Sports complexes are the new money-makers for Coast cities. Here's why.

Members of the Oklahoma Bedlam, an Under-11 division team from Tulsa, Okla., cheer from the dugout after a big play on Friday, July 24, 2015, at the Gulfport Sportsplex. Softball teams from across the region have converged on the Coast for the USFA Southern National Fastpitch Championship. The tournament will run through Sunday and feature 126 teams from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi.
AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALD Members of the Oklahoma Bedlam, an Under-11 division team from Tulsa, Okla., cheer from the dugout after a big play on Friday, July 24, 2015, at the Gulfport Sportsplex. Softball teams from across the region have converged on the Coast for the USFA Southern National Fastpitch Championship. The tournament will run through Sunday and feature 126 teams from Louisiana, Texas, Arkansas, Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Mississippi.

Angelia Letts posted a photo on Facebook of her son in his uniform, snoozing in the car between a baseball and soccer tournament.

"He changed clothes in the car," she said.

Adonis Letts, 10, of Pascagoula plays soccer, basketball, football and this year baseball with a traveling team, which plays throughout the region. He's often at practice or a game from 5- 8 p.m. during the week and has weekend tournaments that run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m.

"He's an active kid," said his mother. He wants to play so many sports, she said, and remains an A and B student.

“Education is always first,” she said. “I'm hoping this helps him earn him a scholarship.”

He and his teammates get to use the multi-million dollar sportsplexes in South Mississippi — paid for in large part by sales tax revenue and charges for the fields paid by sports promoters who bring teams from as far away as Florida and Texas.

When the new fields open in Gulfport they will have water in the dugouts, a high-tech warning system to alerts officials of a lightning strike within a certain distance and a large pavilion to provide protection during a storm. All the fields are recessed, so it's almost like the experience of stepping onto a major league field for the kids, said Gus Wesson, director of leisure services for Gulfport.

Investing in kids

D'Iberville, Gulfport and other Coast cities and counties are building sports complexes that combine several baseball fields, soccer fields and other sports facilities in one place. Typically the fields are used by local youth teams during the week and rented for championships on the weekends.

Sports is becoming one of the area's most important economic development opportunities, said Milton Segarra, chief executive officer of Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast. "The economic impact is incredible,” he said.

Last year the Gulfport Sportsplex hosted 68 tournaments and 2,748 teams, for an economic impact of $16.5 million, said Jase Payne, Gulfport's marketing manager. Six new ball fields with synthetic grass — a feature no other complex in the region can match — and two new soccer fields are about to open and he expects those numbers to grow substantially.

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Six new fields with artificial turf will open soon and make Gulfport's Sportsplex the most advanced in the region. The artificial surface makes water drain faster after a rain, making it more likely that a tournament can be completed.

The investment of $2.6 million for synthetic turf is money well spent, he said, because it reduces the downtime following a storm.

"It can rain and 30 minutes later we're playing," he said, making it more likely the championship games will conclude. Because of this, and the ability to play on 15 fields at one location, "We've already been contacted by several large promoters that currently do not use our facility. They reached out to us,” he said.

Last weekend 71 teams played at the new $9.5 million Rusty Quave Sportsplex in D'Iberville. Already 150 teams are registered to play in a June 20-24 baseball tournament at the fields in D'Iberville and Gulfport, said Troy Saucier, director of parks and recreation for D'Iberville. The fields are booked every weekend from late May through July, he said.

Players and their families don't just sit at the ball fields when a tournament is in progress. They go to The Promenade and Sangani shopping centers — “you can see them everywhere,” Saucier said.

“This puts bodies in the beds, people at the restaurant tables,” said D'Iberville Councilman Randall Pelous.

A taxing issue

Cities in South Mississippi don't get any sales tax benefits when people shop online. But when parents and grandparents follow kids to sports tournaments and spend money on hotels, restaurants, shopping and fun, the cities are winners.

When people eat at Mugshots or shop at Academy Sports + Outdoors, they pay 7 percent sales tax. The businesses send that tax to the state Department of Revenue, which diverts 18.5 percent of what's collected back to the city where the money was spent.

