Hillsborough’s sports tourism push carries hefty price tag

Hillsborough County could expand its sports tourism offerings with a pair of new facilities with a combined price tag of more than $123 million, according to preliminary cost estimates.

“It’s not cheap,” acknowledged Hillsborough Commission chairperson Ken Hagan. “We don’t have 50 or 60 million dollars laying around for either of these.”

The proposals, if pursued, would follow on the Tournament Sportsplex of Tampa Bay, a 15-field complex for soccer and other sports that is owned by the county and managed by the Tampa Sports Authority.

The new proposals call for:

  • A 178,000-square-foot indoor gymnasium — about 80% larger than a similar facility in the Wiregrass Ranch area of Pasco County — that could hold 12 basketball courts convertible to 24 volleyball courts or up to three to four dozen spots for pickleball or badminton. The preliminary cost estimate is listed at $69.5 million, according to a marketing report by St. Petersburg-based Crossroads Consulting.
  • The county also could pursue a baseball/softball complex that could include 11 full-sized fields that could be converted to 22 diamonds for youth baseball.

A marketing report from The Sports Facilities Co. of Clearwater, which manages three dozen sports facilities, including three in Florida, suggested two variations for the ballfields. The more expensive option would be on 77 acres and include a championship field at a cost of $53.9 million. A second option, on 70 acres, would include fewer fields and no championship stadium and would cost $47.6 million.

Hillsborough County commissioners are scheduled to be briefed on the reports Wednesday.

Hagan previously said the financing could come from a renewed community investment tax. That 30-year half-cent sales tax expires in 2026 and commissioners could ask voters to renew the tax in a November 2024 referendum.

The county used proceeds from the community investment tax to build the 65-acre sportsplex on Columbus Drive between U.S. 301 and Falkenburg Road. It played host to its first events in 2019, and recent data showed it exceeding early projections for generating revenue and hotel room stays.

Hagan cited the success of the sportsplex in pushing for a study of the baseball complex earlier this year.

The Sports Events and Tourism Association, a nonprofit trade association for the sports tourism industry, reported sports events and tourism accounted for $39.7 billion in direct spending nationally and $12.9 billion in tax revenue in 2021, according to the report from Crossroads Consulting.

The marketing report is an update to a study done more than 10 years ago by the Tampa Sports Authority on a possible indoor gymnasium complex. The study then zeroed in on the West Shore District as a possible site, but the update indicates the Westchase area may be the best alternative because of land costs and its proximity to the hotels and restaurants available in the West Shore District.

The study also noted the increased competition among facilities. It highlighted what it called 15 peer facilities, most of which are located in Atlantic Coast states or in the southeastern U.S. Six of the 15 facilities opened in the past three years, including the fieldhouse in Wiregrass Ranch and an indoor gym in Winter Haven. It also notes Sarasota County has committed $20 million to a proposed indoor sports facility.

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Hillsborough Commissioner Josh Wostal noted some of the facilities operate at a loss, but six of the 15 peer complexes are privately owned and operated “so that must mean there is some type of market and operating model out there that has a net positive on its return.”

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