This year, all eyes on sunshine state sports

Anna Hartman, of the Village of Piedmont, is a National Senior Games gold medalist and repeat qualifier after her archery performance at this year’s Florida games.

Even before the world got turned on its ear, Monday’s College Football Playoff national championship was destined for a historical footnote. For only the second time since college football went to a designated championship game, both of football’s biggest prizes are set to be handed out in the same state — in this case, Florida. South Florida’s Hard Rock Stadium provides Monday night’s backdrop, as either Alabama coach Nick Saban adds

to his championship legacy or Ryan Day adds his first to a stocked Ohio State trophy case. Twenty-seven days later and some 260 miles across the state, Tampa’s Raymond James Stadium will be the epicenter for the biggest date on the American sports calendar — Super Bowl Sunday.

“Now that we’re at the precipice, it’s energizing,” said Eric Poms, chief executive of the CFP’s Miami host committee. “It puts a great spotlight on Florida.”

No doubt it will look different. Crowds that typically would fill every seat will be limited by COVID-19 restrictions to only about 20 percent capacity. Some of the pageantry naturally will go missing. Those cheers that greet big plays will be muted.

And yet some basics never really change: Someone is going to win a big event. Millions of fans across the country will be watching.

And Florida often will be the backdrop for many of those large events in 2021. Pick a sport.

“For one (driver), life will be changed because he’ll be known as the Daytona 500 champion,” said Chip Wile, president of Daytona International Speedway. “It’s still the most important stock car race in the world.”

Florida, in fact, will be the site for the first three races of the NASCAR Cup Series season. The PGA Tour’s celebrated “Florida Swing” takes over in March, looping from Orlando to Jacksonville to Palm Beach Gardens.

The Miami Open, just below the Grand Slam events in tennis hierarchy, is set to bring Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Serena Williams back on court after last year’s event was scrubbed. Plans move forward, too, for Major League Baseball spring training that was cut short in 2020.

And those are just the more prominent 2021 events to call Florida home. From water skiing to pickleball to bull riding to distance running, it’s a full plate. And November is slated to bring an event near and dear to many Villages athletes — the National Senior Games, with Fort Lauderdale serving as hub for the Olympic-style festival.

“It is Florida, and that’s an attraction to our athletes from all around the country,” said Del Moon, NSG communications director.

It’s all setting up to be a year unlike any before in the Sunshine State’s thriving sports scene. After so many events were throttled by the virus in 2020, Poms noted, it’s a chance for Florida’s sports industry to take a big step forward.

“The men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments were canceled. Major League Baseball’s All-Star Game was canceled,” Poms said. “You can go to the political world — the Democratic and Republican national conventions were both canceled.

“If we can pull this off, it’ll mean so much for the state of Florida.”

Economics

When South Florida hosted Super Bowl LIV a year ago, it created an economic impact of $572 million for the region. Sport Management Research Institute, which conducted the study, called it among the largest activity the firm has seen for any event in the past 25 years.

A scaled-down version this year, with virus limits in place, can’t approach those numbers. Such prominent NFL sponsors as Anheuser-Busch and Bridgestone have scrapped hospitality plans that typically bring hundreds of executives to the Super Bowl city.

Even so, there’s economic value to hosting a major event.

“We know the media value is not impacted by this,” said Poms, also the Orange Bowl Committee’s CEO for the past 15 years. “Viewership will be relatively the same, given the (event) and America’s interest in college football.”

Poms estimated the College Football Playoff finale still will generate $250 million of impact for South Florida. “Now if you’d asked that question last January,” he added, “we’d estimate $400 million.”

Applying the same percentage, Tampa Bay would be looking at a $357 million impact from next month’s Super Bowl.

“It’s more than just the game,” Rob Higgins, CEO of Tampa Bay’s Super Bowl host committee, said during a November online roundtable. “There’s a ton of pregame shows, postgame shows. The eyes of the world are upon us, so we want to leverage that media value.”

Every slice is important after a rough 2020 that scrubbed several Florida events. According to multiple estimates, Tampa alone took a $400 million hit from losing an NCAA basketball weekend, Valspar Championship golf, WrestleMania and no home playoff games for NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning and baseball’s Tampa Bay Rays.

Spring training was cut in half, as was golf’s Florida Swing. The Miami Open came off the tennis calendar. When racing came back to Daytona, it was with limited fans.

“We need all sports to be successful,” said Wile.

Even the World Waterski Championships, coming to the Clermont area in October, are worth $1.5 million of commerce for Lake County in the current virus climate.

“All the important people in the sport of waterski will be in attendance,” said Lindsey McBride, Lake County events coordinator for the Greater Orlando Sports Commission. “Let them see all we have to offer.”

Football frenzy

In the 22 years since college football cleared the way for a true championship game, just one other time has that game and the Super Bowl been played in the same state. That was 2009, with Florida also taking center stage.

The Orange Bowl staged what was then the Bowl Championship Series title game, crowning Tim Tebow-led Florida after the Gators beat Oklahoma. Tampa had the Super Bowl, where the Pittsburgh Steelers overcame an Arizona Cardinals rally to win an instant classic.

Poms felt momentum building for this year’s 1-2 punch, too, particularly off last year’s Super Bowl in South Florida.

“We were off and running,” said Poms. “Then the pandemic became a reality.”

College football was especially vulnerable. Whether a season could even be played remained up in the air until August, when three of the game’s “Power 5” conferences voted to move forward. The Big Ten and Pac-12 eventually joined in.

Like so many businesses worldwide, the Miami host committee worked to adjust.

“We focused on navigating the uncertainty that exists,” Poms said. “We said if college football is played, we’d be ready to deliver at a high level, no matter what the circumstance.”

