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Amateur sports add more than $104M to Lee economy

Amateur sports are almost like a stealth part of Lee County’s tourism economic profile.

Residents who don’t work in the hotel or restaurant industries may not realize what baseball players and swimmers and others bring to the county.

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The direct economic impact of amateur sports on the county in 2017 was $65.9 million, according to a Lee County Sports Development Office study. The total economic impact including indirect spending was $104.4 million, according to the study.

How is that possible?

There were 144 different amateur sports events held in Lee County in 2017. This study doesn’t include the impact of professional sports such as Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins spring training. Those two teams mean around $50 million a year combined to Lee County.

So amateur sports spread over 12 months have a greater economic impact than spring training. Jim Larkin, general manager of the Crowne Plaza in Fort Myers, said the value of amateur sports is likely not well-known.

“I think when most people think of sports they think of spring training,” Mr. Larkin said.

Sports are something beyond the high-priced talent on display for a few weeks every year in spring training. It’s also amateur sports and baseball events such as Perfect Game, which is focused on youth baseball and had 41 events on county ballfields in 2017. It’s also Roy Hobbs Baseball, which is focused on adult players and has an annual four-week World Series in Lee County every fall.

It’s also fantasy camps and events such as the Florida High School Activities Association baseball state championships.

Baseball is at the heart of the amateur sports economic stimulus. Of the nearly $66 million of amateur sports economic impact infused into Lee County’s economy in 2017 about $47.7 million came from baseball. That’s roughly 71 percent of the total.

“Baseball is still the big dog,” Mr. Larkin said.

There is a simple reason for that.

“We market what Lee County has,” said Jeff Mielke, executive director of the sports development office.

Lee County has five baseball venues that are now used or were once used by Major League Baseball teams.

Terry Park in Fort Myers was the spring training home for four big-league teams between 1925 and 1987. That four-field complex is now used for amateur baseball.

The Boston Red Sox two old facilities, City of Palms Park in downtown Fort Myers and a five-field training facility two miles to the east, are now used for amateur baseball organizations such as Perfect Game and Roy Hobbs Baseball.

JetBlue Park, the Red Sox current spring home, is used for spring training only about six weeks out of the year. The rest of the year it gets heavy usage by amateur players.

That is also true of the CenturyLink Sports Complex, the spring home of the Minnesota Twins and the summer home of the minor-league Fort Myers Miracle.

Mr. Mielke said between all those facilities there are “26 Major League Baseball fields.”

That explains why nearly three-quarters of the amateur sports bonanza comes from baseball. But how many more events and games can be played at these venues?

“We’ve about reached the saturation point,” Mr. Larkin said.

He said there are tentative plans to add perhaps five more fields and even lights to fields at the five-plex, the old Red Sox practice facility at the east end of Edison Avenue.

“That’s going to be a big boost,” Mr. Larkin said.

A county spokeswoman said there is a plan to develop eight youth fields and one Challenge Field — and that the complex could potentially have lights added.

Baseball drives the amateur sports economy engine in Lee County but it is far from the only sport. County officials hope to expand the number of sports that bring visitors to the county.

The number of amateur sports visitors in 2017 was 148,187, according to the study. Each of the 144 events accounted for an average of 1,045 room nights in hotels.

The events averaged $759,784 in total economic impact.

Lee County Commissioner Cecil Pendergrass, who is also chairman of the Tourist Development Council, doesn’t see any end to this trend.

He expects even more to come from baseball because of plans at what is called in the local sports jargon the “five-plex.”

The complex opened in 1993, the same year City of Palms Park opened.

“We’re looking to constantly expand,” Mr. Pendergrass said.

That means not only in venues but also in the diversity of sports events held in the county.

One of the benefits of these sports events, according to folks in tourism and hospitality, is timing. Big numbers are posted in the summer when tourism hits a lull.

July was the biggest month in 2017 for amateur sports in Lee County in terms of economic impact, hotel room nights, event participants and event spectators.

The direct economic impact in July was nearly $15.9 million.

“It’s something we’ve been talking about for years — year-round tourism,” Mr. Pendergrass said.

Mr. Larkin said July used to be considered a “lackluster” month for local hoteliers before the amateur sports boom.

Only one other month other than July topped $8 million in impact in 2017. That was November when the impact was measured at $11.6 million.

Amateur sports events in July accounted for 10,263 hotel nights, according to the study.

John Naylor, a former general manager of the Pink Shell Resort & Marina on Fort Myers Beach, knows how much the impact of amateur sports has grown in Lee County in the past quarter of a century. He recalls starting up a fledgling program to boost sports tourism in 1992.

“Our goal was to drive 2,500 room nights in the off-season,” Mr. Naylor said.

The only month in 2017 that didn’t produce at least 2,500 room nights was September with 2,152.

Mr. Mielke recalls that not that long ago a year with 100,000 room nights was considered a good year.

In 2017, that barrier was cracked by more than 50,000, with a total of 150,670.

Nobody likely knew it then but 1992 was the dawn of a new era in sports tourism. CenturyLink, which was originally called the Lee County Sports Complex, had just opened in 1991.

City of Palms Park and the “five-plex” were opened in 1993 and then in 2012 came JetBlue.

When JetBlue opened that also meant City of Palms Park and the “five-plex” were available for amateur events 12 months out of the year.

No matter the month the athletes and their families spend money.

“They’re buying gas here,” Mr. Pendergrass said. “They’re paying the gas tax, which helps with roads. They’re buying lunch and dinner.”

Lee County’s Sports Development Office has a $1 million budget, according to Mr. Mielke. He said those funds come from the bed tax. That means property taxes on Lee County residents does not fund his office and its mission.

He added that attracting 144 events last year wasn’t done solely by his four-person department.

“We are tied at the hip to parks and rec,” he said.

Lee County’s Park and Recreation Department maintains the facilities that helps attract sports organizers and keeps them coming back year after year.

There are some obvious events that won’t work in Lee County. It doesn’t have snow or mountains so snow skiing is out.

On the other hand, Lee County is blessed with serene and warm waterways well suited to other events.

“We’re trying to get more diverse, get more watersports here,” Mr. Pendergrass said.

That includes events held on frozen water.

The Eastern U. S. Synchronized Skating Championships were held in January at Germain Arena. Mr. Mielke said about 2,000 skaters participated. They came from up and down the East Coast, from Florida to Delaware to Massachusetts and other states.

He said organizers expressed an interest in returning in the future.

Mr. Pendergrass hopes to not only build more facilities but also upgrade facilities such as the 40-year-old Lee Civic Center in North Fort Myers so it could attract a more sports events.

“Long-term, I’ve said to staff, I haven’t said publicly, I’d like to see us do more things at the Civic Center,” Mr. Pendergrass said. “It’s kind of behind the times. … Long-term, bringing that up to date, either re-modeling or re-building so you can bring more events.”

That no doubt sounds good to Mr. Mielke.

“We’re focusing on adding indoor sports,” Mr. Mielke said.

Indoor or outdoor, the economic impact of amateur sports may continue growing in Lee County. ¦

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