This is Roy Hobbs Baseball
By GLENN MILLER
Roy Hobbs is more than just a literary figure created by author Bernard Malamud in a 1952 novel, and more than an old baseball player who was immortalized on screen by Robert Redford in the 1984 film “The Natural.”
Every fall, more than 10,000 baseball players (and their families) on 240 teams flock to Fort Myers to play in Roy Hobbs Baseball’s annual World Series. They come to celebrate the great game of baseball, perhaps recapture their youth and engage in two great American pastimes – baseball and capitalism.
They come for the games and camaraderie, the fun and the competition, the sunshine, green grass and swaying palms of Southwest Florida.
They come to relax, to recreate and even relocate … and they make Roy Hobbs Baseball into an economic powerhouse for the Lee County Business Community on an annual basis.
The players come from near and far. From Tallahassee and Nova Scotia, from Florida’s east coast to the Great Northwest, from Chicago and Boston and towns across the fruited plain you’ve never heard of before. They even have come from Canada, Russia, the Ukraine, Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic.
They also come and spend money. Local restaurateurs, hoteliers and government officials know what the Roy Hobbs World Series has meant to Lee County’s economy since it moved here in 1993. Back then, 54 teams competed. Now it’s pushing 5 times that number. All those teams and all those players (and their families) come and do more than crack singles to right and snag pop-ups. They spend…
The players are mature men, many well-positioned in prestigious careers with disposable income that allows them to travel far from home and spend a week playing baseball and spending money. Many bring their wives and other family members, making the Roy Hobbs World Series into vacations.
They rent cars, dine in restaurants, shop in places such as the Bell Tower Shops, Coconut Point Mall, Edison Mall and little shops scattered around the area, from Fort Myers Beach to Sanibel Island and downtown Fort Myers.
Such an enormous undertaking requires logistical masters who can schedule hundreds of teams, dozens of umpires spread over four weeks and numerous facilities scattered around Fort Myers/Lee County, which is on Florida’s west coast about 140 miles south of Tampa.
Players can sign up for a locker-room option. Instead of changing into uniforms at their hotel and driving to games in uniforms like they did in Little League, players can live and play like big-leaguers. Players choosing the locker room option can shower and dress in the same place the Red Sox used not long ago. Those players also gain access to professional trainers in the locker room, veterans of professional baseball who know how to prevent injuries … and to treat them.
And Roy Hobbs’ participant surveys show that almost 20% of participants have purchased homes, condos or time-shares in Lee County over the 25-year run the tournament has had on the Southwest Florida coast.
The 2018 Roy Hobbs World Series will be the 30th overall and the 26th in Lee County. Its economic impact continues growing, from $8 million in 2005 to $10.5 million in 2010 to $15 million in 2015.
“We consider the Roy Hobbs World Series one of our signature events,” said Jeff Mielke, executive director of the Lee County Sports Development Office.
In 2017, 809 games were played in 28 days. By the way, visitors can usually count on sunny weather. In 2017, all 28 days were sunny. In 2016, 27 of 28 were sunny.
The 2017 Roy Hobbs World Series went through more than 4,000 baseballs.
A 2016 Lee County study examined 62 amateur sports events held in the county. Out of those 62, the Roy Hobbs World Series ranked No. 1 in most hotel nights – 13,746. That’s about 3,000 more hotel nights than in 2005.
They come at the right time of the year – “It’s a high-need time of year,” Mielke said.
Jeff Webb, the general manager of the Hampton Inn & Suites, treasures the four weeks when the Roy Hobbs World Series comes to town. On a typical night 20-to-30 of his hotel’s rooms are filled by baseball players.
“They’re smiling and having a great time,” Webb said. “Like kids in a candy store.”
And there are other things the players do while in town. “They’re down here not only to play baseball,“ Webb said. “It’s a clientele ready to spend money.”
And, as Mielke noted, they come at the right time. The local tourist season doesn’t kick into high gear until January, so the influx of Roy Hobbs players provides an economic boost in the fall before the winter high tourist season.
Allison Gruber, Executive Director of the Lee County Sports Organizing Committee, echoed Mielke: “Roy Hobbs Baseball means business, business in a time of year that is non-season in Lee County. It’s a bonus that the Roy Hobbs leadership actively partners with our community, not only hiring local and sourcing its printing and supplies here but also working to drive business to advertisers.”
Tamara Pigott, the executive director of the Lee County Visitor & Convention Bureau, is well aware of the Roy Hobbs World Series and its value to the county. Pigott said wherever she travels she seems to bump into people who come to Lee County for the Roy Hobbs World Series.
“They spread the word of Lee County,” Pigott said. Spreading the word is Pigott’s job but knows others help her. Those people spreading the word about the county include players and family members who visit.
IN THE BEGINNING
A man named Ron Monks started Roy Hobbs Baseball in California in 1988. It was an idea whose time had come – a chance for men to return to the sport of their youth. Now, Monks resides in the Ukraine, where he continues spreading the gospel of baseball.
In 1993, he turned the organization over to Ellen and Tom Giffen, who moved the World Series event to Fort Myers, starting a 25-year relationship that shows no signs of slowing down.
Monks brought a Ukrainian team to the 2017 Roy Hobbs World Series and used the words “mystical” and “magical” to describe the event and its allure. He plans to bring 2 Ukrainian teams in 2018.
