Speaking about the United States Specialty Sports Association national headquarters in Viera early last year, spokesperson Paul O’Leary could barely contain his excitement about what was happening. “We’ve turned this into something,” O’Leary said. “It’s huge. It’s an untapped market for the Space Coast. … We already had the events; we already had the teams; we already had the athletes. But we didn’t have a home that was ours. … This whole complex looks so state of the art, and it’s unlike anything else in the country. Walking the complex, it makes me proud to be a part of such a project.”

Specifically, O’Leary was referring to USSSA Space Coast Complex, which enjoyed a long history that began in 1994 as the spring training site for the Florida Marlins and, most recently, the Washington Nationals until 2016.

USSSA Fields

In 2017, the complex began a $50 million renovation. The remake encompassed a vacant Space Coast Stadium and surrounding spring training fields and was augmented by the new facilities that would accommodate amateur baseball, softball and other sports. Corporate offices for USSSA also were added.

The complex opened in 2018 with high expectations for great performance in a burgeoning new industry — sports tourism. USSSA even advertised the complex as “the youth sports capital of the world.” And it was an instant hit, delivering like an all-star.

USSSA Field

The activity in that first year validated O’Leary’s enthusiasm for the site. What’s more, the economic results were resounding. The typical scenario: Teams (and their families) come into town and rent hotel rooms. They frequent the restaurants, movie theaters and other attractions. And they spend money.

Consider these 2018 tallies: A total of 3,473 games were played at the Space Coast Complex, accounting for 34,318 participants (mostly young) and attendance of 264,201 people (mostly players’ family members) — all of this just a short drive from the beaches and the many other tourism-friendly amenities in Brevard: that first year, there were tens of thousands of nights booked at local hotels, and area restaurants routinely were filled during year-round events. In fact, O’Leary remembers that local restaurant managers began to request tournament schedules in advance to better prepare their restaurant for the crowds.

Paul O’Leary
Paul O’Leary

Yet, a glance at Viera, as well as the recent history of sports tourism nationwide, promises this eventual outcome: When the action does come back, it will rally with a vengeance. Or, as O’Leary asserted in March, “We are ready to play ball and play USSSA.”

USSSA’s economic scoreboard in Viera certainly is telling — as are the results in other places such as Westfield, IN and Rockford, IL.

On many weekends in 2019, Westfield’s population of approximately 40,000 full-time residents swells to twice that much — thanks to players and families arriving (and spending) for competitive youth sports.

The same for Rockford, which in recent years added a multipurpose arena, an indoor ice rink, golf courses, a tennis center, racetracks, softball and soccer complexes and more. The towns host, and the visitors spend. It’s an economic reality.

And in Viera, even in these strange, uncertain and changing times, that reality — at some point — will return.

Michael Candelaria

Michael Candelaria is a veteran of the magazine industry in Central Florida, having served as a writer and editor for numerous publications. Those publications range from city/regional and business magazines to travel/leisure and sports magazines. Formerly, he was the editor of Orlando magazine and president of the Florida Magazine Association. He is well-known in the Central Florida community, working with numerous high-profile business and civic organizations.