NEW PORT RICHEY — Even as the pandemic took hold in early 2020, one part of Pasco County’s economy weathered the storm well — its sports tourism industry.
Lacking a convention center and sugar-sand beaches, the suburban county north of Tampa Bay has bet big on holding amateur sporting competition to lure tourists. And as COVID-19 shuttered businesses and emptied concert halls, those games played on.
Now the Pasco County Tourist Development Council is considering whether to diversify its sporting portfolio. Consultants hired by the agency say there may be opportunity if they are willing to invest in multi-purpose venues for activities such as CrossFit competitions or boxing tournaments, build an aquatics center or court athletes with special needs.
The report presented to the tourism agency this week by Collective BEST, a St. Petersburg-based consultant, recommends ways for Pasco to keep its sports tourism industry booming.
“We’ve picked up tremendous steam since we rebranded ourselves as Florida’s Sport’s Coast” in 2019, said Adam Thomas, director of Pasco’s tourism agency. “We want to keep up that momentum.”
Numbers Thomas shared with the Pasco County Commission earlier this month explain why tourism, whether it comes from youth sports tournaments or visitors who come for fishing, boating or local bike and hiking trails, improves Pasco’s bottom line.
In 2021, visitors generated $721.7 million in economic impact to the county, a 30.7 percent increase over fiscal year 2020 and a 10.6 percent increase over 2019, despite the pandemic. That translated into 1.36 million visitors to Pasco County in the last fiscal year, a 41.5 percent increase over the previous year and a 30.8 percent increase over 2019.
The practical result was 9,254 jobs supported, $3.6 million in tourist taxes collected, $231.6 million in wages and salaries generated and $511.9 million in spent directly by tourists.
Thomas told the Tampa Bay Times that the popularity of the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus, opened in August 2020, demonstrated the strength of the Florida Sports Coast brand. The next logical step, he said, was to bring on a consulting company with expertise in all areas of tourism to identify gaps that Pasco might fill.
The report presented by William Knox to the Tourism Development Council describes the consultant’s research into the existing sports venues across the country, in Florida and in Pasco, and notes where there are opportunities.
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“With this information, a glaring disparity was brought to light when comprehensively looking at sporting facilities in the country. There are not any facilities completely dedicated to adaptive sports,” according to the study. “In addition to able-bodied athletes there are hundreds of thousands of amateur disabled athletes competing across the country in a variety of sports.”
Even those communities that hold events for disabled athletes only provide accommodations that are temporary rather than gearing them for full-time use.
“Knowing this, Pasco County has a unique opportunity to develop a facility that could cater to both able-bodied athletes as well as disabled athletes if adequate foreplanning is made,” the consultant concluded.
The consultant said that Pasco also could work directly to develop partnerships with lodging and other businesses that could better cater to para athletes.
Noting that few facilities exist for CrossFit and other strength and fitness competitions, the consultant suggested that Pasco explore building a multi-sport venue. “While building a facility specifically dedicated to CrossFit competitions may not theoretically fill the bookable time, building a facility that can accommodate multiple sports will be able to diversify the calendar and bring in a variety of events and activities.”
The consultant also identified another niche Pasco might fill: providing an aquatics center with indoor swimming in a pool that offered racing lanes, a warm-up and cool-down pool and a retractable roof. These features could open the community up to a variety of national and international events and be used by local medical professionals for physical therapy, the consultant noted.
While the Tourist Development Council didn’t act on the consultant’s report, members were interested in the possibilities, Thomas said.
“This is step one. Step two is the funding,” he said.
As Pasco’s tourism team develops its next 10-year plan, these suggestions can be discussed and explored further, Thomas said. The consultant suggests conducting a full feasibility study for the market and the proposed sports facility options and expressed optimism about the outcome.
“There is high potential for a new sports facility to be successful in Pasco County,” according to the report. ”The community and surrounding area has already gotten a taste of the sports tourism industry but there is still an ability to continue to grow.”