Last July, 2,000 exuberant baseball players and their families descended on Sarasota from all over the country for the AAU's 14-and-Under National Baseball Championship. Held at Ed Smith Stadium, the championship-the Amateur Athletic Union's (AAU) largest baseball event-lasted seven days. Most locals were unaware of the competition during those dog days of summer, but tourism officials and hoteliers weren't. They realized these hopeful kids and their families were putting serious money in the cash registers of hotels, stores and restaurants during the slowest business months in Sarasota and Manatee counties. Ron Kozlowski, a real estate agent and chairman of the Sarasota County Sports Commission, estimates the baseball tournament had an economic impact of $5.5 million. What's more, the group has promised to return to Sarasota every year through 2006. No wonder tourism officials are wondering if "boutique" sports-specialized amateur sports clubs that hold competitions-should rank with beaches and ballet as the latest way to attract tourists.

Stiff Competition 

Historically, the area has touted sandy shores and symphony concerts more vigorously than sports. In part that's because the beaches and the arts are year-round attractions. Increasingly, though, there's another game-or rather-several games in town. Besides the AAU's baseball championship, offbeat sports such as polo, cricket, Frisbee, master's swimming, the Special Olympics and even a video game tournament are putting "heads in beds" in area hotels and motels. (See sidebar.)

This development is fairly recent, says Virginia Haley, executive director of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau (SCVB). Local sports commissions in cities that don't have the marketing clout or the facilities to land the Olympics, the Super Bowl or the World Series are sprouting up all over the U.S. to lure "boutique" competitions. The National Association of Sports Commissions (NASC)-a Cincinnati-based organization that works with these local sports groups, convention and visitors bureaus, chambers of commerce and event rights holders-was founded in 1992 with just over 15 members; now it represents more than 276 organizations from more than 225 cities.

The Sarasota County Sports Commission is part of the trend. A private organization of volunteers, it was formed in 2001 to bring athletic events to the county. Chair Kozlowski believes Sarasota has missed many lucrative opportunities. "We've lost so much potential business because we don't reach out more to the sports market," he says. "The traditional leisure market skews older and tends to visit here during the winter season. Marketing to sports groups is a way to attract a younger crowd-people who may come for a tournament and relocate their families and businesses."

Pat Calhoon, sports facilities manager of the City of Sarasota's Ed Smith Stadium, says officials don't always understand how sports could boost the local economy. He and other city recreation officials have worked with the Sarasota Sports Commission and other local groups to develop a format for hosting tournaments like the AAU National Baseball Championship.

"We have a system in place that makes it attractive for organizations to come here," says Calhoon. "But as demand grows and the events get larger we'll need a more solid infrastructure, like a paid executive director of the sports commission to help coordinate these efforts."

Over at Sarasota County's Department of Parks & Recreation, a full-time staff person works with organizations hosting sports tournaments at county facilities. Jim Wormley, athletic event coordinator for the department, also serves as an ad hoc member of the Sarasota Sports Commission. In his new position, Wormley helps promote the use of county facilities for events ranging from an Xbox tournament for video game enthusiasts to the Senior Games, an Olympics-style event for athletes over 55.

"Whether it's sculling, bicycle races, softball or running, we want to use county facilities to attract more people to the area," says Wormley. "We want to make a name for Sarasota County in the world of amateur athletics, and host events that bring money into our local economy."

In Manatee County, the Florida Gulf Coast Sports Commission (FGCSC) works closely with the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau-and with Sarasota's sports commission and visitors bureau-to attract sporting events to the region.

Manatee County has hosted the Florida Special Olympics, the National Club Baseball Association World Series for college players, and the Sarasota Draw High School Wrestling Championships. Events planned for the next five years include gymnastics meets, a junior golf series, a volleyball tournament, a cheerleading contest, a triathlon, a martial arts event, and an Olympics-style lifeguard competition.

Manatee County commissioners recently approved the addition of another penny to the county's bed tax (funds raised by taxing hotel and motel stays)-increasing it from three to four percent. The plan is to set aside part of that increase-about $50,000 annually-to help the sports commission bring events to Manatee.

Joe Pickett, a real estate agent and the founder and president of the non-profit FGCSC, got involved with sporting events in 1998 as a father and community-minded citizen. "Government support for these efforts is important," says Pickett, "but I think it's best if sports commissions remain independent of government control. It's just easier to get things done that way."

Kozlowski cites Palm Beach County as an example of aggressive marketing supported by government. The Palm Beach County Sports Commission is a private non-profit organization that receives $250,000 each year from the bed tax plus 3.75 percent of the bed tax that's collected each month, for an annual total of approximately $900,000. The commission also has a paid staff of 10 full-time employees. Its Web site asserts that sporting events held in Palm Beach County bring more than $60 million a year to the local economy-and more than 150,000 room nights for area hotels and motels.

Rob Ondo, sales manager for the Bradenton Area Convention & Visitor's Bureau and sports director for the FGCSC in Manatee County, agrees that tourism officials should promote sports. But Ondo adds that money and time should be spent wisely, and that Manatee County will be selective about where it directs its efforts.

"These sports events are a great niche market for tourism," says Ondo. "But some of the numbers you hear are inflated, so you just have to be careful."

