Sports tourism is on go again

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County will cash in fast, with a 99-team tourney set for June 6-7.

  • Baseball action from 2014 at Southside Sports Complex. (FILE)
    Baseball action from 2014 at Southside Sports Complex. (FILE)
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Play ball.

Youth sports are free to open, the governor announced Friday. Columbia County has already moved to reopen local athletic venues, setting the stage for the return of tournaments tourism officials hope will boost the local economy. 

“This is very exciting news, and it shows signs we’re gradually heading back to some normalcy,” said Alden Rosner, the county’s sports marketing director. “Obviously, the tourism sector has been hit very mightily, so being able to bring in new groups to play ball will help give us a nice injection to get things going.”

The governor’s announcement didn’t come as much of a surprise. 

On Thursday, the Columbia County Commission voted to reopen sports venues in anticipation of DeSantis’ decision. 

Two county-owned venues, Southside Sports Complex in Lake City and South Columbia Sports Complex in Fort White, are heavily marketed to tournament organizers. The facilities average several dozen events per year, and have brought millions in revenue to local hotels, restaurants, stores and other businesses, tourism officials say.

The county may have a 70-team tournament coming next weekend, according to a news release. During the first weekend in June, the Lake City venue will host a boys baseball tournament with 99 teams currently signed up. 

“They’re definitely itching by and large to get back to normal and to get out and play,” Rosner said. 

In the past, a big tournament could easily pump about a half-million dollars into the local economy, Rosner said. Going forward, the impact will probably be much less, he added, at least for a while.  

“We definitely need to temper our expectations,” Rosner said. “It’s not going to be a huge, incredible boost right away — there’s still a lot of people who are nervous about traveling.”

Still, anything to bring some revenue business owners is a welcome development, he said. 

The state won’t restrict youth sports, according to the governor’s office, but local organizations and governments can still set rules and guidelines. The state won’t preempt those rules, DeSantis said Friday at a press conference in Jacksonville. 

The tournament coming up in June is organized by USSSA, which has its own rules, Rosner said. Celebratory high-fives will be prohibited, for example, and the organization will task someone with ensuring social distancing procedures are observed.

“But they’re doing their best to not alter the basic fundamentals of the game,” Rosner said. “Baseball is technically a contact sport — when a player slides into a base, there’s an interaction between people.”

The governor also said Friday that summer camps could reopen if local officials approved.