LEE COUNTY — The state’s top prep baseball teams are likely coming to “Fenway South.”
Lee County officials are expecting they’ll bring an economic bump and added prestige to Southwest Florida’s baseball scene.
Fort Myers’ JetBlue Park has been chosen as the host for Florida’s high school baseball tournament, bringing the state finals to Southwest Florida for the first time since 1985. The three-year contract with the Florida High School Athletic Association is expected to be signed by August 1.
“With the fact that baseball is something woven into the fabric of Southwest Florida and Lee County, to have a chance to host the state high school championships is just huge for us,” said Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Authority, which engineered the winning proposal.
Sports planning organizations from four regions — Lee County, Sarasota, Port St. Lucie and Cocoa — submitted bids for the tournament. The combination of a new stadium — JetBlue Park, the Red Sox’s spring training home, opened earlier this year — and an attractive financial offer helped bring Florida’s top prep baseball teams to Fort Myers.
“The difference between the top three was very slim,” said Corey Sobers, spokesman for the FHSAA. “It’s a top-notch facility there. That definitely gave them a leg up. Their financial package was very, very strong, and then they had other things in terms of enough staff and school support in that area to run the event.”
A key factor in Lee County’s victorious bid was local officials’ willingness to give nearly 100 percent of gate receipts to the FHSAA for the first 5,400 tickets sold, then 80 percent of revenue from the rest. Lee County will also evenly split parking revenue and fork over a $10,000 flat fee to the FHSAA.
By contrast, officials from Port St. Lucie offered the FHSAA 70 percent of ticket revenue. That region has hosted the baseball finals the last four years, and it’s at risk of losing Major League Baseball’s Washington Nationals to Fort Myers for spring training.
Mielke said conservative estimates show the county would receive about $20,000 in bed taxes from tournament visitors, making up for the fee. In all, the finals could have an economic impact of $1.5 to $2 million, he said.
“There’s just no way to carve it up that it’s a bad business deal for us,” Mielke said.
Mielke hopes the novelty of JetBlue Park and Southwest Florida’s tourism business will attract more fans.
Even with two added days of competition this year, attendance hit a four-year low at Port St. Lucie’s Digital Domain Park, the New York Mets’ spring training home. Total paid attendance for the eight-day tournament was 7,418, down from the site’s 2009 peak of 10,253.
“I think the challenge is the FHSAA is broadcasting the finals live, which makes it harder to get more people to attend or give schools an incentive to send more spectators,” said Tom Colucci, executive director of the Treasure Coast Sports Commission, which hosted the finals in Port St. Lucie. “Sometimes too, the issue is how far they have to travel and how many student buses they can bring.”
Mielke said he hopes to attract at least 8,000 fans in 2013.
Colucci also noted that the host region misses out on bed taxes for hotel rooms paid for by tax-exempt school districts.
Mielke estimates that less than 10 percent of hotel stays will go untaxed. Early estimates put the number of nights stayed at local hotels between 4,000 and 5,000.
“You’ve only got 15 to 20 kids on a team plus coaches, so really that’s the only component that’s tax-exempt,” Mielke said. “The fans, the families, the other students that come, they’re all going to be staying and paying bed tax.”
Local baseball coaches applauded the FHSAA decision, saying the finals will become a source of pride for Southwest Florida baseball.
“As players and coaches, you always want to reach the Final Four, but it’s a little sweeter if you can get there to play close to home,” Estero baseball coach Frank Turco said.
Wednesday’s news came as a surprise to Naples baseball coach Rick Turner, who complemented the hosting job done in Port St. Lucie.
“It’ll bring more attention our way,” Turner said. “The last few years we’ve had teams reach the finals before, so hopefully we’ll see that again over the next three years.”
Staff writer Woody Wommack contributed to this report.