The Best of Both Worlds:
Panama City Beach & USSSA
The game of softball has made a prominent impact on the resort city of Panama City Beach (PCB) in Bay County, Florida. While known for its white sandy beaches, emerald-green waters and bright sunshine, it also serves as a “sportscation” destination, bringing together the best of family vacations and amateur sports events. For the community of PCB, this means hosting more than 100,000 rooms and an economic impact of over $75 million dollars.
PCB has experienced a rich history in the game of softball and in its early years between 1978 and 1998, it hosted 3-4 softball tournaments a year. In 1999, the city realized that an expansion was necessary when teams were being sent to other county facilities to participate in sporting events and tournaments. So, a renovation of Frank Brown Park expanded the grounds from four fields to nine fields, allowing PCB to host 12-15 softball tournaments a year. This expansion marked a significant time for the city as they became a popular destination for the game of softball. In fact, they were such a desirable destination that there was an annual “waiting list” of national organizers wanting to book tournaments.
Furthermore, the statistics show how much of an impact the sport has had on the city. In particular, girl’s youth softball laid the grounds for PCB’s sports history. Today, it represents over 38,000 room nights with an average travel party of 46 people per team, over a 7-night stay. Having a week in this beautiful city means the opportunity to sit back, relax, and enjoy the game as well as soak up the sun and enjoy vacation at the beach. It’s also enabled an increase in tourism, putting PCB on the map as a vacation destination, which is reflected in the numbers with youth softball having over 500 teams in the summer and over 97% from outside of the local area. As for adult softball, there are over 400 teams and more than 85% of these adult teams are from out of town. This further proves that the “sportscation” term for PCB rings true.
In the early 2000s, the city began to play host to girl’s fast pitch, with 29 teams the first week and 30 teams in their second session. Today, over 15 years later, they now host between 350-400 fast pitch teams over the same time period, representing about 30,000 room nights.
USSSA is proud of the partnership it has built with PCB, which started nearly 30 years ago. Richard Sanders, originally from Griffin, Georgia, is the VP of Sports & Events for PCB, and has been a key player in the city and its sports community. “I worked with PCB first as a consultant for 9 years and prior to that, I managed and owned a private softball complex in Atlanta as well as worked in the sporting good industry.” His passion is rooted in athletics and it is no surprise that he was part of building the grounds for a trusted relationship with the USSSA organization.
In 2015, another major renovation occurred when the Tourism Development Council expended $4.5 million dollars towards Frank Brown Park. Between November 2015 and March 2016, the nine-field complex entered a fast track renovation.
Additions included new masonry, higher backstops, new fencing, expanded dugouts, state of the art score boxes, an improved mix of clay, laser graded drainage system and to impress players and spectators alike, a newer and larger concessions stand and operations building located between the north and south complexes. These updates would solidify Frank Brown Park as the number one park destination for softball and fast pitch athletics, especially with the new improvements made to their concessions, operations and restroom facilities. These additions were made in consideration of not only the athletes playing but the fans user experience.
Sanders, along with Don DeDonatis of USSSA, met in the mid-eighties at the Softball Country Club in Atlanta. Ever since, the relationship has grown into an incredible partnership, which took off last year when USSSA leadership was given the opportunity to fill the calendar with their tournament dates for 2017. And just like that, the calendar was filled through a combination of adult, youth, baseball and softball, taking almost every open date this year!
This expansion of the USSSA organization will have an immense impact on the PCB athletic community, as they will expect a dozen or more top quality events with hundreds of new adult and youth teams traveling to PCB, along with their visitors. For the first time ever, the Elite level USSSA program and the Super NIT are filling the fall with top events on the highest adult circuit. “We have always been a place where players want to visit, we not only have the world’s most beautiful beaches, but we have plenty to do for families and it’s a very easy half day drive for the majority of our visitors,” said Sanders. “Girls’ fast pitch softball is the biggest revenue producer we have at the park and youth baseball is the sport played the most on our fields, generating about 25,000 room nights a year.”
It’s clear that no matter how you look at it, PCB is a desirable location and has maintained a great atmosphere for all involved whether from the fan, player, coach, organization or community perspective. It’s an affordable, world class location, with over 16,000 rooms with accommodating styles for all. As an organization, PCB is looking to draw in even more events and new visitors, to cement its reputation as a “sports capital” and not just a vacation destination. To help continue to build upon this reputation, they are making improvements in air service and adding more flights to the list, drawing in teams from Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, and the Midwest in addition to the Southeast. A new airport, which is one of the newest built in the US, is just 15 minutes from the beach with service through Delta, United, and Southwest. Flying in and out of PCB will be about as easy as any beach location. This airport will become a major hub for USSSA’s new events in 2017, making the future very bright for all players within the USSSA organization.
