The sports economic impact in the Super Region results in billions of dollars. That’s quite a score.
In May 1957, as Brooklyn’s beloved Dodgers and their crosstown rivals, the New York Giants, began to take the first steps to flee Gotham for California, New York Times Columnist Joseph M. Sheehan wrote an article, “They Took Our Hearts, Too.”
At the beginning of 2014, the Tampa Bay community is rallying around the Rays—a team that in six short years has gone from American League cellar dweller to perennial contender—to ensure they do not suffer the same fate as New York City that historic year. One thing Tampa Bay leaders have going for them is a mound of data, unavailable 57 years ago, that shows a clear link between sports, recreation and economic development.
Today’s sporting events boast incredible economic impact numbers. From the professional level to college, high school and grade school participants, male and female athletes are playing games that spur revenue for their communities, cities and ultimately their state. While Florida is synonymous with tourism, given the climate and the growth potential, sports is making its move.
It’s big business, and community and political leaders know it.
John Webb, president of the Tallahassee-based Florida Sports Foundation, says the connection is undeniable.
“It [sports] is an attraction for companies that are looking to relocate,” Webb says. “That’s one of the three or four checklists between education, family, environment, sports, art and culture, etc., that they [companies] do look for their employees to be able to be entertained and be part of a community.”
According to the foundation, sports in Florida has grown from a $16 billion industry in 1999 to an estimated $36 billion industry today that employs more than 430,000 people. Webb said the foundation soon will unveil a report that examines sports’ economic impact in depth, an impact he expects will be 20 percent greater than when the foundation commissioned the last report in 2005. That report found sports and recreation activities in Florida had a total economic impact of $32 billion, including $12.9 billion annually to workers, $20 billion in the Gross State Product and another $2.1 billion in tax revenues to state and local governments.
Rays of Hope
This type of economic development data is one of the reasons communities are willing to invest taxpayer dollars to help fund venues for professional and amateur sports facilities. The Rays are a case in point, and there are similarities between their situation today and that of the old Brooklyn Dodgers.
In 1957, the Dodgers were coming off their second- consecutive National League pennant and their fourth in six years (ironically, the Giants had won the other two in that span). The Dodgers were just two years removed from winning their first World Series, and the team was the class of the National League. Yet, they were struggling to draw fans to venerable Ebbets Field, and they were mired in a dispute with the city over a new stadium.
Today, the Rays have been among the most consistent teams in the American League for the last six seasons, making the playoffs four times (same as the New York Yankees in that time span) and the World Series once (also same as the Yankees). Yet, the team is having trouble drawing fans to Tropicana Field, built in St. Petersburg in 1990 for $130 million. Pinning down the exact reason for the attendance woes is elusive, because the National Football League Buccaneers and the National Hockey League Lightning have been consistent draws in Tampa Bay through good times and bad.
One option, the team, city and economic development leaders are considering is moving the Rays out of “The Trop” before its lease expires. There have been some discussions between St. Petersburg officials and the team about the possibility of ending the lease, but all key players in the Tampa Bay area have made clear that parochial concerns are secondary to the common goal of finding the right home for the Rays.
“The Tampa Bay Rays are an integral part of the region from both an economic standpoint and a quality of life perspective,” says Stuart Rogel, president and CEO of the Tampa Bay Partnership. “Tampa Bay is honored to be home to a major league baseball team that consistently performs well and continually gives back to the community and its residents. The Rays are without a doubt an invaluable asset to the region as they enhance and even help define the brand we call Tampa Bay and make our community a better and more attractive place to live and work.”
Outgoing St. Petersburg Mayor Bill Foster preached regional cooperation in an interview this summer with the Tampa Bay Times: “If your goal is keeping the Tampa Bay Rays in Tampa Bay until 2050, then you have to let them look in Tampa.” Incoming Mayor Rick Kriseman also has described the Rays’ situation as among the most pressing his administration will face.
Webb and the Florida Sports Foundation are staying away from the specifics of the search—except to make sure that all interested parties understand Florida can support the Rays.
Smaller Leagues, Major League Money
Webb worries that excessive focus on the Rays, or the NFL Jaguars’ woes in Jacksonville, distract from the enormous sports successes in the state, many of them occurring far away from the glitzy arenas of major professional team sports. For example, Florida enjoys 44 percent of all golf destination travel in the U.S.
“Actually, golfing and fishing and boating are big,” he said. “Florida offers a whole lot, not only weather but we’ve got some great venues and great waterways that are a big hit. The golf industry is such a heritage in this state. We have more courses than any state in the country.”
In 2005, the state sports commission’s study indicated that recreational golf and golf courses in Florida had a total economic output of $16.8 billion, employed more than 200,000 people, provided a payroll of $6.1 billion, and generated another $1.1 billion in state and local government revenue. Add to that total another $5.6 billion in local parks and recreation activities plus fishing, hunting and wildlife-associated recreation. Now imagine that 20-percent increase in economic impact that Webb believes has occurred in the past eight years.
The foundation’s work, in fact, focuses as much on these “smaller” sporting events as it does major college and professional sports.
Webb notes: “The state really gets it [about the importance of sports at all levels]. We used to have nine [local/regional] sports commissions 10 years ago; now we have 25, a lot of them funded through tourists’ taxes.”
They aggressively pursue events at all levels that range from Super Bowls to AAU regional basketball tournaments and swimming. Those 25 commissions hosted about 3,300 events in 2012.
