Big-time sports events can fill hotels and showcase Pinellas County to a national television audience of potential tourists.
Officials who oversee tax dollars that are used to promote tourism have traditionally written six-figure checks to organizers who put on the games, races and tournaments. But in these budget times, even bowl games can't count on getting that cash.
The national decline in business and leisure travel has cut into local hotel "bed tax" collections. On Wednesday, members of the county's Tourist Development Council had to split a smaller pie among more applicants — so they cut some out entirely.
Instead of dividing their $600,000 among six applicants, members voted to renew just three current sponsorships: the Tampa Bay Rays ($250,000), the Grand Prix in St. Petersburg ($250,000) and the Ironman triathlon in Clearwater ($100,000).
Left out were two previous recipients, Tampa's Outback Bowl and the year-old St. Pete Bowl. The Transitions PGA Championship at the Innisbrook Resort, applying for the first time, also was passed over.
"Every one of them has become part of the tourism landscape," said Pinellas County Commission Chairman Calvin Harris. "But with just $600,000, it creates a little angst."
Tourism council members based their picks on which events attracted the most out-of-town visitors staying in local lodging. They also like that Ironman and Grand Prix are unique events that help dispel the county's stereotype of seniors playing shuffleboard.
Just under $1 million was in the county's tourism budget for sports sponsorships in the current fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30. But bed tax collections were down 8.6 percent for the six months ending in May, with no signs of a quick turnaround.
This year's tourism department budget of $31 million is expected to drop to $25 million for next year. Tax proceeds are split three ways to pay for tourism promotion, beach renourishment and to construction debts on Tropicana Field and spring training stadiums in Clearwater and Dunedin.
Council members had set aside $600,000 for sports sponsorships next year and invited the Rays and event organizers to apply for up to $250,000 each.
College bowl games didn't get good reviews Wednesday. Members thought the St. Pete Bowl didn't do a good job of promoting its first game in December. The Outback Bowl was seen as a Hillsborough County event.
By contrast, members said, the Grand Prix and Ironman put "heads in beds." They also received national television visuals of downtown St. Petersburg and Clearwater Beach.
The Rays offered a package that including the Visit St. Petersburg/Clearwater logo on the rotating sign behind home plate, 50 television ads and radio spots in all 162 game broadcasts. And it was $10,000 cheaper than the same deal this year.
Steve Huettel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 226-3384.