NEW PORT RICHEY — A little-known but growing skydiving sport called "canopy piloting" is getting a lift.
Pasco tourism officials on Monday awarded $25,000 to promote the sport at two events this year at Skydive City in Zephyrhills: the United States Parachuting Association's canopy piloting national championship May 21-23 and the world championship in November.
Skydive City general manager David "T.K." Hayes told tourism officials the sport, with its daredevil appeal, could draw big crowds given better promotion.
Only a few dozen attended last year's national championship, but "we didn't have any money" to promote the event, he said.
Members of the county's Tourism Development Council watched a video showing skydivers looping upside down and skimming across a pond before skidding along a gravel bed — their landing spot. Some of the divers hit speeds of 70 mph.
"We'll have teams from all over the world competing," Hayes said.
"This is very marketable, and he will put heads in the beds (at hotels)," Pasco tourism director Ed Caum said, urging the council's backing.
"Skydive City is one of our unpolished gems that we need to invest in to at least see what our return is," he added.
The Tourism Development Council, which regularly awards grants to promote Pasco County, approved $10,000 for the national championship and $15,000 for the world championship.
Both received tourism dollars for the first time — money raised from bed taxes paid by hotel guests.
Hayes said he was aiming for a big enough promotional splash to draw hundreds to the events in the hope they become annual or at least biannual occurrences.
Promoters are also angling to build public interest. The sport dates back only 10 years but is quickly firing imaginations, said Ed Scott, the USPA's executive director.
Unlike in-flight formations that can involve a dozen or more skydivers at one time, canopy piloting is easily glimpsed from the ground, making it publicly accessible.
"Coming across the pond at 70 miles an hour, dragging a foot … visually it's a stunning event to watch," Scott said.
Hayes said he's considering other ideas, too. He might rent a public address system, erect a public tent for folks to escape the sun and hire an emcee for the three-day meets.
The competitions draw dozens of competitors worldwide, many who stay a week more to allow for practice jumps. Only Americans can vie for the national title but unofficial "guest" heats happening concurrently draw skydivers from as far away as Dubai, Hayes said.
Altogether, he's expecting 80 competitors at the nationals. The world championship, Nov. 1-7, will see 125 competitors plus dozens of support staff and coaches.
As the event flourishes, more skydivers and eventgoers will attend future events, boosting hotels and stores, Caum said.
"That's one of the things we're hoping to do with these events — increase hotel capacity," said Pasco Commission Chairman Jack Mariano, also a tourism council member. "With increased hotel capacity, we increase the need for more hotels."
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 869-6236.