Ondo is right. Don Schumacher, executive director of the NASC, says he is unaware of any reliable national statistics on the economic impact of sports events.

"I have studied this for more than 15 years," he says. "Everyone agrees it is good to host events that attract visitors, and that visitor spending is good for the host community. The disagreement comes in how to compute the numbers. [There are] two important rules: First, economic impact is defined as visitor spending-period. Spending by locals does not count. Second, all numbers are estimates, not fact. We can never know how much was actually spent."

For example, Sarasota has hosted the Suncoast Offshore Grand Prix, a series of boat races and related activities held on the July 4th weekend, for 20 years. The Grand Prix raises more than $200,000 annually for local charities. But, after that, the overall economic impact gets murky.

"The Fourth of July weekend is the biggest beach weekend of the year, so it's difficult to isolate the impact of that specific event on our economy," Haley says. She adds that it's easier to measure the impact of the Sarasota Offshore Showdown, a race held for the first time in August 2003, and scheduled again for May 2004. "Our average daily hotel/motel room rate went up $20 over the previous August," she notes, "from $84 in 2002 to $104 in 2003. We attribute that in large part to the Offshore Showdown." 

A Sticky Wicket

There's also the touchy issue of who gets to share in the tourist tax dollars . Haley doubts that Sarasota County will ever follow the Palm Beach model and set aside a specific percentage of bed tax dollars to help with a sports commission. "Cultural organizations worked with the Convention & Visitors Bureau to help get the original ordinance passed in 1987 that established the bed tax," explains Haley. "So funding to promote the arts is built into that budget."

David Mills, a Sarasota County Commissioner, also serves on the Tourist Development Council and the Economic Development Board. Mills believes that one positive way to affect the economy is to build a new sports arena at the Sarasota County Fairgrounds. But, like Haley, Mills believes it would be difficult to re-allocate funds from the bed tax that are already designated for the arts or beach re-nourishment.

"Someone's ox will be gored if you change those allocations," says Mills.

Tony Swain is a video producer who serves on the board of the Sarasota Arts Council and the Tourist Development Council, and is a former board member of the Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau. "It's a bit of a sticky wicket," says Swain. "We don't want to take anything away from the strength of Sarasota's strong identity as a cultural community, but there's a growing recognition of what sports events can bring to the local economy. Of course," he adds, "in addition to the increasing opportunity, there's a lot of competition from communities around the country to host these events."

Still, no matter how many tourist tax dollars are behind the effort, it's a safe bet that Sarasota and Manatee counties will be strong contenders in the accelerating competition to host lucrative sporting events.

Who knows? Future visitors to our shores may be as likely to cheer on a baseball double play at Ed Smith Stadium in July as they are to take in a double feature at the Sarasota Film Festival in January. And if the economic impact of these events is as positive as sports proponents predict, everyone will be a winner. 

Scott Ferguson is a writer and video producer for corporate clients. He is co-owner, with his wife Cady, of Bissell Ferguson Communications in Sarasota. 

Sidebar (not complete yet) 

Who's On First 

AAU's 14-and-Under National Baseball Championship, 2,000 players, July 30-August 6, Ed Smith Stadium. 

Australian Rules Football, 40 to 50 players, January, Sarasota Polo Club grounds. 

Budlight Beach Volleyball, 400 athletes, Aug. 21-22, Coquina Beach. 

Exile Rugby, all year, 460 players, Sarasota Polo Club grounds 

Golden Sidekicks Open, national martial arts tournament, 600 participants, April 30- May 1, Manatee Civic Center. 

Masters Swimming, June regional meet, 150 athletes, Selby Aquatic Center. 

NCAA College Basketball, 100 athletes, March 2004, IMG Academy. 

NCBA (National Club Baseball Association), 220 athletes, May 26-31, McKechnie Field and Ed Smith Stadium. 

Sarasota Classic national high school wrestling championship, 1,500 people, Manatee Civic Center. 

Sarasota International Cricket Club, 1,050 participants, Oct. 1 through June 30, 35 matches a year, Sarasota Polo Club grounds. 

Sarasota-Manatee Bicycle Club Cycle Fest, 400 riders, Nov. 2, Sarasota Polo Club grounds. 

Sarasota Polo Club, 90-plus players from around the country, Dec. through April, Sarasota Polo Club grounds. 

Special Olympics Florida Games, 1,400 athletes, Dec. 5-6, Manatee High School, AMF Bowling Lanes, Rip Van Winkle Lanes, South Florida Gymnastics, Florida Wheel Skate Center, Manatee Civic Center. 

The Senior Games, 460 athletes, Nov. 16-22, Englewood Sports complex, ByPass Park in Venice, Siesta Beach, YMCA at Euclid, Bobby Jones Golf Course, Arlington Park, Bee Ridge Park, Colonial Oaks Park. 

Ultimate Players Association, a national Frisbee tournament, 1,400 players, Oct. 30 - Nov. 2, Sarasota Polo Club grounds. 

West Coast Martial Arts Academy, 170 people and their families from 17 states, May 14-15, Sarasota Polo Club grounds. 

YMCA Sharks, 2,100 swimmers, four regional and out-of-state meets, year-round, Selby Aquatic Center.

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