Pasco County’s tourism department is rebranding the county & going hard after the sports market; Wesley Chapel will be a major player in that effort.
Pasco County is changing.
Once sleepy, it is now wide awake.
Once quiet and serene, it is now bustling.
Once regarded mostly for nature, it is now being rebranded.
That will be the new slogan that drives the county’s evolution from Nature Coast to Sports Coast, as Pasco looks to capitalize on a number of sports offerings it feels will, if marketed properly, bring in millions of dollars annually to local businesses and hotels, and much needed tax dollars for the county.
Pasco’s tourism agency, Visit Pasco, is expected to rebrand the county as “Florida’s Sports Coast” after January 1, 2019. It has a $326,000 contract with The Zimmerman Agency to help with the rebranding and marketing.
“This is a destination that is changing and changing,” says Adam Thomas, Pasco’s tourism director. “We are charging ahead to become that premier sports destination: Florida’s Sports Coast.”
Thomas emceed the East Pasco Economic Development Summit on Nov. 2, which brought together government officials like District 2 commissioner Mike Moore and county administrator Dan Biles, as well as heavy hitters in the sports tourism market like Jason Aughey of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission, Pat Ciaccio of Saddlebrook Resort, Richard Blalock of RADD Sports and Gordie Zimmermann of Florida Hospital Center Ice (FHCI).
The summit was held at the Pasco-Hernando State College Porter campus in Wiregrass Ranch, and the message, emphasized by keynote speaker Carolynn Smith, was simple:
“You need to be ready,” Smith said.
Smith, a former college basketball standout at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville who now owns 7 Marketing & PR, stressed to local businesses the importance of preparation for an influx of new customers. She said to look at the schedules at the local sports facilities, be staffed properly when big events are in town, and ready to capitalize.
The panel drove home a similar message. The heart of the engine that will drive much of the transition from nature outpost to sports destination is right here in Wesley Chapel, with the soon-to-be-built $44-million Wiregrass Sports Complex, the booming FHCI facility and popular Saddlebrook Resort expected to attract hundreds of thousands of tourists annually.
Aughey, who has helped bring Super Bowls and NCAA Football National Championships and men’s and women’s NCAA Basketball Final Fours to Tampa, says that sports tourism had a $57.4-billion impact on the national economy last year.
One reason: they are recession proof, according to Aughey. No matter the economy, he says, parents are not likely to cut out their children’s sports because they provide physical and social benefits as well as college scholarship opportunities.
In fact, according to U.S. News & World Report, a 2009 study by the National Association of Sports Commissions and Ohio University showed that participation in youth sports travel still increased from 2008 to 2009 despite the Great Recession.
“Regardless of the economy, sports is going to continue to pull through,” Aughey said.
Ciaccio, the general manager at Saddlebrook Resort, said that is good for everyone in Wesley Chapel. “Everyone benefits from the ancillary benefits,” he said, citing everything from walk-in clinics to local mom-and-pop shops, sign makers, restaurants and retail and grocery stores.
“There’s a little niche for everybody,” Ciaccio says. “You have to see how you can benefit, and find your place.”
FHCI has already made its mark with more than 1 million visitors since opening in 2017. Most recently, the complex hosted a 68-team event, which can translate to 1,300 players and just as many parents needing hotel rooms, places to eat and things to do in their downtime, like shop.
Zimmermann said that events like that at FHCI are commonplace almost every weekend, and often are much larger.
Aughey added that back in May, Tampa hosted a cheerleading competition that filled 22,000 rooms over two days. A volleyball tournament this year brought 900 teams, resulting in 10-20,000 visitors.
The Wiregrass Sports Complex being developed by RADD Sports is expected to handle large indoor events like that, hosting hundreds, even thousands of athletes and their parents every weekend, all looking for ways to spend their money.
It’s no wonder there has been a rush to build new hotels in Wesley Chapel.
The popularity of youth and amateur sports is only going to grow bigger. According to the National Association of Sports Commissions State of the Industry report in 2017, visitor spending associated with sports events was $10.47 billion in 2016, a 10 percent increase from the year before.
But, Pasco County’s rebranding goes beyond just the sports tourism market in Wesley Chapel. It also includes things like the sand volleyball courts at Sunwest Park in Hudson, zip lining at Treehoppers in Dade City, and fishing and boating on the Gulf coast.
“Show me any place (else) around where, on the same weekend, you can have a beach volleyball event going on at the same time as an ice hockey tournament is happening,” said Biles. “You can go scalloping, you can jump out of a plane (in Zephyrhills), you can go biking on trails….how many destinations offer that kind of variety?”
And, there’s still more to come. While the RADD Sports facility broke ground earlier this year, it won’t be ready to host events until late 2019. There is talk of a large aquatics facility being negotiated in Land O’Lakes and a new tennis complex is scheduled to be built in Zephyrhills.
“We have a lot of assets, and more will come because they will follow,” said Moore, comparing it to Orlando, where DisneyWorld was the first amusement park, but not the last to build in that area.
Commissioner Moore even had his own suggestion for anyone interested — equestrian facilities for those who like to ride horses.
“We aren’t going to build it, but you can,” he said, to laughter. “You gotta figure out a way to get in the game!”