Author: Rod Hemphill
There was a time when the Gainesville area hospitality industry faced a feast-or-famine existence, thriving during weekends when the University of Florida hosted home games and graduation ceremonies, slammed during Gatornationals, but facing lean times during the off-season.
These days, the Gator faithful still flock to Florida Field for home games – “in all kinds of weather,” as the song goes – celebrating victory or quenching their sorrows in the city’s restaurants and lounges and paying premium rates for hotel accommodations.
The O’Connell Center still hosts the Gator’s men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, gymnastics, indoor track and swimming and diving teams; and, UF baseball and softball teams draw the fans, and families come to celebrate the academic accomplishments of sons and daughters at graduation.
The Gainesville Raceway is prepared to host the 46th Annual Amalie Oil NHRA Gatornationals March 12-15, 2015.
For most of these events, Gainesville-area hotels will reach or exceed 90 percent capacity.
But these days, there is an economic engine not directly associated with the University of Florida that helps keep the area economy humming during periods where it previously stalled. North central Florida has become a destination for adult and youth athletes, their parents and fans, filling hotel rooms that were formerly vacant in the off-seasons and pulling diners into area restaurants.
To a large extent, that happened by design.
The Gainesville Sports Commission was founded in 1988. The nonprofit company, with a paid staff of two, operates under a contract with Alachua County and is funded through memberships and event income. The county provides the commission with a $110,000 bid pool that allows it to bid for hosting events and pay associated costs.
Since its inception, the commission claims to have generated more than $160 million in direct economic activity due to participants and spectators involved in events it has attracted to the area. The Florida Sports Foundation pegs the current annual impact of its activities at about $18 million.
“Our partial funding by the county requires we conduct continuing hotel surveys,” Executive Director Joleen Cacciatore said. “In 2014 we had $4 million in direct hotel impact.”
The commission attracts about 40 events per year to the area, and Cacciatore generally goes after bids two years in advance of events.
Built in advantages
Gainesville has some real advantages for youth sports organizations looking to host tournaments.
“First of all, we are in Florida,” Cacciatore said. “Our location in north-central Florida, just off I-75 makes us accessible to travelers from up and down-state as well as the southeast region. We want to bring out-of-state teams to north-central Florida.”
“Gainesville has other advantages,” Cacciatore said. “It is family-friendly, hotel rates are reasonable, and we have good hotels and the general population are huge supporters of sports.”
The area also offers first-class sports facilities. In addition to playing fields at the University of Florida and Santa Fe College, visitors can schedule tournament games at facilities managed by the Gainesville and Alachua recreation and parks departments.
A new sports complex has opened about 16 miles from Gainesville, the Easton-Newberry Sports Complex and Recreation Center. The complex includes an archery center, where some of the best archers in the country train and compete.
Also part of the Newberry complex is the four-year-old Champions Park. Formerly known as Nation’s Park, it boasts 16 baseball and fastpitch softball fields. It was built on donated land using funds generated from the hotel bed-tax by the City of Newberry in partnership with Alachua County, Visit Gainesville and the Gainesville Sports Commission.
“Folks like planning and sponsoring tournaments to be easy,” said John Pricher, executive director of the Alachua County Visitors and Convention Bureau. Champion Park’s multiple fields keep all teams in one place, simplifying preparation and execution of tournaments that might involve between 40 and 100 teams, each team with 12 players.
Mike Spina, who took over as general manager of Champion Park last fall, says he envisions the park bringing in youth tournaments from “all over the country, but the majority from the southeast, year around.” Spina says he guides participants to area hotels that sponsor the park. A former minor league baseball player, he says he has connections in the Southeast that will help him promote the park.
Travel-ball teams form and play year around, but Spina says he expects the majority of his action to occur between February and November. Typically players’ ages range from 8 to 13. He expects to host two or three tournaments a month or about 30 per year.
Currently he has 22 weekend tournaments scheduled for this year, along with four week-long tournaments.
He says tournaments bring players to the area, and with the players come parents, grandparents and other relatives, all requiring lodging and food and beverage services.
Spina said he promotes the park as a tournament venue by using social media, including Twitter and Facebook and through broadcast networks.
Area tourism officials believe Champion Park will spark an increase in sports tourism this year, although the park has been slow to take off up to now.
“When it came on line, most of the events had already scheduled for the next year,” Pricher said, explaining why up to now the park has not been producing at expected levels. Nevertheless, the park has a unique selling proposition that bodes well for the future. “There are baseball fields in almost every town, but they are not like Champion Park,” he adds.
Pricher sees synergy developing among the various sports venues. For example, the cities of Alachua and High Springs have hosted a Babe Ruth League Cal Ripken World Series for boys aged 12 and under, and last year also hosted the Girls 12 and Under Softball World Series. He thinks it likely that the presence of Champion Park will entice a girls’ fast-pitch softball league to bring in a similar tournament.
“That’s a benefit for everybody,” he says. “It further cements their long-term relationship with the Babe Ruth League.”
Although he only recently became executive director, Pricher is a long-time employee of the Visitors and Convention Bureau. He credits the expansion of athletic programs at the University of Florida for adding momentum to the development of youth sports.
“Each time the university has added or improved a women’s sport, for example, that sport has become more popular with youths,” he observes, pointing to women’s basketball, volleyball and soccer programs.
He believes lacrosse will be the next sport to burgeon in popularity among youths.
“The key is, people will make a sacrifice so their child can have opportunities,” he says. “Having a facility that can capitalize on their needs and desires is key.”
BIO: Rod Hemphill, a communications specialist, has lived in Gainesville since 1985.