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Losing big sports events cost Tampa Bay some $360 million in economic impact

The cancelations were announced in early March just as the coronavirus spread: No WrestleMania, March Madness, Grand Prix or Valspar Championship.

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In successive announcements earlier this month, the coronavirus pandemic wiped out five major sporting events in the Tampa Bay area — March Madness, WrestleMania, the Valspar Championship golf tournament, the Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and the final days of spring training.

The empty seats stood to mean fewer tourists to stay in hotels, dine at restaurants and shop at stores.

The total in lost economic impact: somewhere between $290 million and $390 million, according to a Tampa Bay Times analysis.

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“It hurts a lot,” said Michelle Gacio Harrolle, director of the Vinik Sport & Entertainment Management Program at the University of South Florida. “When there’s no sports, there’s no events. It really trickles down to everybody.”

To quantify that trickle-down effect, the Times looked at economic impact estimates for all five events from previous years. Then we ran the numbers by Harrolle, who has studied spring training and the Valspar before.

Add up all the best guesses, and you get a back-of-the-envelope estimate of around $360 million in missed economic opportunities through direct or indirect spending.

Hundreds of fans watch NXT wrestling matches in Thunder Alley in front of Amalie Arena during the WWE On Sale Party in November. The event gave registered guests a chance to purchase highly sought-after tickets for WrestleMania in Tampa on April 5. WrestleMania has since been canceled. [LUIS SANTANA | Times]

Economic impact from sports events is best measured afterward, many experts say. And critics in the academic world say impact reports often are exaggerated, anyway, varying so widely that questions arise about their accuracy. In 2018, for example, Clearwater estimated the Phillies’ spring training impact at $70 million, then a year later put the figure at $44 million.

What’s more, the five sports event cancellations announced in early March came just as the impact of coronavirus was spreading across all segments of society. Now, hundreds of millions in potential losses from the five events pales in comparison with the widespread shutdown of all local restaurants and some hotels.

Still, the biggest financial blow would have been the loss of WrestleMania 36, moved from Raymond James Stadium to a closed set at the WWE Performance Center in Orlando. The April 5 event would have brought the region 50,000 hotel-visitor room nights, said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission.

Previous economic impact estimates for the event ranged from $165 million (last year in New Jersey) to almost $182 million (Orlando in 2017).

“The reason it’s so high is because everyone is from out of town,” USF’s Harrolle said. “They spend a lot of money, and they’re here for multiple days.”

Long stays from out-of-town Valspar and NCAA Tournament visitors never materialized, either; both were called off well before competition was set to begin March 19.

In 2015, Harrolle estimated the local impact of the PGA Tour event at $51 million. March Madness hasn’t visited Amalie Arena since 2011, but Jacksonville and Orlando each brought in an estimated $10 million as hosts for recent first- and second-round games, according to Jacksonville University and the Central Florida Sports Commission. Higgins expected the Tampa Bay area to net 13,000 hotel nights from the NCAA Tournament.

The early cancellations meant the area lost out on almost everything — a ballpark sum of $236 million for golf, professional wrestling and basketball.

A golf cart drives under what was a pedestrian bridge along the Copperhead golf course at Innisbrook Golf Resort in Palm Harbor. With the Valspar Tournament shutdown, golfers had the unique opportunity to play on a tour-ready golf course. [CHRIS URSO | Times]

The estimates get harder for partially completed events.

Because the IndyCar Series’ Grand Prix was still a go less than 48 hours before the green flag, some out-of-state spectators traveled to St. Petersburg and spent money locally even though they never got to see a race. And it still could be rescheduled for this fall. But the pandemic certainly kept the economic impact from the event’s largely regional crowd well below the $48 million estimated by the city in 2015.

“There’s a loss there,” Harrolle said, “but it’s not 100 percent, from the economic impact of it.”

Same with spring training.

Spring training stadiums in Port Charlotte and elsewhere across Florida and Arizona have a different look now with games suspended. [MARC TOPKIN | Tampa Bay Times]

The Yankees, Phillies and Blue Jays all completed about two-thirds of their games. Estimated impacts for an entire spring range from $44 million, the low Clearwater estimate, to $150 million, Harrolle’s number for the Yankees in Tampa. Average the numbers out and prorate them through the end of the Grapefruit League season, and that’s another $84 million in missed economic windfall.

Put all the individual estimates together and the total loss is around $360 million — without considering lost revenue from Lightning, Rays, Rowdies and Vipers games. It also doesn’t include the publicity that comes with these high-profile events. St. Petersburg, for example, estimates the international exposure from the Grand Prix at $5 million.

For Hillsborough County hotels, the drop-off has been steep. The county had its “biggest record-setting February of all time” last month, said Santiago Corrada, president and chief executive of Visit Tampa Bay. Then from March 1-21, hotel occupancy dropped by 29 percent compared to the same time frame last year.

“Our industry and its partners were geared for the biggest March ever," Corrada said. "Then they’ve seen this type of result based on the public-safety crisis.”

Related: With the Summer Olympics postponed, could football be next?

For Higgins, there is no immediate bright spot. He said he’s “heartbroken” over losses suffered by area hotels and restaurants. But eventually, when the pandemic subsides, sports can be a psychological, emotional and financial way to help the region rebound.

“We just know how important of a role we can play in the overall recovery when that time comes,” Higgins said. “So I think that’s going to be our focus. We’ve got to do everything and anything we can, once the time is right and it’s appropriate, to make sure we’re aiding in that recovery as best as we possibly can.”

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