Roy Hobbs current agreement with Lee County runs through 2024. There is, as Roy Hobbs President Tom Giffen says, “a lot more ground for us to cover. We enjoy a great relationship with Lee County, and we are looking forward to it just getting better and better for Roy Hobbs, for Lee County and for our growing base of participants.”
MANY MOVING PARTS
Pigott is also aware of the organizational wizardry required to stage a four-week event every fall that involves thousands of people. The event has “moving parts” that nobody really knows about, she said. “It’s really impressive,” what the Hobbs people do.
All the moving parts include starting television broadcasts in 2017 and plans to greatly expand the number of games telecast in 2018. All the broadcast games will be played in Hammond Stadium, Spring Training home of the Minnesota Twins.
“We experimented with live broadcasts of 4 games in 2017 on our own YouTube channel and recorded more than 4500 views from the games themselves and additional viewing within 3 days,” Giffen said. “We believe the potential audience on these games, live and replays, is limited only by the participating players’ network of friends and baseball associates.”
Those 4 games broadcasts have had almost 10,000 views in Minnesota, Michigan, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, California and points in between.
The moving parts include concession stands, a merchandise store, printed programs and schedules, newsletters and more. The newsletters are printed and posted on the Roy Hobbs website. All provide amenities to the players, including opportunities for local business to get its message to potential customers.
“The customer service has always been top-notch,” Pigott said. And that includes the website – royhobbs.com – the redesign of which is scheduled for May 2018. And people are paying attention to what is going on at Roy Hobbs – In 2017, the royhobbs.com website received more than 90,000 unique visitors.
PLAYING & ADVERTISING VENUES
The fields used in the fall are either current or former big-league ballfields. The grounds crew personnel keep the fields in such fine shape that they are acceptable to big-league players. All games are played at places where Major League Baseball legends have performed.
The list of venues begins with historic Terry Park. It has four fields and from 1925 through 1987 at various times it was the spring training home of the Philadelphia A’s, Cleveland Indians, Pittsburgh Pirates and Kansas City Royals.
In the fall of 2018, as in every fall since 1993, Roy Hobbs players will play in Terry Park, an historic site where legends such as Lefty Grove, Jimmie Foxx, Bob Feller, Roberto Clemente and George Brett once played.
That is part of the allure of the Roy Hobbs World Series. The stockbroker shortstop from New York or the state judge first baseman from New Jersey or the professor pitcher from Tennessee can lace up spikes and literally stand in the same batter’s box where Roberto Clemente once stood when he trained at Terry Park in the 1950s and 1960s.
Terry Park is just one venue used by Roy Hobbs. Every venue is a short drive from any other. From Terry Park a player or fan can reach the other Roy Hobbs World Series sites within 20 minutes or so.
There is CenturyLink Sports Complex, the spring training home of the Minnesota Twins since 1991. The complex features a stadium and 5 practice fields. Hammond Stadium there is the site of all Roy Hobbs game broadcasts. The stadium and its ambiance provides an outstanding backdrop for the Roy Hobbs Broadcast Network and potential advertisers.
Just as in the other venues, players hit and pitch and field and run where big-leaguers have been doing it for more than a quarter of a century, such as Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett, Jack Morris, Paul Molitor and Bert Blyleven.
The newest venue is JetBlue Park, the spring training home of the Red Sox since 2012. The centerpiece of the facility is a baseball palace of a stadium that has the same dimensions as Boston’s fabled Fenway Park. It even features a replica of the Green Monster, Fenway Park’s signature left-field wall. The JetBlue Park facility also provides six practice fields.
Roy Hobbs World Series players in 2018 will play on the same fields there as current Red Sox standouts Mookie Betts, Chris Sale and Dustin Pedroia.
Last, but certainly not least, is City of Palms Park in downtown Fort Myers, once the spring training home for the Boston Red Sox. The charming 7,000-seat stadium was the Red Sox spring home when they featured talents such as Pedro Martinez, Roger Clemens, Nomar Garciaparra and Mo Vaughn.
It was their home when they broke the alleged Curse of the Bambino in 2004, ending an 86-year championship drought.
The Red Sox during those years used a 5-field training facility – the Player Development Complex – 2 miles to the east. That 5-field complex is now Roy Hobbs headquarters and a hub of World Series activity and other Hobbs events throughout the year.
Not many players have the talent to reach the top in baseball. The Roy Hobbs ranks, though, have included former big-league players such as Dante Bichette, Bill Lee, Gary Allenson, Ron LeFlore, Mike Caldwell and Soupy Campbell to name a few, plus Rich Gale and Craig Eaton who pitched in the 1985 World Series for the champion Kansas City Royals and ended up facing each other in a Roy Hobbs championship game a decade later. All are men whose love for the sport runs so deep they keep playing.
Baseball and sports tourism are a key source of fuel for Lee County’s economic engine. The county has plans to build additional fields at the Player Development complex by the fall of 2019.
“We are close to maximizing the available time on the fields here,” Giffen said. “Additional fields will enable us to grow, and that’s a positive for our brand, economic impact here and our Roy Hobbs members, who just love this game and a great place to play.”
The allure is timeless to the players. And to Lee County merchants, the Roy Hobbs World Series is also alluring. A Hobbs goal is that its broadcast plans will expand that allure to the benefit of all concerned.
And merchant opportunities to benefit from the Roy Hobbs World Series, an event where two great pastimes – baseball and capitalism – come together, will continue to grow with the event.