When I think about the prospect of Super Boat International moving its annual Offshore World Championships in Key West, Fla., up and across the state to the City of Clearwater, the words of Michael Corleone from “The Godfather” come to mind.
“It’s business. Just business.”
And yet this story, which I broke on speedonthewater.com a couple of months ago, reportedly has been the talk of the town in Key West—I’ve since done two radio interviews on the subject with host Todd Swofford of WKWF, Key West sports radio 1600—ever since the news got out. I use the term “got out” loosely, as within an hour of my arrival in Clearwater to cover the SBI National Championships, the pubic relations guy who arranged my trip said, “You know they're trying to bring the Super Boat World Championships here, right?”
Truth be told, I had no idea that was in the works, but it’s always nice when a good story walks up and smacks you in the face before the event you came to cover has even begun. A couple of days layer, I was interviewing Brian Aungst, the former two-term mayor of Clearwater and one of the organizers of the SBI Nationals is his fair city, on the deck of his hotel suite as the offshore powerboat race was just getting started.
"I'm not saying it's definitely going to happen, but we've had some discussions with John [Carbonell, the founder and owner of Super Boat International] and we have some interest," said Aungst. "As race venues go, I don't think it gets any better than this. You can see the whole track from the beach. The Coast Guard estimated that last year there were 5,500 boats in the spectator fleet. They were 10 deep. And there was an estimated 40,000 to 50,000 more people watching from the hotels and the beach. Can you imagine what a weeklong event would be like here?"
Certainly, local Clearwater businesses could imagine it, maybe even covet it and be willing to pay for it. According to Aungst, the three-day National event had an estimated $15 million positive impact for the city last year. The year before, it brought in approximately $13.5 million. The economic impact numbers for 2013 aren't in yet, but Aungst said he expects them to be even better.
Various sources place the impact of the week of the SBI Worlds in Key West at $20 million to $30 million. The Monroe County (Key West is in Monroe County) Tourism Development Council records place hotel revenues along during the week at approximately $7 million, and that’s without members of the 50-plus race teams and their fans having bought a meal, rented a motor scooter, or taken a cab.
It’s worth noting that while the TDC provided $120,000 in funding to SBI this year, it plans to decrease funding to $100,000 in 2014. SBI’s Carbonell has cited the budget cut and the lack of local business sponsorship support as one of the reasons he’s considering a change of venues.
Stu Jones, the owner of the Florida Powerboat Club, estimates that at least half of the revenue in Key West comes from his annual Key West Poker Run, which runs concurrently—yet independently—of the SBI Key West Worlds. The run begins in Miami (there are Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday start days, though the biggest day is Thursday) and winds its way 180-plus miles through the Keys. It attracts an average of 150 boats with five people per boat. And then there are the additional family members and friends of the poker runners who drive and fly down, as well as their support crews and drivers.
Separating the revenue raised between visitors brought in by the SBI races and FPC poker run is next to impossible.
“We come to spend time with our friends from the NJPPC [New Jersey Performance Powerboat Club] and watch the races, because we know some of the people who own the raceboats,” said Bob Christie, a longtime performance-boat owner—his current ride is a 36-foot Statement Marine center console with four 300-hp Mercury Verado outboard engines. Christie has been coming to Key West for the same week in early November for more than 10 years. “Will I stop to watch the races on Friday and Sunday? Yes, sure I will. But would I keep coming down if the races went somewhere else? Yes, because my friends are coming down. We’ve arranged some of our vacation time around this week. Some of my friends have their own places they rent out, except for this week. Some have timeshares, and this is their week. We actually apologize to each other when we can’t make it. So we would miss the races, but in all likelihood we would keep coming down.”
For his part, Stu Jones realizes that if SBI leaves Key West for Clearwater he’s going to have to bolster his poker run product. The exotic boats and the Poker Run Village, which features displays from top high-performance players including Cigarette Racing Team, Marine Technology, Inc., Mercury Racing, Outerlimits, Pier 57 Marine, Skater and more won’t be enough. Jones said he is already making plans in the event SBI heads north.
“All of this comes at an interesting time as we are re-evaluating our current poker run platforms," said Jones. "We will continue to come to Key West, regardless of what SBI does. If SBI does leave, it opens the possibility for us of an umbrella of events—a 'powerboat week' concept that emulates a 'boating week' combined with a regatta."
Among the events Jones said he would consider incorporating into the 2014 Key Poker Run would be a top-speed Shootout in Key West Harbor modeled after those put on by the annual Lake of the Ozarks Shootout, the Texas Outlaw Challenge, and the Desert Storm Poker Run.
"That would give poker runners, and maybe even a few offshore racers who don't race anywhere regularly for whatever reason, a chance to see what their boats can do on a one-mile course in a controlled, spectator-friendly setting with proper safety gear and safety teams. As a poker run organizer, I'd like to be able to offer that opportunity to our 'speed junkie' members who buy their boats to go fast, but can't go as fast as they want to during our runs because of our rules."
A final decision on the site for the next SBI Offshore World Championships probably won’t be announced until early 2014. Emotions ran high in Key West earlier this month, but while most fans I spoke with expressed disappointment at the prospect of an SBI departure and local business reaction leaned toward bitter, none of the racers I talked to—and no one wanted to go on the record—objected to the possibility of a move to Clearwater for the event.
“Key West is hard to get to and it’s really, really expensive,” said the driver of one well-known team. “I have no problem with it.”
In the end, it’s all business. Just business.