Amazon and other large retailers aren't yet required by law to charge sales tax for online purchases, but voluntarily collect and send the tax money to Mississippi.

However, that money isn't shared with the cities.

Instead 11 percent of what Amazon and other retailers forward to the state is used for education enhancement and school ad valorem funds, said Kathy Waterbury, spokeswoman for the DOR. The remainder, except for tax from the sale of motor vehicles, is sent to the state general fund.

The Amazon pinch

Sales tax revenue in Gulfport and D'Iberville continues to grow, but at a slower pace as the cities experience the Amazon effect:

In 2015, Gulfport's increase in sales tax diversion over fiscal year 2014 was $577,000. In 2016 it was down to $399,000 and by 2017 the increase declined to $232,000.

D'Iberville saw a whopping increase of nearly $1 million in fiscal year 2016, but last year the increase was $62,000 despite the opening of another luxury car dealership.

With so many people now shopping online, cities may be forced to raise taxes to meet the shortfalls in revenue, or come up with innovative solutions like sportsplexes to pump up their coffers.

Not only do the sports facilities bring families to the Coast, the Gulfport Sportsplex has brought several new hotels and restaurants at Anchor Plaza, he said, and along U.S. 49 near the complex.

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Contractors work to prepare a lot at Anchor Plaza off Landon Road in Gulfport for construction on Wednesday, Oct. 19, 2016.

Fun for all

Estimated visitor spending for sports tourism events has continued to increase and was $10.47 billion in 2016, up 10 percent, according to a report from the National Association of Sports Commissions.

Everybody on the Coast wins when these tournaments come to town, Payne said — the outlet stores, restaurants, gas stations and entertainment like Gulf Island Waterpark that sits near the center of the sportsplex. Last year 82,440 players, coaches and family members came to Gulfport for the games, so even with all the new hotels built near the sportsplex, "We don't have enough hotels in Gulfport," he said.

Just the overflow from Gulfport is enough to keep the other sportsplexes in D'Iberville and along the Coast busy, officials say. Parks and recreation directors across South Mississippi are working together and with Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast to get the word out.

South Mississippi has definite advantages, said Segarra, who recently became the CEO for the tourism promotion agency and is pushing the Coast as a sports destination for youth, along with fishing and golfing tournaments, the marathon and indoor sports at the Coast Coliseum.

"We do have excellent facilities," he said, and his staff is meeting with sports planners from across the South. "We are extremely affordable," he said. "We are ready to compete."

Visit MS Gulf Coast CEO Milton Segarra tells Biloxi Council he's getting to work to brand the Coast and bring in more visitors.

Mary Perez: 228-896-2354, @MaryPerezSH

Major sportsplex facilities on the Coast

Gulfport: 6 synthetic turf fields opening in late May or June, 9 regular fields at the same complex, 4 soccer fields, waterpark on 250 acres

D'Iberville: 4 softball/baseball fields, 4 multi-purpose soccer/football fields and a concession complex on 66 acres.

Biloxi: 3 soccer fields, 4 softball fields,1 adult baseball field, 5 little league fields, tennis courts on 68 acres

Hancock County: Newly expanded with 5 mixed-use fields, concession stand and restrooms on 160 acres

Hurley: 4 softball, 2 adult softball, 6 baseball, 1 football, 5 soccer, 6 tennis courts on 100 acres

Ocean Springs: 4 softball fields, 5 baseball fields, 4 soccer fields, 2 football fields on 120 acres

Pascagoula: In April voted to build a $10 million sportsplex with a combined 7 softball and baseball fields

St. Martin: 3 softball, 6 baseball, 2 youth football, 8 tennis on 20 acres

Vancleave: 4 softball fields, 5 baseball fields, 6 tennis court complex, 1 football field, walking track and horse arena on 35 acres

Gulfport Sportsplex 2017 by the numbers

Number of Tournaments: 68

Number of Teams: 2,748

Total Participation: 82,440 Players, coaches, family

Estimated Economic Impact: $16.5 million

Estimated Sales Tax: $1,154,160

Estimated Sales Tax Diversion: $213,520

Hotel Room nights: 32,976

— City of Gulfport