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Sports dominate Marion County Tourism Development Council’s approved events

Florida is home to theme parks, beaches and space centers, but Marion County lacks those types of tourist attractions. Instead, the county’s Tourism Development Council relies on sports tournaments to fill their hotels.

The council met Thursday to discuss funding for seven proposed events. Six of those events were sports tournaments or competitions. A total of $92,400 was allocated toward the approved events, with $72,400 going toward six revolving sports. The council’s main focus was on youth sports.

Four of the six sporting events require that participants be 18 years old or younger. Council chairman Jeff Bailey explained that he jumps on any opportunity to have a youth sporting event in Marion County.

Unlike adult sporting events that adults drive to and stay by themselves, youth sports bring in the friends and family of the athlete who book two-to-three hotel rooms per child.

“With youth sports, we have entire families coming into our county, not individual athletes,” Bailey said. “Those families are staying at our hotels, eating at our restaurants and shopping at our stores. The overall economic impact is fantastic.”

One of the sporting events coming to Ocala is the Billy Horschel Junior Championship, a youth golf tournament previously held in Jacksonville. The council approved a $30,000 deal for the annual event to move to Ocala for the next three years.

The first event takes place Oct. 9-13 at the Adena Golf & Country Club in Ocala. It is projected to generate 450 room nights and $13,000 in local tax revenue.

“Adena Country Club is a venue that is known to very few people,” Bailey said. “Hosting a youth tournament there will show people just how beautiful the course is.”

Other sporting events, such as the Kayak Adventure Series Ocalapalooza held Feb. 20- 22, 2025, are designed to get visitors to tour all of Marion County.

Marion County group sales supervisor Corry Locke explained that the new tournament does not require anglers to kayak fish in one particular spot. Anglers can fish in any public body of water, with competitors exploring all of Marion County.

“This isn’t just a three-day competition,” Locke said. “Anglers are going to come down months in advance if they want to understand Marion County waters.”

The event will include an award ceremony in downtown Ocala, where the biggest and smallest fish will be recognized. Locke said participants will see parts of the county they otherwise may not have seen.

The county will use influencers to advertise the events and have media like television cover the events across the state. Ten influencers, with more than 1 million followers combined, will be vlogging about the event.

The event will also be recorded for a produced television show on My Outdoor TV. Locke said he believes that exposure is an essential part of these events.

“People are going to be filming from all over our county,” Locke said. “On the award day, there is going to be a huge ceremony with vendors doing some fun things.”

The other approved sporting events are two youth softball tournaments, a youth baseball tournament, and a mountain biking festival that occurred this March. The mountain biking festival had to be approved at this month’s meeting.

The only event that is not a sports competition or tournament is a drone fireworks show for this year's Independence Day, but the event is still sports-related. The large equine industry in Marion County prohibits holding a traditional fireworks display to avoid startling the horses. A drone display of patriotism was the council’s quiet solution to uniting Marion County and its surrounding areas.

“Ocala has such a big void on Independence Day,” said Jason Reynolds, the Tourism Development Council vice chairman. “The fire marshall loved this idea. It is pretty cutting-edge technology.”

With 78% of Tourism Development Council funds going toward sporting events, some Marion County residents said they are excited that the council is investing so much in youth sports.

Winston Wheeler said his son played travel baseball, so he knows of the economic benefits these types of events can bring. He said he is all for any type of youth sports tournament coming to Ocala, even though his son no longer plays.

“When my son would have a travel ball tournament in Florida, his grandparents and my wife would always come, which called for two hotel rooms,” Wheeler said. “I only had one kid. I can only imagine how much money families of six or seven spend at these events.”

Other Marion County residents, including Andreea Waters, a marketing and brand manager, said they wish there was a little more variety in the council’s events.

“Growing up I did theater and artsier things,” Waters said. “I get that this is a sporty area, but I think there can be an effort to appeal to other types of people, not just athletes or parents of athletes.”

Bailey said he believes in the numbers, and each sporting event the council approved has a projected positive return on investment. The only event that does not have a positive return on investment is the drone fireworks show.

“The central location makes Ocala easy to access. We have world-class events and affordable venues,” Bailey said. “That makes Ocala and Marion County a hub for these sporting events.”

Jesse is a reporter for WUFT News who can be reached by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing