Fort Myers Tip-Off basketball tourney helps spur sports tourism growth in Southwest Florida
Drew Russell knew the Suncoast Credit Union arena would be the perfect spot for Intersport and Lee County’s inaugural Fort Myers Tip-Off college basketball tournament, before it was ever fully constructed.
A couple of years ago Russell, the vice president of Intersport, saw it when it was “just concrete and steel girders. After Russell put on virtual reality glasses, however, he knew the arena at Florida SouthWestern State College had potential.
“You’re sitting in a structure that’s halfway complete and (with the glasses) you see the hardwood court underneath you and video boards and the hospitality suite,” he said. “You walk in now and the place looks the same.”
Home to Spring Training for the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins, Lee County is already a fast growing sports tourism mecca. The Tip-Off tournament, which has been approved for the next four years, will hopefully attract more college basketball teams to Southwest Florida to participate in the future.
Jeff Mielke, the executive director of Lee County Sports Development, thought the idea of presenting a collegiate basketball product to a nationally televised audience was intriguing.
“It’s less about sports development and more about the brand of Lee County tourism,” he said.
Compared to other Florida destinations, Mielke thinks Lee County has a healthier sports tourism initiative.
“The county leadership understands the value and importance of sports tourism as a complement to year-round tourism,” he said.
Mielke said he was instantly on board when Intersport agreed to make sure the Lee County brand got two 30-second commercial spots during Monday and Wednesday’s nationally televised games.
The Tip-Off tournament is expected to give the county even more of an economic boost.
Last year, Lee County Sports Development, in partnership with Lee County Parks & Recreation and tourism partners, hosted over 140 amateur sporting events, which drew in more than 148,000 people and nearly $65 million.
Teams playing in the tournament this year, along with their fans are staying at area hotels, and most of that money will ultimately go back into Lee County’s coffers.
According to Lee County communications specialist Timothy Engstrom, the return on investment for the $200,000 sponsorship is $629,243 in media value.
“Eight hours of televised basketball with the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau logo,” Mielke said. “It’s really hard to put a value on that.”
Last year, direct impact spending in the county came in at $43.5 million versus indirect spending at $65.9 million.
Direct impact spending could be things like food, a car rental, hotel, gas and shopping. An indirect impact is any type of economic activity resulting from subsequent spending of those indirectly involved with the Lee County sports events.
“We have the beaches here and it’s already a fantastic destination for families,” Mielke said. “Throw sports tourism in there and it makes us a little more of a proactive sports town.”
Russell said he always had the desire to run an event like this, and Fort Myers was always his first choice.
“When Florida Gulf Coast University made its run in 2013, we saw the excitement and fervor for Dunk City,” he said. “Now we know Lee County cares about college hoops as well so this could be a nice marriage.”
Once he struck up relationships with Lee County staff, Russell said he knew Fort Myers was the right place to host the tournament.
As a team you can only play in these tournaments every four years, Russell said. You also cannot have multiple teams from the same conference participate.
This year the multi-team exempt tournament featured Boston College, Loyola Chicago, Richmond and Wyoming.
Russell really honed in on Boston College to play in this year’s tournament, he said, because of Boston’s connection to the Red Sox Spring Training organization at JetBlue Park.
He chose the Loyola Ramblers from Chicago because they’re coming off a Final Four run.
“As much as we created an opportunity for them,” Russell said, “the teams took a chance on us. We owe them a lot of gratitude.”
Russell also stressed that it’s about more than blowing a whistle and tossing a ball in the air.
He said he’s more interested in creating an experience for the teams and their fans.
“That’s what we’ve been able to create here,” he said.
On Tuesday, Russell reflected about the tournament’s first game the night before.
“Last night was really nice to see all of our hard work come together,” he said. “We’re not just interested in building an elite college basketball tournament here. We want to build an experience.”
Mielke said the tournament has already raised the profile of Lee County and Fort Myers in the national basketball scene.
“This was about building a foundation, brand, laying the groundwork and getting national exposure,” Russell said. “I am really proud of what we accomplished at year one.”
Mielke says he is focusing on making sure the experience is flawless.
“Your reputation makes or breaks you. Eventually after a few years of running great events and student athletes having a great experience, word spreads among coaches and people want to play in the event and become part of it.”
(For game results from the Tip-Off event, check out CJ?Haddad’s stories under “Local Sports” at cape-coral-daily-breeze.com.)