About this time last year, FHSAA Executive Director Roger Dearing told me during the state basketball finals that he planned to open up for bid many of the state championship events that the FHSAA oversees.
Included in that were the four events that The Lakeland Center hosts: volleyball, wrestling, girls basketball, and boys basketball.
“We’re kind of flattered, I guess, as we’ve got a number of people that have contacted us,” Dearing told me while I was with The Ledger last March.
Over the summer, the FHSAA officially opened the process and accepted bids for the events currently held at The Lakeland Center, as well as many others including football and soccer. The bids have since all been received, and it’s now clearer what Lakeland and Polk County Sports Marketing – which officially entered the bids – are up against.
On the positive side, no other site submitted a bid to host the state wrestling finals, according to FHSAA spokesman Seth Polansky. So The Lakeland Center will keep that event which has been hosted there since 1995.
Lakeland’s biggest fight is likely to come for the basketball tournaments.
It was well known that Kissimmee, with the Silver Spurs Arena, was going to put in a bid to host the events, which it did. But the surprise was that Orlando, with the Magic’s new Amway Center, also submitted a bid to host both the boys and girls events. Orlando has wanted the boys events for a while, but the FHSAA makes the basketball events a package deal and the host city must take the girls event, as well.
As far as facilities go, the Amway Center is head and shoulders above Lakeland and Kissimmee in amenities, size and just for creating a championship stage for high school athletes. Imagine being a high school athlete and playing in an NBA arena for a state title. Tough to beat, huh? Orlando is also centrally located like Lakeland, so travel would not be an issue for teams around the state.
Kissimmee’s arena is a little larger than Lakeland, but they don’t have the experience that Lakeland’s army of staff and volunteers have gained while hosting the girls basketball finals since 1994 and the boys since 1996 and for 28 of the past 33 years. So to me it comes down to Lakeland and Orlando, and with the FHSAA’s financial concerns it will probably come down to which site provides the most lucrative financial package.
The Lakeland Center already gives a substantial portion of ticket receipts to the FHSAA, 90 percent in basketball and 70 percent in volleyball and wrestling. So for basketball, there’s not much room for Lakeland and the county to improve their offer, unless they add in tax revenue (the events contribute about $10 million to the local economy according to PCSM) or parking and concessions.
The only competition for volleyball is from Kissimmee and the Silver Spurs Arena again. Volleyball has averaged fewer than 5,000 fans per year, so losing it would not be as catastrophic as losing basketball, which has averaged 29,000 combined fans between boys and girls the past four years.
Considering Kissimmee didn’t bid for wrestling and is a long shot for basketball, I can see the FHSAA giving the Silver Spurs Arena the volleyball finals and judging how well they host the event as sort of a trial before maybe awarding them more finals in the future. That is, unless their bid is significantly weaker than Lakeland’s, which is always possible.
Basketball will be tricky, and I’m sure Lakeland and county officials are doing all they can to keep the finals here. The county didn’t bid for any other events than the four I’ve mentioned, so there isn’t something else to fall back on if basketball leaves and takes millions of dollars with it.
Polansky said the FHSAA would like to announce all the winning bids in April, but it’s possible that the winners won’t be known until June after the spring sports championships are completed.
So it’s a waiting game for Polk County officials and fans.
Another interesting note: The St. Pete Times reported last week that Tropicana Field is one of four sites that has bid to host the state football finals. The other three are the Citrus Bowl in Orlando, which has held the finals the past few years, and then Miami/Dade County’s SunLife Stadium (home of the Dolphins) and Florida International University’s stadium.