The Orange Bowl’s vast experience with staging championships certainly was an asset. Going back to the days when polls decided college champions, this marks the 21st title game under the Orange Bowl’s watch.

“We know the College Football Playoff team well; we know the commissioners of the major conferences,” Poms said. “We understand the vision.”

By contrast, the NFL has had an easier path. The league managed to play all 17 weeks of the regular season without interruption, though a handful of games had to be shifted because of virus outbreaks.

“One of the things we’ve learned is we have to be prepared to adapt and evolve,” commissioner Roger Goodell told reporters after taking in a game at Raymond James Stadium last month.

Oddly enough, Tampa keeps popping up as the venue when a Super Bowl is played in a national crisis. The 1991 game took place not long after the Gulf War began, and that 2009 edition came shortly after the U.S. housing market crashed.

Drivers & putters

Perhaps no sport managed to navigate the 2020 sports disarray as well as NASCAR, which was the first entity to come back after the shutdown, the first to welcome limited numbers of fans back on site and the only one to complete a full schedule after interruption.

It required shifting several races, including relocating some out of virus-shuttered states and adding midweek races. But the Cup regular season had its full complement of 26 races, and the 10-race playoffs ran without a hitch.

“That speaks to the diligence we had from everybody, from our race teams to our fans,” said Wile. “We showed at a very high level that we could pull those plans together.”

Many of those protocols will still be in place at Daytona in February for Speedweeks — including a rejiggering that reduces what’s typically a 10-day schedule to six. Fan capacity, set at 20,000 for last August’s Coke Zero Sugar 400 at Daytona, has not been determined.

“It’s going to look and feel different. It’s not going to have 101,000 people in the grandstands,” said Wile. “But we have to make concessions, and that concession was not as many people in the grandstands. But the race will have the same importance it has had for 62 years.”

The PGA Tour also enters 2021 with cautious optimism, hopeful that Florida can be the place where fans start to regularly walk the fairways again. With six of seven West Coast events in California and Hawaii to start the year, only Phoenix is expected to allow fans on site.

Plans have yet to be announced for the Florida Swing, which begins with the Arnold Palmer Invitational at Orlando’s Bay Hill Club & Lodge. The Players Championship follows at TPC Sawgrass outside Jacksonville, with the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens closing things out.

“We really operate in six- to eight-week windows,” commissioner Jay Monahan explained during a cameo at last month’s PNC Championship in Orlando. “I would be hopeful that when we return to Florida, we’ll be able to continue on the path that we’ve been on.”

During the fall, the tour resumed staging pro-ams and hosting corporate hospitality at several venues. That provided a boost to the tour’s charitable giving, which reached $160 million in 2020.

Other events

The Miami Open got welcome news in the days right after Christmas when the ATP Tour, which oversees men’s tennis, gave the green light to play in late March. The WTA soon followed suit on the women’s side.

With nearly all the game’s top players descending on South Florida, the tournament holds a place just below the Grand Slam quartet.

After relocating from cozy Key Biscayne to a specially constructed complex at Hard Rock Stadium, the event set an attendance record in 2019 with nearly 389,000 fans. That translated to an economic impact estimated at $390 million.

Plans have not been unveiled for baseball’s spring training, though multiple reports indicate Major League Baseball has told its clubs to plan for an on-time start. Fifteen teams make Florida their spring home, including the ever-popular New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Atlanta Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.

Spring games produce a total attendance of nearly 1.5 million, according to a 2018 economic impact study for the Florida Sports Foundation. More than half of those tickets were sold to fans from out of state, helping generate $687 million for the economy.

Next weekend marks the Professional Bull Riders’ first visit to Ocala, as the Monster Energy Invitational brings the world’s top 30 riders — and some bad-tempered bovines — to the Southeastern Livestock Pavilion just off U.S. Highway 301.

Following an 18-year wait, water skiing’s world championships return to the United States in 2021 and do so in Central Florida. The Jack Travers Water Ski School in Groveland will welcome more than 200 competitors in October, representing an estimated 35 countries.

The biennial event was last held in Malaysia (2019), and in France before that.

Jason Siegel, president of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, noted that when it comes to international sports, word of mouth goes a long way toward future business as federation heads share their experiences.

“One great event, one positive experience naturally leads into the next conversation,” he said.

Senior Games

Top athletes in The Villages stand to make their mark in November, when the National Senior Games comes to Florida for just the second time and first since the 1999 edition at Disney’s Wide World of Sports and other Orlando-area venues.

Fort Lauderdale serves as host this time, joined by other venues around Broward County.

“I think it’s going to be especially beneficial in Florida,” said Moon. “The state has more people over 60 that are actively involved in sports and recreation than just about any other state. You can’t hardly throw a rock around here without hitting a pickleball court or a softball field or something.”

When the National Senior Games were last held two years ago, an all-time high of nearly 14,000 athletes gathered in Albuquerque. Considering the pandemic, that participation number might be tough to beat — though 11 months is a long way off.

“You’d hope November would be not as difficult a time, but it is a fluid situation,” said Moon. “We are constantly monitoring to see where we are.”

Last March, Moon noted, the National Senior Games Association appointed a safety committee to gather information and come up with best practices. That panel continues to watch the ongoing situation.

The Games’ late spot on the calendar also could buy extra time to monitor developments, especially as vaccination begins rollout. Had 2021 brought a midsummer festival, the clock would be ticking louder to make a decision.

“We’re committed to keeping the games in Fort Lauderdale. That’s the last thing we’d want to change,” said Marc Riker, the NSGA’s chief executive. “They’ve invested in us; they want us and we want them. But we are ready for whatever comes.”

Senior writer Jeff Shain can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5283, or jeff.shain@thevillagesmedia.com.​