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Naples Daily News (Florida)
Collier County commissioners approved a six-figure contract to again host the Football University National Championships in the Naples area.
The approval to host the FBU championships in 2018 came Tuesday without debate or discussion, but some have questioned whether the county's investment in the youth football event is paying off.
Hoteliers, organizers at odds
Members of the county's Tourist Development Council have raised concerns about whether the county has been getting enough bang for its buck — and whether the event is the right fit for Naples.
Hoteliers' complaints about last year's event range from poor management to inadequate security.
Doug Berman, chairman of FBU's parent company, All-American Games, said his organization has been addressing "hiccups" in coordination since the last championships and that the problems have been overstated.
"There is misinformation in the broad generalities about the organization," he said.
He attributes last year's challenges mostly to growth. The 2017 championships brought in nearly twice as many teams as in the previous year, with participants and attendees spread out among more hotels and more venues.
"It's like building any national event. It takes a little bit of time to get it all established," Berman said.
Last year games were played at Fleischmann Park, Community School of Naples, and Golden Gate, Barron Collier, Naples and Gulf Coast high schools. In 2016 they were held at four high schools in town.
Collier OKs spending $512,000
FBU is on a year-to-year contract, but there have been discussions about working out a long-term deal.
This year's event — slated for Dec. 15-20 — will be the same size as last year, with 42 teams expected to compete.
"We're looking forward to a great tournament and really to a long-term home in Naples," Berman said.
"We're pretty sure we can address the concerns that were raised and keep building what is a flagship event in the nation."
This year the county has agreed to pay up to $512,000 in tourist taxes to support the event — the same amount as last year.
The tax money comes from a slice of a 5 percent levy on overnight stays in hotels or other vacation rentals.
Tourist tax dollars will help cover everything from jerseys and a beach party for players to livestreaming of championship games and rental fees for fields and security.
Event draws 6,100 visitors
The football championships get more tourist tax money than any other event, but Ed Caum, the tourism bureau's deputy director for tourism and sports marketing, has described the contract as "a great deal."
This year's event is expected to draw 6,100 visitors, generate 3,350 room nights and spur $3 million in direct spending.
"It has been our signature event," Caum said.
In the past the FBU championships have been held up as the kind of event the county wants to host at a new multimillion-dollar amateur sports complex. The event comes at an ideal time of the year, filling rooms in the Naples area in the two weeks leading up to Christmas when travel is usually slower.
Since coming to town in 2014, the nationally televised games have been seen as a huge win for Collier County, showcasing the best sixth- through ninth-grade football teams and players from around the nation. But the event seems to have lost a bit of its luster, some say.
Dan Sullivan, a general manager of GreenLinks Golf Villas at Lely Resort, who sits on the county's tourism council, has gone as far as to question whether the county should "get out of the FBU business."
Manager cites security concerns
GreenLinks housed some of the event's players and coaches for the first time last year, but based on the experiences it had with unruly guests it won't do it again this year, Sullivan said.
The young players staying in his hotel weren't properly supervised, he said, causing disruption to other guests and damage to the property.
"Security is a real, real big one. The hotels had a problem with kids, and parents' lack of discipline," Sullivan said.
Sullivan is also critical of the way the event is managed from the top, saying, "They do things at the last minute."
His hotel had 175 room nights blocked off for the event last year, but last-minute cancellations led to unsold rooms and lost revenue, Sullivan said.
He said he doesn't like that organizers collect a room fee from participating hotels and doesn't think All-American Games gives enough back to the community.
"They're takers, rather than givers," he said. "And I think that's not the kind of organization that's going to help us move forward or help the new sports complex move forward."
Berman, with All-American Games, strongly disagrees.
Last year after Hurricane Irma struck Collier County, FBU recommitted to Naples and helped spread the word to tourists that the area was back open for business less than three weeks after the storm hit, he said.
All-American Games has supported the community in other ways, contributing to the Special Olympics in Collier County, supporting the Gulf Coast High School marching band and helping to develop local FBU teams, Berman said.
The championships are a highly sought-after event.
"We get calls pretty much once a month asking whether we would move our event," Berman said. "We have told them consistently we've made a long-term commitment to Naples in terms of the vision."
Before coming to Naples, the FBU National Championships were in San Antonio, where All-American Games puts on the U.S. Army All-American Bowl for high school seniors. The Freshman All-American Game was there, too, until it moved here last year.
Council raises questions
At last month's Tourist Development Council meeting, several members raised questions about the return on investment and whether the county should continue hosting the event, including Clark Hill, general manager of the Hilton Naples.
Hill said he wasn't sure whether the group, or event, had the cachet the county expected — or whether it's the type of event the county needs.
Naples City Councilwoman Michelle McLeod, who sits on the tourism council, had the same kind of questions.
"Is this really what we want to spend our dollars on? But if we don't, what would take its place?" she asked.
Several of the council's members, including County Commissioner Donna Fiala, said it might make sense to start exploring other events that could take FBU's place.
Despite their concerns, a majority of the tourism council voted to recommend county commissioners approve this year's contract with All-American Games. However, the advisory board directed the tourism bureau's leaders to continue meeting with event organizers to address such issues as security and costs to the county and hoteliers, suggesting the contract could be modified or not renewed next year.
Tourism director: 'We're real happy'
Jack Wert, Collier County's tourism director, said he'll be talking with organizers later this year about how to get the kinks out of the event and how to cut down on the county's costs. Those discussions will include how to improve security. "Kids will be kids. That's what it's all about, you know," Wert said.
When the county's new sports complex is built, the expense to host the championships would be much less because the county would no longer have to pay so much in rental fees for other venues, which now run about $65,000.
"I don't think this event would go away out of hand," Wert said. "We're real happy with the piece of business we get. It comes at a great time of year in December when we do need hotel rooms filled. So there really are a lot of positives for hosting this event."
If the county doesn't exercise its option to renew the contract for the 2019 event by March of next year, the agreement with All-American Games would come to an end.
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