Special Section: 5 Industries

Gainesville Sports Industry Runs up Economic Score

Written By: Scott Costello

The Gator Nation bleeds orange and blue, but the sports industry in Gainesville and Alachua County certainly bleeds green.

By all accounts, the economic impact of athletic events in Gainesville is tremendous and contributes a vital piece to a prosperous area. One may think that the University of Florida carries the torch in that department, but the fact of the matter is simple: Gainesville’s sports industry is incredibly balanced year-round.

The sports industry in Gainesville is quite diverse and consists of multiple entities that ultimately work together in promoting tourism and providing financial stimuli to local businesses.

When discussing athletics in Gainesville, it is impossible not to begin with the University of Florida, in particular the Gator football team.

“We are very aware that this athletic program impacts the community financially,” said Mike Hill, executive associate athletics director for the University Athletic Association. “You can ask local business owners, and they will tell you that sometimes their fortunes are tied to the performance of the Gator football team.”

According to a 2011 study from the UF Food and Resource Economics Department, total visitor spending for athletic events is estimated at $88 million. Of that $88 million, $77 million is contributed by Gator football and over $30 million comes from out of state. According to Hill, during the 2012-2013 NCAA season alone over one million fans will attend athletic events at UF.

These numbers are certainly felt by local business owners.

Orange and Blue Gator Game

“For most of the Gator football season, the whole town sells out and people have to go to outlining areas to get a room,” said Ron Gromoll, General Manager of the Best Western Gateway Grand, adding that rates for rooms are generally already doubled during peak times.

The connection between Gator football and local businesses isn’t lost on the UAA either. For instance, when the UAA realized that this current season of UF football would only have six home games as opposed to seven several years ago, they sent a letter out to local businesses through the Gainesville Chamber of Commerce to explain the situation and prepare them for a potential loss of income during this season. Hill estimates that one less home game will ultimately create a bottom dollar loss for the UAA and local businesses of “several million dollars.”

Beyond football, UF athletics is still a wonderful source of economic impact for Gainesville. Baseball, basketball, track and field and gymnastics respectively are the next four highest programs that heavily impact the area.

Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that roughly 64 percent of the athletic visitors in the study were unaffiliated with UF, and over nine percent were from outside Florida.

Out-of-state visitors to Gainesville certainly aren’t limited to UF athletics. One of the biggest contributors to the sports industry’s heavy economic impact on Gainesville is Gatornationals, an annual National Hot Rod Association drag racing event that has been held at Gainesville Auto-Plus Raceway since 1970.

According to Nate Cross, sales and marketing manager for the raceway, the four-day event generates approximately $60 million of direct economic impact for the region every year as more than 100,000 people from all over Florida and the southeastern United States attend along with international teams and spectators from the United Kingdom, Australia and Sweden, among others.

Cross said that the magnitude of the event and its high importance for the NHRA allows Gatornationals to “compound exponentially” and effectively impact the area economically.

“(Gatornationals) is special in that it comes in the time of the year when people can spend time at the racetrack on vacation,” Cross said. “It is the first event on the East Coast. People are seeing new race teams for the first time. There are new sponsors, new cars. It is a chance to see things for the first time for the people who have been starved all winter for drag racing. Gainesville is important in that.”

Economically, Gatornationals is unique because of its extended schedule. In comparison to a Gator football game, the four-day event allows visitors and spectators to spend quality time in the area and use the various hotels, restaurants, stores and businesses throughout Alachua County. In contrast, during the tailgate-heavy season of UF football, most people generally provide their own food or lodging and stay in Gainesville for two nights at most.

National and collegiate sports aren’t the only contributors to tourism in Gainesville and Alachua County. Roland Loog, executive director of VisitGainesville and the Gainesville VCB, estimates that 35,000 hotel nights are booked in Gainesville for non-UF events.

“The community might not see the big contributions from regional sports tournaments or other events because the fan participation isn’t as great,” Loog said. “But the team participation is great and that makes the difference.

Research done by VisitGainesville over the past several years has indicated that sporting events are one of the top three purposes of travel to Alachua County. Loog believes that is attributable to “an excellent balance” between UF athletics, the Raceway, event holders who choose the area and the Gainesville Sports Commission that goes on the road to recruit new and existing events.

The GSC is, according to their official website, “a not-for-profit organization that strives to promote tourism through sports while creating a positive economic impact on Gainesville and Alachua County.”

Joleen Cacciatore, executive director of the GSC, said that over $180 million has been created for Gainesville’s local economy since the GSC’s inception in 1988. Over $12 million is generated every year on average through hotel booking, restaurants and gas stations and other local purchases.

“I feel we are a very big need for the Gainesville community,” Cacciatore said. “Our job has been to keep our hotels and businesses open after Gator football ends.”

The GSC hosts between 30 and 40 different events throughout Alachua County every year. Events range from high school state athletic championships, AAU basketball and track and field events, U.S. Synchronized Swimming National Championships, archery tournaments and many more.

One of the greatest contributions the sports industry has had on Gainesville over the past five years is a constant source of economic impact in the midst of a recession. While attendance and dollars generated haven’t increased exponentially, things have remained stable in the midst of tough times for local businesses.

“There has been a real drop in touring type shows in entertainment in small markets like Gainesville, but sports has stayed constant,” said Lynda Reinhart, director of UF’s O’Connell Center and president of the GSC. “Sports is a great economic driver for our community because it hasn’t been affected economically. There has been no real change – maybe even a little bit of growth.”

The GSC’s way to counteract any sort of dip in sports tourism in Gainesville was simply to host more events, which “helped build back hotel occupancy,” according to Cacciatore. Holding more events allowed the economic impact of sports in Gainesville to remain steady during this period. The GSC also hosted events in outlying areas like Newberry, Alachua and High Springs to bring tourists to multiple areas as opposed to strictly concentrating them in Gainesville.

On top of his position as general manager of the Best Western Gateway Grand, Gromoll formerly served as president of the GSC. He reiterates the belief that the sports industry wasn’t hit as hard as other marketing segments. Part of that, he said, can be attributed to “a lot of people who have worked really hard at making the community sports orientated.”

Gromoll also said that Gainesville was one of first communities to have a sports commission, which allowed Gainesville to be “one of the first out of the track to attract people in the sports industry.”

Over at the Gainesville Auto-Plus Raceway, Cross admits that Gatornationals “took a fairly significant hit” after their largest crowd in 2008. Over the past couple years, however, attendance has increased a percentage point or two each year.

“We still have a ways to go,” Cross said. “Discretionary income for some is still not there, but we are seeing positive upswings.”

Hill said the UAA “saw more resistance to the economic troubles that everyone faced” and that fans “were still willing to make an investment and commitment to our program” in the midst of the downturn. For instance, season ticket renewals for Gator football this year were 91 percent. While Hill admits that is a fantastic number, it is still down from 95 percent five years ago.

In the end, however, the Gainesville VCB views the sports industry in Gainesville as “stable in the midst of an economic crisis,” particularly when markets like corporate meetings and events were severely hurt in the area. Now, Loog said, old record figures have almost been met across the board over the past couple of years, and sports is a factor.

“Meetings and conferences are on the rise. Medical is on the rise. Lots of hotels are doing better now than they have ever done,” Loog said. “The growth for tourism locally is really growing again.”

That fact can largely be attributed to one thing: the team effort of the sports industry in Gainesville.

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