College Baseball Teams from Around the World Descend on Polk County
While the rest of the country still has to choose between
which boots to wear out into the snow, here in Florida, February means the
beginning of baseball season. And while the pros take to the field at Publix
Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, the other Boys of Summer – those from colleges
around the country – will take to fields in Auburndale and Winter Haven.
Call it the pling of spring.
With 240 teams competing, the 2017 RussMatt Invitational
Tournament began Monday, Feb. 20, and will run continuously until March 31.
During that time, teams representing various divisions of collegiate sports,
including NAIA, JUCO, and Divisions I through III, will match skills on the
diamond. And while Auburndale’s Lake Myrtle Sports Park and Winter Haven’s
Chain of Lakes Park host the majority of the games, other facilities – such as
Warner University in Lake Wales, Henley Field in Lakeland and Polk State
College in Winter Haven – will have a few games as well. The RussMatt Baseball
Invitational is the largest collegiate baseball tournament in the nation.
“As the business community in the area knows, RussMatt means
full tables at local restaurants and full rooms for local hoteliers,” said Mark
Jackson, Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing director. “That’s roughly a
$28 million shot-in-the-arm for the area.”
To understand just how vast the impact of the event is, over
the duration of a single RussMatt tournament Polk County hotels will enjoy approximately
30,000 room nights during the 39 day event. And while the Tigers stimulate the
economy in Lakeland, RussMatt targets a different part of the county.
“Baseball is the No. 1 sport we host here (in Auburndale) as
far as number of events and impact to our community,” said Marc Zimmerman, Polk
County Tourism and Sports Marketing sales and events manager. “One reason we
expanded here is because of the demand – we had six fields already at Chain of
Lakes, we knew that as this tournament grew, we would need new fields to
address that growing demand.”
But not all the visitors will be teammates.
“A lot of parents and grandparents come down as well,” said
Zimmerman. “Why wouldn’t they? It is a great chance to get out of the cold, see
your family and enjoy the area.”
Originally recruited by Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing
to replace the loss of the Cleveland Indians, RussMatt’s inaugural year in
Winter Haven happened to correspond with the closing of another Polk County
tourism icon – the Cypress Gardens Adventure Park – was closing its doors.
RUSSMATT BY THE NUMBERS