Millions of people make their way to Panama City Beach each year and not all of them come just for the sand and surf. A growing number of visitors are attracted by the fun and games.
To gauge the impact sports have on the beach, just follow the bouncing ball... or the swimmer in lane two... or the world class triathlete crossing the finish line. "Sports marketing has been one of the things that has been a true champion for Panama City Beach," said Dan Rowe, Executive Director of the Tourist Development Council (TDC).
For more than a decade, Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) sports marketing efforts have been led by Richard Sanders, a 30 year veteran of the business. Sanders said sporting events draw more than 100,000 visitors who pump $50 million into the local economy each year.
"My goal has always been that when you think of sports, especially in the panhandle of Florida, there's only one place you would think of," said Sanders. "I would like to think that sports is a part of the DNA when you think of Panama City Beach."
The playing fields at Frank Brown Park were empty on Wednesday, but that's increasingly rare. Sanders said the CVB averages about two events each week during the winter months and nearly 100 a year. "They can lead to conferences within an organization, conventions within an organization or just corporate meetings that a lot of people don't see taking place on the field," he said.
Even when the economy went south, Panama City Beach still came out a winner. "When the real estate market started to melt down in 2008, we saw an increase in sports... during the Great Recession in 2009 we saw an increase in sports," said Rowe.
According to Sanders, baseball and fast pitch softball account for more than half of the revenue from sports, but he sees potential in basketball and volleyball and would like to be able to market an indoor facility to participants of those sports. "Frank Brown Park has nine fields in one location and that's huge," he said. "To be able to put six or eight courts under one roof would be just as huge."
So far, Sanders has been a one man sports marketing band. But Tuesday, the TDC/CVB board approved two new sports marketing staff positions. Sanders plans to hire a Director of Special & Sporting Events and a Sports Marketing Coordinator in 2013. Next year, the board will determine whether to add a full-time Tournament Director.
"The best way to predict the future is to create it," said Rowe. "With these additional staff people, we'll be able to get out and to continue to push Panama City Beach."
Sanders sees big potential for future growth of sporting events and the economic boost they can bring. "If we can get inside with basketball and volleyball and continue to develop our outdoor soccer and bring in lacrosse… a hundred million dollars can be reached," he said.