Good Sports

By Jason Swancey June 30, 2009

Even in tight economic times, sports are still big business—and we’re not talking about professional sports, either.

While Major League baseball supporters continued to spin their wheels last spring in an attempt to lure the Baltimore Orioles to Ed Smith Stadium, several new regional boutique sports initiatives were already taking off, creating construction jobs, full-time administration positions, and even giving a shot in the arm to surrounding retailers—thanks to the thousands of athletes and supporters they attracted. The U.S. Soccer Development Academy spring showcase, for example, brought 70 teams of teenage soccer players and their families from 29 states to the Polo Club at Lakewood Ranch in late May. Talk about a kick in the economy.

Here’s a roundup of new athletic happenings. 

Nathan Benderson Park 

An enormous borrow pit created 30 years ago by the construction of I-75 has potential to become one of the finest rowing courses in the country. Now a 400-acre freshwater lake off

Cattlemen Road
near I-75 and
University Parkway
, owned by Sarasota County, the newly opened Nathan Benderson Park hosted 37 teams at the High School State Championship Rowing Regatta in April. The regatta drew 1,550 athletes, their families and spectators, and generated 1,312 room nights in Sarasota and Manatee county hotels.

Sarasota Convention & Visitors Bureau sports manager Jason Puckett says the three-day event produced an estimated $1,760,085 of economic impact to the county with an estimated overall attendance of 14,178 people.

“We own the Holiday Inn [Lakewood Ranch] right now,” says Ralph Egues, a parent from Miami Belen Jesuit, a small Miami school that brought 200 people to the regatta. “We have 60 rooms, and every night we have been renting out the main ball room and having it catered because our group is too big to go to a restaurant together.”

Participants say restaurants were as packed as the hotels, and the Super Target at University Town Center completely sold out of any kind of folding chair by 10 a.m. Saturday, the first day of the regatta.

“The best thing is these people aren’t just staying overnight, they are here for four or five days,” says Daniel Beery, a gold medal rower in the 2004 Athens Summer Olympics who was at the event as a consultant. “And these are typically people with some serious disposable income, too.”

The lake and rowing center have the potential to breathe life back into Benderson’s University Town Center project by creating more of a demand for the project’s retail, restaurant and hotel uses.

Future plans for the park include walking, biking and running trails around the lake (a 5K course), construction of one or more boathouses and extending the course to an international length of 2,000 meters in 18 months.

Thousands of people could fly into the Sarasota Bradenton International Airport annually for these events, predict Beery and Olympic teammate Jason Read, who have seen the blueprint for this kind of international success at regattas throughout Europe.

“You have no idea how huge these international regattas are, they can take over a town, especially in a nice city like this,” Read says. “A lot of times they are in the middle of nowhere, so people will love to come here where there is so much to do.”

Benderson Park is already drawing interest from several colleges and Olympic teams that want to train here, as well as Masters (adult) rowing events, which means this lake could be booked almost year-round.

“Besides being one of the only freshwater lakes in the country with ideal environmental conditions for this sport, Benderson Park is a natural park and a recreational park that serves the entire community all at the same time,” says Sarasota County Commissioner Joe Barbetta. “When you factor in the hotels, restaurants and retail venues available to residents and visitors, I believe we are sitting on a gold mine.”

U.S.Masters Swimming

Another water-based gold mine coming to Sarasota is U.S. Masters Swimming (USMS), which will move its headquarters to the historic Pagoda building near the Municipal Auditorium on U.S. 41 this summer.

The mission of U.S. Masters Swimming, a 40-year-old organization, is to promote the benefits of adult health fitness, health and wellness through aquatics. There are more than 1,000 Masters swim programs across the country at YMCAs, health clubs, community pools and universities. As part of its mission, USMS sanctions more than 500 adult swim pool and open water competitions across the country each year. The 48,000-member nonprofit organization considered 11 communities before selecting Sarasota over bigger cities such as Charlotte, N.C., where it had been based temporarily.

“It’s important to note we did not ask or require any tax incentives, use of public dollars or ask for new facilities to be built in our consideration,” says executive director Rob Butcher. “We are moving to Sarasota at our own cost and will be a paying tenant in the Pagoda building. We selected Sarasota because it has an established base of swimming and community leaders who passionately support nonprofit causes such as ours. The facilities already exist with the Sarasota Family YMCA Aquatic Center and Arlington Park Aquatic Center to host events and clinics.”

Butcher heads up the nonprofit organization, which has seen an 11 percent increase in members in the last year despite the recession. Eighty percent of its $1.5 million budget is generated from member dues; its members’ average age is 46 and has a median income of $100,000. In addition to the current staff of two that will be relocating, he has already made two new full-time hires here. He expects to have six to eight full-time employees by end of the year and will add employees to meet future business needs. As part of its compensation package, the organization pays for employee health benefits and offers a matching IRA plan. But because it is a nonprofit organization, it depends on volunteers, which is a big reason for the draw to this area.

