Sports tourism continuing to grow in the county

Spectators watch high school rowing teams compete April 28 at Nathan Benderson Park. Photo by Norman Schimmel

About 5,500 people turned out each day to watch the approximately 1,800 rowers participate in the Florida Scholastic Rowing Association Sweep Championships, held April 28-29 at Nathan Benderson Park, according to estimates provided to Jason Puckett, sports director of the Sarasota Convention and Visitors Bureau.

They were just the latest sign of the impact sports tourism is having on Sarasota County’s economy.

Rowing events at Benderson Park are estimated to have a total economic impact on the county of $4.5 million this year, Carolyn Brown, general manager of Sarasota County Parks and Recreation, told the county’s Tourist Development Council April 19.

Not counting the Baltimore Orioles’ spring training season, the county realized a $34 million economic impact from sports tourism in the 2011 fiscal year, Virginia Haley, the SCVB president, told the TDC.

That was a 49% increase over the figure for the 2010 fiscal year, Haley pointed out.

The Orioles counted 106,398 people at a total of 15 games this spring at Ed Smith Stadium, Laura Williams, director of the team’s Florida operations, told The Sarasota News Leader.

This year, the stadium also broke its record for single-game attendance: On March 18, 8,686 fans watched the Orioles defeat the New York Yankees.

“That was amazing,” Williams said of the number.

Although total attendance was down from the 115,506 mark of 2011, she added, the team played 15 games this year compared to 16 last year, and the schedule featured one less “prime” game, “which is a big seller for us.”

In 2011, the Orioles had two games against both the Yankees and the Philadelphia Phillies. This year, Baltimore played the Yankees and the Phillies just once in Sarasota, though the team did have three home games against the Boston Red Sox.

Still, Williams said, the loss of one prime game in 2012 compared to 2011 made a difference.

Nonetheless, TDC member Edward Braunlich pointed out, “There has just been a lot of enthusiasm about the new (Ed Smith) stadium.”

TDC Chairwoman Nora Patterson added, “The stadium is something to be proud of, whether it was controversial or not,” referring to a lawsuit filed against the county in 2010 by two citizens groups that claimed negotiations with the Orioles violated the state’s public meeting laws. The citizens groups lost that case at both the circuit court level and in their appeal to the Florida Supreme Court.

In her report to the TDC, Haley noted that sports events were responsible for 38,082 room nights in area hotels and motels in the 2011 fiscal year, up 35% from 26,695 in FY 2010.

The county hosted 54 sports-related events in FY 2011, compared to 33 in FY 2010, Haley added.

The county’s fiscal year runs from Oct. 1 through Sept. 30.

For the current fiscal year, Haley said, the county has 65 events scheduled.

However, Haley cautioned that the number of events might go down in the future, as organizers look for new locations. She and her staff will look for new events to take their place, she added.

One of those could be the Florida High School Athletic Association State Baseball Championships in May 2013, Williams told the News Leader.

The Orioles this week were working on a bid for that event, which was held regularly in Sarasota before the Orioles began renovations of Ed Smith Stadium.

One big coup for the county’s sports schedule next year will be the Pan American Masters Championships for swimmers, Haley told the TDC.

Scheduled for June 2013, she added, the 10-day event will be in North America for the first time.

“We worked very, very hard on that bid,” Haley said. “We were bidding against countries!”

Sarasota County representatives also are bidding on the 2013 U.S. Rowing Masters National Championships, Haley said, as well as the 2013 Florida High School Athletic Association Cross Country Finals.

“We have got a lot going on, I gotta tell you,” Brown told the TDC.

Orioles assessing parking situation

During the TDC meeting, Patterson noted that friends of hers had difficulty finding a parking space when they went to one of the Orioles’ games this spring. Still, Patterson characterized that as “a good (problem) to have,” as so many people were interested in attending games.

“Parking is always going to be tight on the prime games,” Williams told the News Leader, especially if people do not arrive early.

“There’re … areas in the Nick Lucas Baseball Complex that are not utilized” for parking by the public as well as they could be, Williams said.

That complex, which is the county’s primary youth baseball facility, is diagonally across from Ed Smith Stadium, at 2801 12th St.

The Orioles also encourage people to “Go Green,” to car-pool to the stadium, she said.

This is the first year since the Orioles moved their spring training operations to Sarasota that management has “not (been) in the middle of blueprints,” Williams pointed out, alluding to the stadium renovations.

This year, she said, management can focus on other matters, such as parking remedies for future seasons in Sarasota.