Sports tourism bounces back in Southwest Florida

Laura Layden
Naples Daily News

Sports has led the recovery of Southwest Florida's tourism industry.

While sports tourism took a hit from the coronavirus pandemic, it rebounded more quickly, attracting visitors and filling hotel rooms in a time of need.

The recovery started last summer after two quiet months, with the return of some big-time sporting events.

While Lee and Collier counties didn't see as many sporting events in 2020 as they did in 2019, due to cancellations stemming from the pandemic, they still attracted a serious number of visitors, who spent a serious amount of money in Southwest Florida. 

"I would say that really sports kind of began the recovery. It really kind of led it for us, from about July on, when we had our first event at the new Paradise Coast Sports Complex," said Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director.

Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director

That first event? The Top Gun Showcase for Football University (FBU), which moved to Collier County in 2020 and happened as planned in July, despite the pandemic. The invitation-only camp is designed to highlight the elite program's best middle school and high school athletes, combining a national competition with national recruiting exposure, as well as offering top-notch instruction

"We had about 1,000 participants in that, plus their families," Wert said. 

FBU and the Paradise Coast Sports Complex took measures to guard against the spread of the coronavirus, from temperature checks to mask requirements for all involved. The cautionary measures brought a high level of comfort to the athletes and their families, despite the risks posed by COVID-19 at the time, Wert said.

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Zyaire Morris, 14, from Stroudeburg, Pennsylvania, participates in the broad jump during FBU's Top Gun youth football combine at Paradise Coast Sports Complex in North Naples on Friday, July 10, 2020.

Big business

In 2020, Collier County hosted a total of 21 sporting events. That compared to 24 events in 2019.

In 2019, visitor spending tied to sports reached about $11.8 million in the county. Last year, it still registered at about $10 million, seen as no small feat in a pandemic.

"It certainly doesn't replace some of the big corporate meetings that we've had in the past that we didn't have last year, but it definitely helped bring activity back to the community," Wert said.

The groups and meetings business continues to suffer in Southwest Florida, having yet to bounce back from the pandemic.

Until COVID hit, Collier County expected to host more sporting events in 2020 than it did in 2019. A handful of canceled events could have generated another $4.5 million in spending last year, raising the total from $10 million to $14.5 million, Wert said. 

Many of the sporting events that carried on as planned in 2020 involved youth. 

"Families were anxious to travel with the kids, so that's why we have done as well as we did," Wert said.

Larger events in 2020 included the Pro Watercross World Championships held at East Naples' Sugden Park in October and Football University's national championships in December.

The 2020 FBU Freshman All-American Football game in Collier County, Monday, Dec.21, 2020.(Photo/Chris Tilley/Special to the Naples Daily News)

For the FBU national championships, the county hosted games at its new sports complex and North Collier Regional Park. The event registered as the biggest and best one yet, resulting in more than 3,800 room nights booked at area hotels, valued at nearly $486,000 in room revenue.  

Participants and attendees booked 818 more room nights for the event in 2020 than they did in 2019.

On average, the FBU championships boosted hotel occupancy rates by 22% at a critical time last year, when they'd fallen as low as 13% to 17% at some properties, thanks to the pandemic.

The four-day event spurred more than $2 million in direct spending, up from about $1.9 million in 2019. 

Liz Sanders, area director of sales for Springhill Suites and Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott, near the county's new stadium, said the early return of sporting events made a difference at both hotels.

Springhill Suites closed last March because there wasn't enough business to support both hotels, she said, but it opened up twice just for sporting events before reopening permanently in December for the FBU championships.

"That tells you something. It really did help," said Sanders, president of Collier County's Sports Council.

The Dimitri Soccer Cup, held over four weekends in January and February — before the pandemic hit — grew in 2020 too, helping to prop up Collier's year-end numbers.

Direct spending tied to that event rose to more than $2.5 million, up from about $1.3 million in 2019. 

Likewise, the number of room nights booked for the competition increased to 3,281, up from 2,146.

Roaring back

Sports tourism has gained more steam in Collier County in 2021, with new cases of the coronavirus on the decline and COVID vaccinations on the rise.

The U.S. Pickleball Championships returned to Naples bigger than ever in April after taking a COVID-19 pandemic hiatus in 2020. Nearly 2,200 players participated this year, drawing more spectators than expected — roughly 24,000, tournament co-founder Terri Graham told county commissioners in a recap of the event at the last board meeting.

"We were shocked," she said, with emphasis.