“You need 150 to 200 volunteers to pull off huge swimming events like the age group swim meet recently hosted at the Sarasota YMCA. That event had 1,100 swimmers in town for three days,” Butcher says. “I’ve advised the Sarasota YMCA, with the facility they have and volunteer base, that they should put together a bid to host future U.S. Masters Swimming national events. I was just at our spring nationals in California that had 1,582 adult swimmers in town for five days. Our summer pool nationals historically draw 1,000 to 1,200 adults, which creates significant tourism for local communities.”

Tennis Gardens at the Longboat Key Club & Resort

The brand-new, world-class, 20-court Tennis Gardens at the Longboat Key Club & Resort is another local magnet for sports fans. It hosted the Sarasota Open in May, a $50,000 ATP/USTA men’s challenger event that grabbed the attention of tennis fans with a field that included big names like Taylor Dent and Vincent Spadea. It was a perfect way to showcase the Tennis Gardens’ recently opened stadium court, which is located right on the water and cost roughly $4.5 million to complete.

“The Sarasota Open looks to become the largest economic impact event in the Sarasota-Bradenton area,” explained tournament director Tony Driscoll, who also noted they attracted 1,400-2,500 spectators a day at the tourney.

“A typical ATP Men’s tournament draws 400 to 600 room nights per week to the local economy and an estimated 10,000 to 30,000 patrons both international and domestic,” says Driscoll. “Economic impact will continue to grow as the community becomes more involved with the event and charities associated with it.”

After some setbacks because of opposition from some of its neighbors, Longboat Key Club owners also are planning a scaled-back $400-million expansion, which includes a larger spa, redesign of a golf course and a new hotel and two condominium buildings.

“Tennis is leading the way, but this is only the tip of the iceberg for us,” says Longboat Key Club tennis director John Woods. “Everything else is stagnant right now, and we’re growing. Once word spreads among tennis pros about this facility after the event, we could be looking at a $75,000 to $100,000 challenger next year and the Fed Cup (by BNP Paribas), too.”

Springbok Sports Club and Academy

If you need to get some training in, whether it be for a rec league or the big leagues, there may soon be a closer option for Lakewood Ranch residents than Bradenton’s IMG Academies: the $110-million Springbok Sports Club and Academy.

“Our reach will be global and our approach will be much improved over current sports academy models in the U.S., with a focus on academic education and development as well as athletic development,” says Tim Morris, CEO of Corvus International, which is managing the project along with Iowa Sports Management and former two-time Australian Open winner, Johan Kriek.

Morris says they are currently pursuing three different sources of project financing. “We remain confident we will secure the necessary financing, as we have already done for some of the largest projects in Sarasota and Manatee County over the past years,” he says.

The 110,000-square-foot fitness center will sit on 100 acres of land they are purchasing from Lakewood Ranch. It is on

University Parkway
just east of The Lake Club. Plans call for five live-in sports academies (baseball, golf, gymnastics, swimming and tennis) in addition to eight indoor tennis courts, 12 member tennis courts, a quarter-mile outdoor track, two indoor Olympic-sized swimming pools, a fantasy kids pool with lazy river ride, indoor basketball and volleyball courts and a field to accommodate football, soccer and lacrosse.

The sports metropolis will start construction by November, Morris says, with a planned opening in either late 2010 or early 2011. The immediate economic surge will come from all the construction needed to build a facility of this size. When fully operational, the academy will provide permanent jobs for 380 people, with a projected annual payroll of $22 million.

Joe Abunassar’s Impact Sports Academy

Manatee County continues to attract athletic programs. Joe Abunassar’s Impact Sports Academy announced this spring that it is bringing full-time high school and post-graduate programs in basketball, which also includes proper nutrition and strength conditioning to Bradenton. It will be a year-round academic facility and students will attend Bradenton Prep, although the exact location of the facility has yet to be announced. 

Abunassar is a trainer and former founder and director of the IMG Basketball Academy in Bradenton. He started as a manager under college basketball coach Bobby Knight for four years at Indiana in the early 1990s. He is best known in the basketball world as the creator of Impact Basketball and the Impact Training System, and his work with major basketball stars. He opened his first facility in Las Vegas in April and then announced additional centers in Bradenton, Los Angeles and Beijing. The Web site includes endorsements from Orlando Magic center Dwight Howard and Boston Celtics all-star Kevin Garnett.

Academy officials did not respond to requests for interviews. But if the Las Vegas facility is any indication, the Bradenton facility will be an impressive campus. The Academy’s centerpiece is a 100,000-square foot, $25-million, state-of-the-art training center with everything from several basketball courts to a state-of-the-art fitness facility and locker rooms.

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