Little Everglades Ranch loses Tough Mudder, state cross country championships

Last year’s Tough Mudder competition, an extreme cross country race, could be the last for Pasco County.

DAVID RICE | Special to the Times (2011)

Last year’s Tough Mudder competition, an extreme cross country race, could be the last for Pasco County.

Two major outdoor sporting events — the popular Tough Mudder endurance race and the state high school cross country championships — have decided to leave Dade City's Little Everglades Ranch.

Losing those events means fewer out-of-town visitors who stay in Pasco's hotels and eat at Pasco's restaurants. The county spent $10,000 last year to attract those events, largely because they generated more than 5,600 hotel reservations.

And there could be more bad news on the way. Eric Keaton, director of Pasco's tourism department, told a joint meeting of the County Commission and the Tourism Development Board that the Dick's Sporting Goods national lacrosse tournament is also thinking of moving.

That would mean the loss of three of last year's four major events, defined as bringing more than 1,200 hotel nights and $1 million in economic impact.

"It's been a tough week for us," Keaton said Tuesday. "That's three major sports events."

Keaton said the cross country event has been at Little Everglades for the past six years.

"That's unheard of for state championships," he said, adding that many coaches simply wanted a different venue.

But losing Tough Mudder was tougher to swallow.

With more than 18,000 participants at Little Everglades the first weekend in December, the event was the largest endurance race in the history of Florida. The inaugural event brought rave reviews, including from a team of county officials who participated in the military-style race with extreme obstacles.

When Keaton announced Tough Mudder will relocate this year to Avon Park in Polk County, he drew gasps from the crowd at tourism meeting, held in the new business school at Saint Leo University.

"I know it's Valentine's Day, and I don't mean to break hearts," he said.

Jack Phethean, a tourism board member who is friends with the Blanchard family that owns Little Everglades, said all is not lost for the ranch.

"Little Everglades Ranch is looking at another event similar to Tough Mudder," he said. "It's not like we're losing this type of event."

Added Kevin Campbell, the ranch's event planner: "We'll continue to do very cool things out here. That's what we do."

Campbell said the ranch had an initial contract with Tough Mudder for a year, with plans to sign a multi-year deal. But the event wanted a cheaper price to use the ranch.

"We had something we had agreed to," he said. "When we went to redo (the agreement), they weren't wanting to continue doing it that way."

The lacrosse tournament would also be a major loss. It's Pasco's biggest sporting event, bringing 80 teams who reserved 3,200 hotel nights last year. The event has been using a combination of fields in Wesley Chapel and Tampa since 2008.

The outside suitor is the IMG Lacrosse Academy in Bradenton, which offered the tournament $40,000 to move. Last year the county spent $25,000 to sponsor the event.

Keaton said he plans to match the IMG offer. Most of the difference would come from the $10,000 that would've gone to the cross country event. When the county makes its counter-offer, he said, he'll have a better sense of whether Pasco can keep the tournament or if organizers have their hearts set on IMG.

"They love those fields (at Wesley Chapel)," he said. "I think they love IMG's fields a little bit better."

Besides its facilities, IMG can also tout its contacts within the lacrosse community, which can help kids move to more advanced competition.

On the other hand, Pasco has more available hotels, and the Wesley Chapel Athletic Association can stress its expertise in putting on the event for the last several years.

Lee Logan can be reached at llogan@tampabay.com (727) 869-6236.

Little Everglades Ranch loses Tough Mudder, state cross country championships 02/14/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 14, 2012 8:10pm]

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