THE SPORTS RACE; Mayor Alvin Brown Wants to Attract More High-Profile Sporting Events to Town to Boost Tourism. but Just like on the Field, the Competition Is Fierce

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Byline: David Bauerlein

Mayor Alvin Brown says Jacksonville can pump tourism money into the local economy by hosting more sports events that bring fans to hotels and restaurants when they're not in the grandstands.

"We are a sports city," he said. "I believe if we do it right, we can take Jacksonville to the next level to attract more national sporting events."

But behind the scenes, the competition among cities to host sports events is as hard-nosed as the play on the field. Jacksonville is known for big-time events like the Florida-Georgia football game and the Gator Bowl. The city has struggled, however, to create long-term relationships for other sports events. The recession squeezed the city's budget and some attempts at high-profile events fell short in recent years.

In one measure of how cities have fared in landing sports events, Florida Sports, a division of Enterprise Florida, awarded 81 regional grants totaling $740,000 from July 2009 through June 2011.

The grants, whose funding comes from the sale of specialty license plates with sports logos on them, went to sports commissions across the state for newly launched events attracting out-of-state visitors. During that two-year period, Jacksonville received one grant - $4,000 for an international baton-twirling championship.

Those state grants aren't an all-encompassing way of rating success. In some cases, Jacksonville didn't apply for grants because its events didn't meet all the criteria. But it does show how aggressively cities across Florida are chasing sports events and the spin-off of tourism.

"Sports has become a very big business," said Mike Bouda, sports and entertainment coordinator for the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. "It's one of those things that continues to grow, and people will really spend money on their favorite teams."

Jacksonville made a bid to keep hosting the Atlantic Coast Conference baseball tournament, but the ACC moved the tournament to North Carolina. Jacksonville couldn't capture the Southeastern Conference baseball tournament. It sought to become the host city for the Under Armour Senior Bowl, an annual football game showcasing top seniors. Jacksonville also tried to become one of the host cities for World Cup Soccer, which would have brought several hundred million dollars of tourism spending.

The city has tasted success, too. The AT&T American Cup, a gymnastics championship, was at Jacksonville Veterans Memorial Arena in May. That event, which will be at Madison Square Garden in New York City in 2012, garnered broadcast time on NBC.

ESPN broadcast the inaugural Moe's Southwest Grill Sunshine Classic, a doubleheader of lacrosse games featuring top-ranked collegiate teams at EverBank Field. The Sunshine Classic will return in February.

The University of North Florida scored last month when the NCAA announced it would host the east preliminary round of the 2012 Division 1 Track and Field Outdoor Championships in May. The west preliminary round will be at the University of Texas in Austin.

Jacksonville also hosted opening rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournaments in 2006 and 2010.

Though Brown is pushing sports events, the mayor hasn't made any changes yet in how the city pursues that goal. A strategy could be ready by the end of the year, he said. In the meantime, his budget for the upcoming fiscal year would not boost spending or staffing for sports recruitment.

The city's sports and entertainment office operates within the Jacksonville Economic Development Commission. The sports office has one full-time employee and an administrative assistant. The office gets $200,000 a year.

The other local financing vehicle for sports events is the city's hotel bed tax. In the past two years, the Duval County Tourist Development Council has awarded $1.86 million in grants for sports events that attract hotel guests, according to minutes of the council's meetings. …