In 2019, Pasco County hit new records for tourism, but Covid delivered a hit in 2020 that Florida’s Sports Coast director Adam Thomas figured might be tough to overcome.

Turns out that it wasn’t. Not only did the county bounce back from its Covid-plagued 2020 by exceeding last year’s tourism numbers, but it even passed its pre-Covid 2019 numbers as well. 

“It was definitely a revival year for tourism for Pasco County,” says Thomas. “We beat our record-breaking historic year of 2019 by 10.6%. It was amazing,”

In Fiscal Year 2021 (which ran from Sept. 2020 to Oct. 2021), visitor spending in Pasco County generated $721.7 million in economic impact to the county, according to Downs & St. Germain Research. That is an increase of 30.7% above FY 2020, and 10.6% above the 2019 numbers. Direct spending in the county was $511.8 million of that total.

Thomas said an increase in marketing, as well as the state’s openness, allowed tourism to flourish here this year.

“Many other states were still not fully operational,” Thomas says of FY 2021. “That allowed our destinations to attract events throughout the year.”

Pasco County Commissioner Mike Moore (left) and Tourism Director Adam Thomas pose with the Florida Sports Foundation trophy won by the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus for Florida’s Best Small Market Venue. 

 With the doors to Pasco County wide open this year, people didn’t hesitate to rush through. The numbers don’t lie:

• Florida’s Sports Coast attracted 1,358,200 visitors (41.5% higher than last year, and 30.8% higher than FY 2019)

• Visitors generated 1,419,000 room nights in paid accommodations (32.6% higher than last year, and 16.6% higher than FY 2019)

• Spending by visitors supported 9,254 local jobs (36.3% higher than last year, and 17.6% higher than FY 2019)  

• Tourism generated $231.6 million in wages and salaries for local jobs (55% higher than FY 2020, and 37.8% higher than FY 2019).

• Every 147 visitors to the county created an additional job.

• Visitors staying locally generated $3.6 million in Tourist Development Tax collections (36.3% higher than last year, and 18.4% higher than FY 2019).

• Visitors in FY 2021 saved every household in Pasco County $385 in state and federal taxes.

And, Thomas says that amateur sports drove those record-setting numbers; primarily, amateur sports played in Wesley Chapel at its trifecta of sports tourism — AdventHealth Center Ice, the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus of Pasco County and Saddlebrook Resort. As far as the county goes, the nearby Sarah Vande Berg (SVB) Tennis Center in Zephyrhills also contributed to Pasco’s big numbers.

“All these record-breaking numbers that we had are basically from our sporting events,” Thomas says.

Following the heightened 2020 Covid concerns, 2021 may have started with a whimper, but is ending with a bang — for example, the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus will host 128 of the best high school girls basketball teams in the state and beyond, as well as 32 boys high school teams, at the Tampa Bay Christmas Invitational beginning tomorrow and running through Jan. 1. 

The tournament expects to bring 1,500 coaches and players and 3,000 total spectators for the event, meaning the Sports Campus will be capping its first full year of operation with the equivalent of a slam dunk. “It’s been an awesome year,” says Richard Blalock, the CEO of RADDSports, which operates the Sports Campus in a public-private partnership with the county. “Considering all of the (Covid-related) social issues we encountered, I think it was very successful.”

Crowds at many of the tournaments at Center Ice were the norm in 2021.

Blalock says 2021 has been a challenging year, but one that came with great exposure. In fact, the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus was named Small Market Venue of the Year by the Florida Sports Foundation in November.

“We were fortunate that we’re in a quasi-conservative area where we got support from the local government to be able to operate,” he says. “We just had to figure out what the rules were, come up with protocols and then follow those protocols to be able to operate.”

The Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus hosted a number of large events in 2021. Whether it was current Philadelphia Eagle and Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith preparing for the NFL Draft by working out at the campus, or USA volleyball and USA Gymnastics events, or a myriad of AAU and youth basketball, cheerleading and volleyball tournaments taking place monthly, the new facility was always bustling.

The same goes for Center Ice, which saw more than a million people pass through its doors in FY 2021.

General manager Gordie Zimmermann said his business was up more than 30 percent from 2019. Center Ice hosted an NHL Prospects tournament, burgeoning local adult and youth recreational leagues and a series of hotel-filling tournaments in ice, sled and roller hockey, as well as figure skating.

“It was pretty amazing,” Zimmermann says. “I think Florida handled (Covid) better than anybody, and we have had a lot of people coming here. Plus, hockey is on a growth spurt, and the (back-to-back Stanley Cup champion) Tampa Bay Lightning have certainly helped with that.”

The five-rink facility is one of a kind in the Southeast, and you won’t find many like it in the U.S., Zimmermann says, making it a popular destination for big tournaments.

The biggest sporting event held in Pasco County this year was at Center Ice, according to Thomas — the TORHS (Tournament of Roller Hockey Series) Nationals in June. The tournament runs 8-10 days, had more than 150 teams and generated 2,300 room nights. Thomas says the economic impact to the county of the event was roughly $3 million.

As we head into 2022, could another record-breaking year be in store? Thomas doesn’t see why not.

With the impact created by sports as great as it has been, Thomas and others see only growth.

Wesley Chapel has facilities, like the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus (above), that can host more than 1,000 people over the course of a weekend, providing a boost to the tourism dollars generated in Pasco County. (Photos courtesy of Florida’s Sports Coast)

A recent study commissioned by Florida’s Sports Coast, which was intended to find the gaps in the amateur sports arena, showed that adaptive sports, or sports that are accessible to those who are disabled, is a possible growth area. An aquatics facility is on the radar as well, and private developers have inquired about things like BMX and surf parks, as well as a track & field facility.

Adaptive basketball could be headed to the Wiregrass Ranch Sports Campus, says Blalock. Thomas says the county also is working on the bringing the U.S. Fencing championships to the Sports Campus, in addition to a large Can-Am competition between first responders from Canada and the U.S.

Saddlebrook Resort may host the 2022 American FootGolf League national championships in 2022. The relatively new sport is like golf but is played with feet and a soccer ball instead of clubs and a golf ball. 

“We are thinking outside the norm,” Thomas says.

Center Ice will launch the Sunshine Cup this summer, a week-long tournament that will feature teams from the U.S., Canada, Denmark and Europe. The mid-July event is expecting more than 3,000 visitors and would eclipse the TORHS event as the largest tournament hosted by the facility.

“We’ve always considered ourselves to be a player in the sports tourism industry,” says Thomas. “People are starting to notice our success, and they want to be a part of it. We’re excited. We’re an amateur sports hot spot, and we have some great opportunities for growth.” 

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