies hired a director of events who is charged with ramping up existing events and recruiting new partners for new events.

Not only does the tournament attract players but sales representatives from big-name tennis brands such as Penn.

Amy Wishingrad, a program manager for Penn, admits she’s been a bit of a tourist while she’s in Bradenton on business to scout talent the tennis supply company may want to sponsor.

She’s staying four days at the Courtyard Marriott in downtown Bradenton and is spending most of her days dining at local restaurants.

“When you factor in breakfast, lunch and dinner, I’d say I’m spending about $40 to $60 a day,” Wishingrad said.

Local restaurants see groups of 20 or more sometimes when teams dine out after a day of competition.

Mark Belcher, general manager of Stingray’s Grill in Lakewood Ranch, said soccer tournaments hosted at the Sarasota Polo grounds typically fuel his business the most.

“We’ll do 40 to 50 people from those events sometimes,” Belcher said. “It helps us as a business tremendously. It gives us a chance to get new customers in.”

Over at Ellenton Premium Outlets, Darlene Passio, manager of Travel Pro International, can almost always tell when there’s a large sporting event being hosted in the county. Players turn out in droves with their team apparel and bring plenty of family with them.

“It will be pretty crazy here,” Passio said. “And depending if there’s a lot of tourists, they can really spend quite a bit of money. We welcome any kind of event like that.”

Traffic should pick up again next weekend for the outlets and local hoteliers.

That’s when 48 youth hockey teams will be in the area for the Silver Stick Ice Hockey Tournament at the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex.

“The economic impact for the arena is huge,” said Tom Lindemuth, general manager of the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex.

The complex has two ice rinks that rent for about $300 to $375 an hour. The rinks will be in use from Thursday-Sunday. And the 48 teams will generate an estimated 560 room nights for the area.

“My understanding is the Hampton Inn behind us is totally booked and some of the overflow is going into other hotels,” Lindemuth said.

Attracting local sports tournaments to this area is no easy task. A lot of it, Pickett says, has been 10 years’ worth of networking and developing relationships with annual events such as the Nations Baseball, a youth baseball tournament. The other portion requires good negotiation tactics, since many times it comes down to what each county can offer in terms of rental fees for its fields and facilities. The Bradenton Area CVB can typically throw in subsidies -- usually grant money from the Florida Sports Foundation -- to help offset costs for sports teams and help gain their business.

“The goal is to get it as cheap as possible at the end of the day,” Pickett said. “None of it’s easy, when someone comes down on a site visit. Our grass is not a lot different than the grass in Naples or St. Pete or Tampa, so we’re all at the table.

“When they choose us, they’re happy here,” he added. “They like being in a smaller community that they can get around easily and don’t have to worry about the freeways and heavy downtown traffic.”