TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Sports Commission is responsible for bringing the Super Bowl to Tampa — twice.
The organization also secured early rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament, the NCAA women's basketball Final Four and many other events that have made significant social and economic impacts on the Tampa Bay area.
There is one contribution, however, the non-profit organization makes that sometimes goes unnoticed.
During the past decade, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission has invested heavily in the growth of Hillsborough County's high school athletics, providing opportunities and training to help athletes reach their potential and perhaps, earn college scholarships.
In football, boys and girls basketball, baseball, softball and girls volleyball, the sports commission partners with groups to hold yearly combines that test and measure a student-athlete's ability. College coaches and scouts attend the combines and the data is made accessible to college programs throughout the country.
In addition to the combines, the sports commission helps organize and sponsor the annual high school football all-star game at Raymond James Stadium, the Hillsborough County Small College Football Recruiting Fair and the Wilkes & McHugh United Negro College Fund All-Star High School Basketball Classic.
“The credit should go to the vision and investment of the Hillsborough County Board of County Commissioners for seeing the incredible impact that can be made for our local kids,” said Rob Higgins, executive director of the Tampa Bay Sports Commission. “It's the county's commitment to our programs that has been the driver for allowing us to help local kids get several hundred college scholarships during the last decade.
“By working with Hillsborough County School District Athletic Director Lanness Robinson to leverage our Board of County Commissioners' investment, we've been able to make a huge difference in increasing the scholarship exposure of our local student-athletes that aren't necessarily at the top tier of the recruiting radar.”
Higgins said roughly $140,000 per year is designated toward funding the high school events. Through a public-private partnership, approximately $95,000 is allocated out of the Hillsborough County general budget and the remaining funding comes from private partners, such as the Glazer Family Foundation, Under Armour and Bright House Sports Network.
Higgins believes the county's approach toward helping its high school athletes is unmatched around the U.S.
“These type of events, whether it's the combine or all-star game or recruiting fair, it really helps those families who are less fortunate and need help the most,” said Ken Hagan, chair of the Hillsborough County Board of Commissioners and a Chamberlain High grad who went on to play baseball at the University of Florida.
“The D-I athletes are going to have their opportunities. So many of the Division II, D-III and NAIA athletes end up being those who don't have financial resources to play in national tournaments and combines. It gives incredible opportunities to showcase their abilities to get a college education. I can't think of anything else we could do to help our families in communities more than educate our children.”
At the 10th edition of the small college recruiting fair held at Jefferson High in February, 45 colleges coaches and representatives from NCAA Division II schools, as well as NAIA and junior colleges programs, met with roughly 300 senior high school football players.
“With the recruiting fair, more kids get opportunities than kids that are offered by the Division I schools,” said East Bay football coach Frank LaRosa, whose school was the original host site of the fair. “It's a great thing. A lot of kids want to continue to play football. But what's most important is that college degree.”
During the fair, many athletes walk away with scholarship offers, while others sign letters-of-intent on the spot.
“We've had a lot of success placing kids here at East Bay in schools across the country from the recruiting fair,” LaRosa said. “Four seniors from last year are now freshmen at colleges they saw at the recruiting fair.”
In June at the University of Tampa, the ninth annual Tampa Bay High School Football Combine attracted 200 participants. All athletes received a combine video of their performance to be used in their recruiting process.
The baseball combine at Jesuit High in November hosted 50 prospects from Hillsborough County with five college coaches in attendance.
The volleyball combine in April took place at the Tampa Convention Center and featured 42 student-athletes from Hillsborough County showcasing their talents in front of eight college coaches.
The sports commission also has partnered with other organizations to stage showcases in basketball and softball.
Mike McManamey, the Florida director of Southeast Basketball Acadmey, which held the basketball showcase in September, said the sports commission's contribution brings legitimacy to the event.
“It's helping put Hillsborough County and Tampa Bay on the map as far as a recruiting area,” he said.