A major professional surfing competition could return to Sebastian Inlet next January as the Space Coast’s tourism agency seeks to step up the marketing of the area as a “world-class surfing destination.”
The Space Coast Office of Tourism and sports event promoter Mitch Varnes are coordinating efforts to organize the inaugural Visit Florida Pro at Sebastian Inlet.
The weeklong event would be a World Surf League qualifying series event for men and women, and would be unusual in the surfing world because the prize money for women would be as much as it is for men.
Eric Garvey, executive director of the Space Coast Office of Tourism, said that would help attract some of the world’s top women surfers to the event, which would be held at the First Peak Wave surf break on the north side of the inlet, just north of the Indian River County line.
“We have a whole history of surfers who’ve surfed that wave,” Garvey said.
That includes the man who Varnes calls “the greatest surfer of all time” — Kelly Slater of Cocoa Beach, an 11-time world champion on what then was known as the Association of Surfing Professionals tour.
The Brevard County Tourist Development Council and its Marketing Committee this week both gave preliminary approval for Garvey and Varnes to pursue the project, with plans for the first event in January 2018, followed by events in the following two years.
Initial plans for the tourism agency to provide $ 125,000 from its marketing budget to help pay for such things as marketing the event, production of the event, sanctioning fees and prize money for the 2018 competition. That money would come from revenue raised by the county’s 5 percent Tourist Development Tax on hotel rooms and other short-term rentals. The Tourist Development Council and its Marketing Committee will consider approving the spending after details about the event are solidified in two to three months.
Plans call for the tourism agency money to be matched by $ 125,000 from other sponsors.
Varnes, a resident of Satellite Beach, coordinated the O’Neill Sebastian Inlet Pro surfing event at the Sebastian Inlet site from 2005 to 2011. The event ended, partly due to the lack of sponsorship money, stemming from the Great Recession.
“It was the biggest pro surfing contest on the East Coast, and got us a lot of buzz and a lot of attention for Sebastian Inlet,” Varnes said.
Currently, Varnes said, Virginia Beach, Virginia, hosts the biggest East Coast pro surfing event.
“Why should Virginia Beach have the biggest event, when we’re the surfing capital of the East Coast?” Varnes asked, in presenting the proposal to the Tourist Development Council’s Marketing Committee.
Bob Baugher, who owns three hotels in the Cocoa Beach and Cape Canaveral area, said the surfing event would “reinforce our brand name as a surfing destination and get us world attention.”
Varnes said another attention-getter would be the equity in prize money for male and female surfers.
“If we do this, it would rock everything in the surfing world,” Varnes said. “It would be setting a precedent.”
Varnes said total prize money would be $ 75,000 for the men and $ 75,000 for the women, with the winners getting about $ 15,000 apiece.
The Visit Florida Pro at Sebastian Inlet would be held around the same time as the massive Surf Expo trade show is held in Orlando, so that would help build a following for the surf event, according to Baugher, who is a member of the Tourist Development Council and chairs its Marketing Committee.
Garvey said the World Surf League would live-stream the competition on its website.
He said the next step will be to lock in other partners to help pay the cost of the events, potentially including tourism organizations in Indian River County and the state’s tourism marketing agency, Visit Florida.
Garvey said he expects hotels, restaurants and other tourism venues along the Space Coast and Treasure Coast to benefit from the event.
“It’s going to be great,” Garvey said, adding that his office and Varnes are working on developing estimates for attendance and potential economic impact.
Varnes expect that surfers would come to the event not only from the East Coast of the United States, but also from California, Hawaii, Australia, Brazil and Central America.
The Tourist Development Council’s preliminary vote on the project was 8-0. The Marketing Committee’s vote was 7-1, with Michael Wilson voting no.
Wilson, owner of Merritt Island-based Michael Wilson & Co. LLC, a wholesale of automotive aftermarket products, said he felt the proposed $ 150,000 allocation “goes against the grain” of the tourism agency current policy of providing marketing support for events, but not direct cash allocations to help put on the events.
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