The turnout for the event — dubbed the largest pickleball party in the world — left East Naples Community Park "jammed" this year, Graham said.

"It was packed and we had 3,000 or 4,000 people there every single day," she said.

So packed that she and partner Chris Avon, who created Spirit Promotions to run the U.S. Open, have asked the county to look into replacing a soccer field at the East Naples park with a parking lot, which could also serve the many locals who regularly play pickleball there, as well as supporting the annual tournament.

Attendees don't just come to Naples for the pickleball, they love to eat, drink and explore, Graham said. Surveys, she said, show 40% of visitors for the tournament stay more than seven nights. 

"Somebody is having a really good time in Collier County when they are staying longer," Graham said.

Spectators are also bringing along family and friends to "enjoy the party," she said.

Demonstrating the feel of this year's event, Avon shared a photo with county commissioners of several women — all from out of town — doing a conga line that broke out sporadically on a court.

"We don't know what's going on there, but maybe it's just the little bit of freedom everybody felt when they got to Naples," she said.

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A relief

As in Collier, sporting events have helped drive tourism's recovery in Lee County.

Due to COVID, the county didn't host any sporting events in April or May of last year, but then came signs of life again, bringing activity back.

In the end, Lee County hosted 91 events last year, down from 153 in 2019, according to an annual report from the county's sports development office.

The report shows sports tourism attracted some 143,200 visitors to the county in 2020, resulting in nearly $60 million in direct spending.

The visitors accounted for nearly 141,000 room nights at hotels. That compared to more than 162,000 booked in 2019 — a decline of 13.3%, less than feared.

September and October proved particularly busy, as events started to return in earnest in Lee, setting monthly records and offering relief to local hotel managers, who had suffered greatly for months after COVID officially became a global pandemic.

In October, sports tourism in Lee County::

  • Generated nearly 24,000 room nights at hotels
  • Brought in more than 25,000 visitors
  • Drove nearly $11.5 million in visitor spending

Most of the activity came from hosting Perfect Game amateur baseball tournaments.

Lee County parks, including baseball fields, closed in March 2020 because of the coronavirus. It didn't last long, as they started reopening in May, when Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis allowed youth sports leagues to resume play last year.

Perfect Game held an average of 41 events per year in Lee County before COVID, so they're a big part of the county's sports tourism industry.

While October proved strong, November didn't, generating 20,849 room nights in 2020, compared to 32,502 in 2019, due to less participation in such events as the Roy Hobbs World Series and Senior Softball USA Winter National Championships because of COVID-related concerns.

By December, year-over-year comparisons looked better, however, with 10,527 room nights sold for sporting events, compared to 10,757 in 2019. 

Good news

Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Development Department

At a recent Lee County Tourist Development Council meeting, Jeff Mielke, executive director of the county's sports development office, shared good news for January and February of this year.

In January, sporting events generated 13,984 room nights, one of the highest numbers on record for that month in the county. Mielke attributed the increase mostly to two well-attended Perfect Game events and the largest USA BMX Nationals in Florida's history.

As for the large turnout for the BMX Nationals, he said it reflected "a lot of pent-up demand."

"They couldn't wait to get to Florida," Mielke said.

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In February, sports generated another 9,625 room nights, an all-time record high for that month in the county. Mielke attributed the increase mostly to the Roy Hobbs Sunshine Classic, which brought 7,930 room nights over three weekends — a 43% increase from 2019.

Prostyle Baseball, a local program, contributed another 873 room nights, through two tournaments. 

March didn't pan out as well, however, with "not the best of news," Mielke said.

In that month, sporting events only generated 2,283 room nights, he said, mostly due to the cancellation of the Gene Cusic Collegiate Classic. The event usually offers men’s baseball and women’s softball college teams an opportunity to compete during spring break in a warm climate. 

The county's Parks & Recreation Department had to cancel the event this year, however, mostly because of colleges' limitations on travel related to COVID, Mielke explained. In 2019, the competition generated 5,248 room nights, which the county missed out on entirely this year.

Asked if the event might return in 2022, Mielke said he hoped to see it revived, but he's not sure of its future if restrictions on team travel and team budgets at smaller colleges persist.

The tournament has attracted athletes at NCAA Division III colleges and universities, which tend to be smaller.

"We hope that it comes back," Mielke said. "If it doesn't, we will find some other things to do in March." 

Looking ahead, he expects to see a strong summer for sports, a home run of sorts, filled with plenty of baseball and softball, including a few new girls' fast-pitch events.