ST. PETERSBURG — This weekend, Olympic gold medalists such as Kerri Walsh Jennings will face off against other top beach volleyball players in a three-day tournament on the city’s downtown waterfront.
It’s the first time St. Petersburg has gained a spot on the Association of Volleyball Professional’s nationwide tour, a competition that draws thousands of spectators and TV viewers.
The tournament is only the latest example of Pinellas County’s year-round schedule of sporting events that bring tens of thousands of athletes, fans and families to the area, even in the slowest tourism months.
Capitalizing on the area’s history as a sunny, beachside training spot for Major League Baseball, Pinellas County communities have invested millions to upgrade gymnasiums and baseball diamonds, bringing them up to professional standards.
The county’s sports commission in recent years has worked hard to funnel scores of athletes to these facilities — amateurs and Olympians alike.
The payoff is 95,000 hotel room nights each year booked for sporting events and millions spent during weekend, monthlong and seasonal stays, not to mention the advertising.
“The sun will be shining; we’ll be along the water. They’ll see the downtown skyline, they’ll see an active group of folks,” said St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce President Chris Steinocher.
“Those are the kinds of messages we’re trying to generate about our community.”
Local consultant Mario Farias reached out to the Association of Volleyball Professionals, seeing an opportunity to bring the group’s tour of waterfront cities to St. Petersburg.
After a visit to the city this year, association officials were sold on making it the second stop on a seven-stop circuit, Farias said.
The longtime St. Petersburg resident works to attract new companies to the Tampa Bay area and said the city fits the bill perfectly for beach volleyball.
“Beach volleyball is all about the lifestyle of the players, the fun in the sun and the loud clapping and the music playing, the water — we’re bringing all those elements into play at the AVP St. Pete,” said Farias.
The association has trucked in 1,100 metric tons of sand to create four volleyball courts in Vinoy Park as well as erecting a 1,500-seat stadium.
Organizers have expressed interest in keeping the event here over the next several years, Farias said.
Pinellas County is already home to numerous national sporting events, such as the Honda Grand Prix IndyCar race and Beef O’Brady Bowl in St. Petersburg, an annual PGA goal tournament in Palm Harbor and a super boat race in Clearwater.
The Tourist Development Council will contribute nearly $1 million over the next year to help market several of these so-called elite events, most of which are sports-related.
Such high-profile, once-a-year events are just the most conspicuous part of the county’s sports tourism effort.
There are paddle-boarding competitions in St. Pete Beach and swimming matches in Largo.
Oldsmar has become home to a BMX bicycle race that brings in Olympic competitors from around the globe.
The Visit St. Pete/Clearwater’s sports commission is always on the lookout for national events that bring in the big crowds; but smaller, youth sporting events that make up the bulk of the county’s sports tourism, commission Director Kevin Smith said.
Trends indicate that many families seem to be looking to combine vacations with their children’s sports competitions, after years of shrinking incomes and rising gas prices have hurt other kinds of travel, Smith said.
“When parents are opting to spend their dollars, it appears they are opting to go to tournaments that are going to provide them with a total experience,” Smith said.
“That’s what we’re able to present: Come to our destination, use great facilities and, when you’re done playing, you have a beautiful beach destination with activities and attractions.”
The City of Clearwater has struck a balance between professional sports and a myriad of smaller youth events.
Clearwater has been the spring training home of the Philadelphia Phillies for decades, a relationship that resulted in the construction of Bright House Field and a 22,000-square-foot training facility next door that opened this year.
Phillies players and staff contribute an estimated $10 million a year to the local economy in direct spending and give the city and county generous TV advertising during regular season games, city Parks and Recreation Director Kevin Dunbar said.
On the other end of the spectrum, Clearwater hosted a national softball tournament over the summer for girls 18 and younger.
That tournament alone brought 7,000 room nights to 27 hotels. City officials made sure to show participants and their families everything the area had to offer, including trips to the Westfield Countryside Mall and the Clearwater Marine Aquarium.
The city is in the midst of a $3.3 million renovation of the Sid Lickton Sports Complex, a popular spot for Little League that will be upgraded with a central concession building and press box.
“We build facilities looking at the community, but then we also look at the sports tourism use after that,” Dunbar said.
Smaller cities such as Madeira Beach and Oldsmar are also looking to upgrade their athletic facilities.
Madeira Beach recently got approval for a bond of more than $9 million to build a new city hall and fire station. That money also includes $2.5 million to bring the city’s aging recreation center and ballfields up to professional standards.
Oldsmar city officials are looking for financial support from the county and other agencies to help them build a $1.2-million Olympic-grade BMX bike track, which would be one of only two in the nation.
“We have a county that has embraced sports tourism,” Smith said.