Speaking of growth, the Visit Panama City Beach, St. Joe Company, and the Bay County School Board announced in 2015, the details of a public private partnership bringing a world-class sports village and K through 8 school to PCB. This new complex is intended to bring more sports visitors and the project will attract large-scale tournaments with rectangle fields for sports such as soccer, lacrosse, rugby and football. Included in the facility will be 13 multipurpose fields with 5 full size baseball and up to 16 youth sized fields. “Sports have become a major part of the Panama City Beach experience and our scenic coastal setting is a natural draw for athletes and fans alike from across the country,” states Visit Panama City Beach President and CEO, Dan Rowe. “Anchored by the generosity of the St. Joe Company and our commitment to developing and marketing a world-class sports village, this is a day to celebrate a bright future for Panama City Beach tourism.”
The St. Joe Company will donate 210 acres of land on the east end of Breakfast Point and a 10-acre piece of tract at 8222 Panama City Beach has been purchased by the CVB utilizing tourist development tax funds and funds received from BP damages. The tract will provide easier access from PCB Parkway / Highway 98 to the donated parcel.
And yes, we did mention a kindergarten through grade 8 public school, which will be built on the land to provide added classroom capacity to the city’s growing youth population. “This is an exemplary partnership, which is of great benefit to our students, parents, and community,” says Bay County School Board Superintendent Bill Husfelt. “We welcome this multi-faceted plan that offers solutions to address concerns brought on by tremendous growth on Panama City Beach. This also allows us all to multiply the utilization of our tax dollars. Our thanks go the St. Joe Company for many years of support for Bay District Schools and for including us with the Panama City Beach CVC in this exciting project.”
Between the sports village and the public school, this multi-million-dollar project will expand the opportunity for youth to choose which types of sports they want to try. It’s truly a way to engage youth in physical activity, to learn what sports they are passionate about, and make good friends along the way. Designs of the complex include covered areas, concession stands, and a large entry / tournament headquarters building. Fields will also be able to provide multipurpose capabilities for hosting full sized baseball and youth size softball fields, and will also showcase fields with seating capacity for tournament final games. It surely is an exciting time for the community to build upon its already well-known name.
Chris O’Brien, the Director of Sports Marketing for Visit Panama City Beach, joined the team in 2015, though prior to that worked in sport tourism and finance for the Visit Tallahassee Florida and Collier County / Naples Florida communities. With a strong foundation in sports and tourism, he is happy to be a part of this new era in PCB. “Events such as major softball and baseball tournaments bring in hundreds of teams to the region and for those sports, provides more capacity for overflow in the summer months. This facility with rectangle fields will attract potentially as many visitors as the Frank Brown Park does today,” he shares. “The new sports complex is in perfect position in the Southeast and will be a cornerstone to increasing year round business for hotels, restaurants and attractions – it’s a home run (or goal) for the entire community.”
Just this spring, the Sports Facility Management group based in Clearwater, Florida has been hired to serve as management for the complex. This same group that advises and manages sports complexes has a wide range of expertise and runs successful complexes in Gatlinburg, TN, Myrtle Beach, SC, Hoover, AL as well as projects in Ohio and South Carolina. Bidding for construction is well underway and the community is looking forward to its opening in mid-2018.
The ultimate goal is to continue to build upon PCB’s athletic and tourism foundation, and with the new sports facility opening in 2018, it will have solidified the city as a one of the top sports destinations in the country. From its small and humble beginnings hosting a few sports tournaments a year in the late 70s, to its ever-growing, yet still humble developments today, Panama City Beach is proud to play-host to tournaments for such a stand-up organization that is USSSA, as well as expand its reach into many other sports and organizations alike.
This year alone, it’ll play host to 9 more tournaments through to the first weekend of December. Other events to note include the Ironman 70.3, the Ironman Florida, Pro Watercross, many more softball and baseball events, the Adult Softball World Series, as well as hosting other sports including swimming, beach volleyball, cheer, dance, gymnastics, rugby, paintball, and more. On top of that, they’ll also be hosting special events through the year such as Spring Jam, which went on in April, Gulf Coast Jam in September, Pirates of the High Seas Festival in October, Thunder Beach Motorcycle Rally, Emerald Coast Car Show, Beach Home for the Holidays, and of course, the New Year’s Eve Ball Drop.
As you can see, the recognition of such value in sports teams and events has played a significant role in the uptrend of sports as the DNA of Panama City Beach. Through reflecting on the development of softball and fast pitch over the years, its leadership, teams, coaches, visitors, and community as a whole have come together as one. This is a true testament of what PCB stands for, providing opportunity for youth in sports, development for adults who want to continue to play the game they love, and experience for those visiting from near and far.
USSSA and Panama City Beach are proud of the partnership that has been built on solid grounds for so many years, and look forward to the continued success of the relationship and those who are a part of it.
PCB is situated on 27 miles of beaches bordering the waters of the Gulf of Mexico and the St Andrew Bay coverage. Out of the 365 days in a year, they experience about 320 days of sunshine and has long been favored by travelers looking for an affordable beach vacation for families, couples, groups and adventure-seekers alike.