TAMPA, Fla. - As 8-year-old Kali Cobb vaulted and flipped her way through the Aloha Invitational gymnastics meet at the University of Tampa, dad Chuck and his fiancee were her loudest fans.
They played another important role: walking ATMs.
After driving three hours from Palm Coast, they popped for a night at a Tampa Courtyard by Marriott ($84), ponied up the meet admission fee ($10 per adult) and bought Kali a T-shirt and workout pants ($50). They planned on a few meals out and a trip to Busch Gardens before heading home.
“We’ll probably spend $500 overall,” Cobb said.
Flashy sporting events like the Honda Grand Prix of St. Petersburg and Outback Bowl get much of the publicity. But when it comes to events that bolster local tourism, youth and amateur sports fill more of Tampa Bay’s hotels and restaurants.
Just about every weekend, two or three groups often consisting of hundreds of out-of-town competitors compete in tournaments or train on Tampa Bay beaches, baseball diamonds and soccer fields and in its gyms. Most involve kids competing against kids, often traveling from outside Tampa Bay.
Soccer and baseball are the biggest draws. But Hillsborough and Pinellas attract an array of sports: lacrosse, standup paddle board, paintball and the national IronKids triathlon championship for 12- to 16-year-olds.
More Florida counties smell the money and are competing to attract the top events. After all, youth sports as a tourist draw has bucked the economic downturn. Cobb and his fiancee, Carrie White, didn’t give the Tampa trip a second thought. This was Kali’s first big, out-of-town gymnastics meet.
“We wouldn’t miss it for the world,” White said.
Kids’ games that used to be played close to home have evolved into giant tournaments where even mediocre teams travel hundreds or thousands of miles to compete. Parents will spend about $7 billion this year on just the traveling involved with youth sports, said Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions.
Teams don’t bring only players and coaches. Parents and siblings often come as well. Families sometimes use the events to launch into a Florida vacation, dropping even more money along the way. Tourism officials coined a name for it: the playcation.
That adds up to a lot of “room nights,” the yardstick the lodging industry uses to measure success.
Seventy-five amateur sport events in Pinellas County – mostly youth sports – generated 97,000 room nights for the fiscal year that ended last Sept. 30. The 90 events in Hillsborough triggered the sale of 106,000 room nights. Tampa’s Outback Bowl, in contrast, does 17,000 each year.
Unlike the Outback Bowl, youth sports delivers a steady stream of visitors weekend after weekend. It helps fill rooms when business travelers aren’t as likely to be on the road and during the region’s off season for regular tourists.
For instance, the Tampa gymnastics tournament last weekend couldn’t have come at a better time for the boss of the Courtyard by Marriott on the edge of Tampa’s West Shore area.
The short week after Labor Day was slow for business travelers, the hotel’s bread and butter, said general manager Beverly Mogelnicki. Gymnasts and their families bought 150 room nights, one-third of the hotel’s inventory for Friday through Sunday nights.
“It was extremely important, especially to fill the gap on weekends,” she said. “We have to search for that kind of business.”
The competition to host all those travel teams and out-of-state mega meets is fierce. Pinellas and Hillsborough bid against locations as close as Polk County and as far away as Texas, Georgia and North Carolina.
Disney got in the game early, pouring $100 million into a 220-acre sports complex two decades ago aimed almost exclusively at youth sports. The entertainment giant made a deal in 1995 with the Amateur Athletic Union, which moved its headquarters from Indianapolis to Orlando.
The AAU hosts about 40 of its national events each year at Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex.
Locally, counties have scored some big events.
Hillsborough, for instance, recently persuaded organizers of “Score at the Shore,” a huge soccer tournament, to sign up again for next February. The event attracts 288 teams from East Coast cities. Forty-two hotels in Hillsborough and Pasco sell a combined 7,000 room nights.
But there’s no guarantee Hillsborough will get it in 2012. More than 60 locales submitted bids to wrestle the business away, said Rob Higgins, Hillsborough’s sports tourism director.
Locations with the biggest facilities in one location have the advantage. Kevin Smith, who oversees sports tourism for Pinellas County, said: “The trend is toward multifield complexes, whether it’s for soccer, field hockey or Frisbee.”
Pasco County’s sports commission can offer a complex of 18 fields in Wesley Chapel for big baseball, soccer and lacrosse tournaments. Polk County has a 21-field cluster in Auburndale.
In 2005, Hillsborough County Commissioner Jim Norman pitched a $40 million complex on county-owned Cone Ranch, north of Plant City. He argued that rent for youth tournaments and advertising would pay construction costs. Fellow commissioners resoundingly shot down the plan in 2007, citing more pressing spending priorities.
Built-out Pinellas has particular problems. The county has an ample supply of baseball and softball diamonds. But it lacks enough soccer fields, which can double for lacrosse, for the big tournaments.
Indoor space is also at a premium. Eckerd College can handle a mid-sized gymnastics meet, Smith said. But the only choice for a big indoor event that requires multiple 40-by-40-foot mats is Tropicana Field. The rent is too expensive for most organizations.
The tourism board might help. The panel that oversees how proceeds from Pinellas County’s 5 percent hotel “bed tax” are spent voted this month to make building sports and recreation facilities eligible for funding. The County Commission has the final say.
For now, sports tourism officials patch together separate locations. “Instead of a 24-field complex, we’ll use three eight-field facilities,” Higgins said.
It’s not ideal, he admitted, but he and other local organizers have a go-to pitch to help sweeten their bid.
You’ll love the beaches, the cultural events and Busch Gardens.
Polk County can’t promise all that.