A New Game Plan

Community partnerships in Central Florida may bolster the economy through sports tourism by drawing fans and athletes—and dollars.

Story: James Combs

When it comes to strengthening Central Florida’s economy through sports tourism, officials from Orlando and Lake County are working to get the ball rolling.

A potential partnership was formed last September, when Lake County Commissioner Sean Parks invited Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer for a six-hour tour of Lake’s sports facilities and pristine countryside.

Sean and Buddy, along with other officials, visited sites such as the Green Mountain Scenic Overlook, Clermont’s Waterfront Park, and the Innovation District in Mount Dora. After lunch at the National Training Center in Clermont, they drove by several landmarks, including Mission Inn Resort & Club in Howey-in-the-Hills, Venetian Gardens in Leesburg, and Hickory Point Park in Tavares.

National Training Center in Clermont

“It was a wonderful day, and I’m glad that we opened the lines of communication,” says Robert Chandler, director of Lake County Economic Development and Tourism, who accompanied the group on the tour. “Anytime we can open eyes to what we’re doing on our end with sports tourism and what we can offer Orlando as their neighbor is a major plus. It’s always better to deal with comprehensive strategies in a comprehensive manner.”

Hickory Point Recreational Complex in Tavares

Officials from both regions hope to utilize complementary strengths and resources to bolster Central Florida’s sports tourism industry.

In recent months, Orlando has positioned itself as a premier sports destination by hosting the NFL Pro Bowl, the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and three collegiate football bowl games. The city also is home to several top-notch facilities: the Amway Center, Camping World Stadium, and Discover Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports.

Tim Frederick Fishes the FLW Professional Bass Fishing Tour in Lake County. Photo by Fred Lopez

Meanwhile, athletes from around the country are increasingly flocking to Lake County to compete in niche sports, such as beach volleyball, rowing regattas, disc golf, and bass tournaments. The county boasts impressive venues to host these sports, including Hickory Point, with 21 professional sand volleyball courts, the Clermont Boathouse, and disc golf courses at Lake Hiawatha Preserve in Clermont, Lincoln Avenue Community Park in Mount Dora, and Hidden Waters Preserve in Eustis. It also is home to more than 1,000 named lakes.

Disc Golf. Photo by Fred Lopez

A collaborative partnership could help Central Florida become a sports superpower by promoting the region as a year-round destination for sporting events. Officials from both Orlando and Lake understand that maximizing the economic impact will require a team effort.

“While Orlando pursues larger sports, we are pursuing niche sports,” Sean says. “We’ll work together on marketing and supporting each other. Our goal is to complement Orlando by focusing heavily on niche sports. When Orlando draws large sporting events such as the Pro Bowl, those visitors can make trips to Lake County and see everything we offer. It’s a win-win situation.”

A partnership between the Central Florida Sports Commission and Lake County Economic Development and Tourism already is underway. The two entities—along with the city of Clermont—were instrumental in bringing the USA Canoe/Kayak’s 2017 Sprint National Championship to Lake Minneola. The event, which is expected to attract more than 1,000 athletes, coaches, and spectators from around the country, will be held Aug. 2-5.

“We are just at the tip of the iceberg for what will happen here in the future,” says Paul McPherson, president of the Lake County Rowing Association. “We’ve even had foreign national teams reach out to us, because they want to train at the Clermont Boathouse in preparation for the world championships to be held next September in Sarasota.”

That kind of exposure is priceless. Between February and April 2016, the rowing association hosted four full-day regattas featuring competitors from throughout the southeastern United States. The economic impact of those four events was $629,815, according to estimates from Lake County Economic Development and Tourism.

However, it is impossible to quantify the full economic benefit. Many rowers and their families had never visited Lake County, meaning thousands of newcomers were exposed to the community in a positive way. It is not unreasonable to assume some will return.

“Families who travel to sporting events often turn the trip into a mini-vacation,” Robert says. “They stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, and shop in our stores. They also get to experience not just a tournament but everything the area has to offer. Many who come to our town for a sporting event will come back for a vacation and recommend the area to others.”

He also hopes to draw Orlando tourists attending prestigious sporting events, such as bowl games or NCAA Tournament games.

“These fans usually stay for several days,” Robert says. “When they are visiting the region, we want them to come to Lake County and discover everything that our area offers. It’s always a positive when we can bring new people to the area and let them experience the Lake County brand.”

Another collaborative project being discussed is the creation of a super-regional park featuring running trails, bicycle trails, and hiking trails. The park would be built on Water Conserv II, a rapid infiltration basin site spanning western Orange County and southeast Lake County. The property is part of Wellness Way, which is a sector development plan designed to attract health, fitness, and related industries to the area.

“This is extremely exciting because we’re thinking completely outside the box,” Sean says. “Having multiple agencies coming together to do something like this is rare. Also, the cost is minimal because nobody is buying land. We’re simply using what we already have.”

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