Local leaders recently discussed how sporting events brought an unprecedented financial windfall to Pinellas County and its municipalities in 2022 – and how they could boost those numbers moving forward.
Craig Campbell, interim director of sports and events for Visit St. Pete/Clearwater (VSPC), led his department’s update during Wednesday’s Tourism and Development Council (TDC) meeting. He began by noting that FY2019 set “a really high benchmark” for economic impacts resulting from sporting events.
With the pandemic seemingly in the area’s rear-view mirror, FY22 set a new standard. Steve Hayes, president and CEO of VSPC, relayed his astonishment when Campbell approached him with the latest statistics a few days before the meeting.
“I was like, ‘holy cow, that is awesome news, and let’s get this on the agenda for the TDC,'” said Hayes. “I thought it was appropriate, given this is a big topic for the county as a whole.”
Campbell told the council, comprised of local political and business leaders, that sporting events typically generate between 120,000 and 140,000 room rentals throughout Pinellas. In FY22, attendees stayed for 162,361 nights.
Bed taxes and funding also bested the previous record, but the most significant improvement was in the overall economic impact. That number jumped from $77 million in FY19 to $109 million.
“It’s been a long and winding road to recovery,” said Campbell. “So, just incredible numbers there.”
He relayed that his department has placed a greater emphasis on securing events that offer national or regional media exposure. Broadcasters like ESPN and CBS Sports showcased the area to television audiences six times in FY22.
Campbell said that equated to $640,000 in free publicity.
While Hayes noted the region is home to four successful professional franchises, he called the amateur impacts “huge.” Softball led the 21-sport market breakdown by a wide margin.
VSPC data showed 38 softball events resulted in 81,692 overnight attendees and created an estimated economic impact (EEI) of nearly $42.5 million. Baseball came in second with 21,414 room nights generated and an EEI of $13.07 million.
Campbell said softball, baseball and aquatics are historically “the big three” and continue to provide the most value. He added that running events are gaining ground.
Campbell noted that Pinellas hosted just one basketball event in 2019 and 10 over the last year. Those netted area businesses nearly $5 million.
County Commission Chair Charlie Justice asked what facilities would provide the best investment for local officials. Hayes said field sports – football, soccer, lacrosse and rugby.
He explained that all four require at least 10 long, rectangular fields to host tournaments. Hayes said that without a proper facility, the area is potentially losing business to Bradenton, Orlando and Tampa.
“Whereas here, we’re forced to mix and match,” he said. “It becomes, logistically, a nightmare for the organizer.”
St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch then said he felt compelled to ask about pickleball’s potential as an economic driver. The fast-growing sport has swept over the county and nation in recent years, and Justice noted it often has “a cult-like following” among players.
Pickleball consists of two or four players hitting a light plastic ball, similar to a Wiffle ball, over a net. It can take place on half a tennis court or an area the size of a doubles badminton court. As such, Campbell said his department included it in the tennis category.
Those sports provided $2 million in EEI and ranked 11th in room nights generated. However, Campbell said there is tremendous potential to boost those statistics by creating facilities that can host large-scale events.
Michael Williams, managing director of Palm Harbor’s Innisbrook Golf and Spa Resort, relayed that the facility is completing the permitting process to build the first four of 12 eventual courts that he believes will attract tournaments and guests.
Dunedin Mayor Julie Ward Bujalski said her city is also building six new pickleball courts for high-level competitions. She said the county’s municipalities should coordinate efforts, rather than duplicate them, and partner to fund an expansive multi-use facility.