A Super Bowl may be the glamour event in the sports world—and Florida has hosted 15—but Webb says less high- profile events pack a major economic punch as well. A prime example, according to Webb, is the 2017 World Rowing Championships, scheduled for Sarasota.
“That is a good international event. International money is being spent; [spectators] spend about three times of what your local money does, so that is a good impact for that area,” he said. “An AAU National Volleyball Championship creates more than 20,000 hotel room nights in Orlando in the summer [and] is a great event for the state of Florida, too.”
Glamour Still Counts
That’s not to say that major team sports aren’t important.
Home to nine major professional league teams already, the state will add a 10th in 2015 when an Orlando franchise joins Major League Soccer. Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer has made upgrading Orlando’s sports and entertainment venues a cornerstone of his administration’s economic development plans (initiatives include building the Amway Center and a new performing arts center as well as renovation of the Citrus Bowl Stadium) and he sees the soccer stadium as one of the key pieces of his program.
“Soon, we’re going to have a completely renovated Citrus Bowl,” Dyer says. “Five blocks from there will be the soccer stadium. It’s another two blocks from there to the Amway Center and three more blocks to the performing arts center. On top of that, you have the Magic [Orlando’s National Basketball Association team] building a new entertainment center.
“Soccer is another piece of Orlando becoming the best place for sports and entertainment in America.”
Though soccer has captured the recent headlines and the $480 million Amway Center has been hailed as one of the NBA’s best new venues, Dyer becomes particularly animated when talking about the $205 million renovation of the Citrus Bowl.
“We have reconstructed it from the ground up. We’re going to have a first-terrace, additional luxury boxes and the ability to add 4,000 temporary seats (increasing maximum capacity to 65,000),” he said.
Does that mean the Citrus Bowl would consider bidding on the new college football national championship playoff the next time the contract comes up for bid? Orlando was not one of the six sites chosen as part of the semifinal rotation for the initial contract, despite the significant prestige enjoyed by the Capital One Bowl, played every Jan. 1 at the Citrus Bowl stadium.
Dyer says Orlando likely will continue to pass on being part of that rotation. He said the Capital One Bowl, which pits the runners-up of the Big 10 and Southeastern conferences, and the Russell Athletic Bowl, which beginning next year matches teams from the Big 12 and Atlantic Coast conferences, are more than attractive enough for Orlando. Besides, he said, the new national championship structure might force Orlando to drop one of the existing games.
“Right now, we have a tie-in with four of the five major conferences,” Dyer says. “We looked at the possible games we might get [in the semifinal rotation] and, frankly, some of them did not have the same sex appeal.”
Dyer said Florida Citrus Sports and the city instead will look more at neutral site football games, like a conference championship game.
“When the ACC Championship Game comes back up (for a new contract), we will take a look at that.” The game previously has been played in Tampa and Jacksonville.
Other targets are regular season neutral-site games. Notre Dame and Florida State have played such games there in the past, and Dyer believes renovation of the 77-year-old stadium has cleared the way for the venue to start attracting more games in the future. Additionally, the Amway Center is set to host second- and third-round NCAA men’s basketball tournament games in March, and Dyer believes it will remain a desirable arena for the NCAA to play future tournament games in all rounds except the Final Four (the NCAA now plays its marquee event only in domed football stadiums that can be converted to basketball).
Scrimmaging for the Sports Dollar
The emphasis on sports and sporting events at all levels obviously has been great for Florida’s economy, but everyone involved in the intersection of sports and economic development is aware the proliferation of events means increased competition for the public’s entertainment dollar. Webb points to the iconic Daytona 500.
“The environment changes, and I use Daytona as an example. The Daytona 500—you couldn’t get a ticket for years, and it was the big granddaddy. It was like the Super Bowl. They [NASCAR officials] have added 26 additional races throughout the country now over the last 10 years. Well, it [the Daytona 500] is still a great product, but it’s a much harder ticket to sell.”
The owners of the Daytona International Speedway have responded with a $400 million renovation started earlier in 2013, cleverly dubbed “Daytona Rising,” enabling it to seek out other events. Speedway President Joie Chitwood was quoted recently in the Orlando Sentinel as saying a college football game could be played there within the next three years. If Daytona wants to be first, though, it had better hurry. The Bristol Motor Speedway in Virginia already is set to host a Virginia Tech-Tennessee game in early September 2016.
That’s a big part of why civic and economic development leaders place such emphasis on up-to-date, strategically placed, versatile venues.
“Today, most of the teams have built facilities that can be used year-round, so there’s a lot of other activity and events and festivals taking place,” Webb says. “Used to be if you had a football stadium, you played your eight home games and that was the only thing it got used for all year. Now they’ve got concerts and wrestling events and car shows, etc., that is good for the economy.”
Other unique additions to the Super Region sports line-up include the “Frozen Four,” the NCAA ice hockey championships. Tampa hosted it in 2012 and was just awarded the 2016 event. Dyer points to that success and says it might be a future option for Orlando, too.
Tampa also fully intends to continue bidding for the new NCAA college football championship game, and Webb expects Miami to join in the process as well, saying, “My guess is we’ll have one [a championship game] every five years.”
College football championships are nothing new to Florida, and neither are Super Bowls. But rowing championships in Sarasota? College hockey’s premier event becoming a Florida tradition? College football on the hallowed ground where Richard Petty once drove?
The sports world is changing. It has become a multibillion- dollar economic development pie. Clearly, the Super Region is poised to grab its slice.