by Max Marbut
Whether it’s kick off, tip off, batter up or game on, sports means big business in Jacksonville when the game is tourism development.
According to data provided by Visit Jacksonville, sports tourism accounted for 34,382 room nights and a total economic impact of $36 million in fiscal year 2006-07. That includes the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament and football championship game, the River City Showdown, soccer tournaments and equestrian events.
When you add the economic impact of the Florida vs. Georgia football game ($31.5 million), the Gator Bowl ($14.3 million) and The Players Championship ($13 million), it’s a grand total of $94.8 million spent by fans on hotels, restaurants, entertainment and retail.
“Sports tourists are different from the usual conventioneers because they don’t spend their time in meetings, seminars and training sessions,” said Lyndsay Rossman, director of corporate communications for Visit Jacksonville. “Sports tourists are here purely to have a good time.”
She also said sports events are the largest market segment and account for 32 percent of the total tourism in North Florida.
The impact of sports tourism isn’t limited to high-profile events. The 11v11 soccer tournament being held in Jacksonville this weekend will book an estimated 6,293 room nights at more than 30 hotels, inns and suites across the city and in Orange Park. The coaches, players and their families will generate an estimated $2.8 million in direct spending for a total economic impact of $6.6 million.
“Even the smaller sports can be a tremendous asset for us and events like the soccer tournament bring families here,” said Rossman.
Promoting sports as tourism has been a part of Jacksonville’s economic strategy since the Gator Bowl game debuted just after World War II and went to a much higher level via the Better Jacksonville Plan. The additional sales tax levy approved by voters in 2000 replaced the old Wolfson Park baseball facility and the Coliseum with the Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville and the new Veterans Memorial Arena, respectively
“The Better Jacksonville Plan has funded many quality-of-life improvements in terms of roads and other infrastructure, but people really notice the Sports Complex improvements because that’s the sexy, fun part of the plan,” said Mike Bouda, sports coordinator for the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission.
Veterans Memorial Arena and the Baseball Grounds positioned Jacksonville to appear on the NCAA’s radar for the first time, and having the venues has led to plenty of media exposure for the city.
“The NCAA never would have even considered holding the first round of the Men’s Basketball Tournament at the old coliseum, but they did at the Arena and they’re coming back,” said Bouda. “We would have never been able to host the ACC Baseball Tournament at Wolfson Park, but we were able to at the Baseball Grounds and this year will be its fourth in Jacksonville.”
Last year, 59,000 people attended the 13 games during the tournament that was televised on six cable sports networks. Bouda said the promotional value of exposure on that level is hard to accurately measure but, “you’re talking about close to 30 million viewers watching a three-hour TV spot for Jacksonville.”
While the Jacksonville Suns minor league team brings in a fair crowd during its season, which is about to get started, JEDC’s 2008 quest to increase market share in baseball will include the ACC Tournament and a game between the University of Florida and Florida State University.
The first pitch in Jacksonville’s college baseball season will be delivered Feb. 22 when the University of North Florida hosts Mississippi State University. For that game, JEDC, SMG and UNF are coordinating a promotion with the Rascal Flatts concert scheduled that same day. Patrons can present their Rascal Flatts tickets and watch the baseball game for only $5.
“That game will be the first of many college baseball games we’d like to bring to Jacksonville,” said Bouda, who described baseball as a growth market for the local economy. “Not to take anything away from the (Jacksonville) Suns, but we have a lot more park than we do baseball. There’s plenty of room on the calendar for more games.”