Exclusive: SPIRE Academy Looks to Boost Economic Development in Region Through Ohio Sports Betting

Exclusive: SPIRE Academy Looks to Boost Economic Development in Region Through Ohio Sports Betting
By Bill Ordine

As sports wagering in America evolves, the question looms on whether sports betting can be a catalyst for overall economic development and for public good beyond raising tax dollars for the states that legalize it.

So far, the big cash has been funneled to Big Sports, meaning pro sports teams that have been enriched with multi-million-dollar marketing deals, and to Big Media that reaps a steady flow of advertising dollars. Even the gaming companies that book the bets are still awaiting a bottom-line payoff hoping that their business models gain traction and that their losses soon turn to profits.

However, Ohio sports betting has built into its legislation an opportunity for sports gaming to improve the fortunes of a handful of underserved economic areas. Enter Spire Academy, which is operated by Geneva Sports LLC, and Ashtabula County, which makes up the northeast portion of the greater region of Appalachian Ohio.

Ashtabula County boasts some attractive features on its own, such as its wine country and its Lake Erie coastline. However, more recently the SPIRE Institute and Academy has given rise to a sports-related attraction for youth and adults that is evolving into a destination with substantial economic impact on a region that could use the boost.

What does any of this have to so with sports betting? As a result of its ongoing efforts to improve economic development in an area of need, Geneva Sports LLC has partnered with a fledgling sportsbook. It is applying to the Ohio Casino Control Commission for a retail and online sports betting license that would help fulfill the state’s ambition to benefit underserved areas through sports wagering.

Over the last few years, SPIRE has been assembling an impressive campus of 800 farmland acres that now includes 800,000 square feet of dedicated athletic space, both indoor and outdoor, as well as resident buildings.

Sports-Related Tourism Opportunities

Currently, the Academy houses about 80 students-athletes, both male and female, ages 13-20. Some kids stay for weeks, some for months, and some for entire school semesters, depending on their needs and circumstances.

In addition, the Academy hosts outside teams, tournaments and camps, and provides recreation space for local residents. In short, it has been evolving into a magnet for a range of sports-related tourism opportunities.

“Currently we have what we call our ‘sports majors.’ We offer track and field, men’s and women’s basketball, swimming, wrestling and eSports,” Jonathan Ehrenfeld, managing partner of SPIRE Institute, said in an exclusive interview with BetOhio. The Academy is building its lacrosse and soccer teams this coming year, he added.

As an enhancement to what the Academy offers, there’s an adjacent retail district that will soon include a Marriott TownePlace Suites, a Starbucks and other amenities to serve travelers.

‘Our Efforts Are Wide-Ranging’

Market access is the connective tissue that brings SPIRE and its parent Geneva Sports LLC, which applied for the sports gambling licenses, together with Out The Gate, a feisty upstart sports betting operator looking to carve out its own market niche of savvy sports bettors.

The association between Geneva Sports/SPIRE — considering its business model and operations are entwined with youth sports — with Out The Gate has raised eyebrows, and Ehrenfeld, the SPIRE executive, has readily addressed the optics.

“On the surface it can appear unusual but if someone were to really look at what’s happening in Geneva, Ohio, and at SPIRE and what we’re building, they would understand more clearly what this is about,” Ehrenfeld said. “SPIRE is an Academy, this is what we are, this is all we are. Our expansive world-class campus allows us to host national events. But the Geneva Sports entity is invested in a lot of different elements around sports. … Our efforts are wide-ranging and our investments are wide-ranging in correlation with the sports industry.”

Eventually, if Geneva Sports’ bookmaker partner is financially successful, that can translate into a revenue stream to help support the Academy and its work, much like sports gambling tax dollars will go toward education in the state once Ohio sports betting launches on Jan. 1, and just like sports gambling in other states already funds schools.

‘Continue to Drive the Economic Impact’

Already, SPIRE attracts about 400,000 unique visitors accounting for about one million visitations to the region, Ehrenfeld noted. The sportsbook partnership would contribute to keeping that momentum going at SPIRE and in Ashtabula County overall, Ehrenfeld said.

Concerns that somehow the young people who reside at the Academy or are passing through the sports complex to train and compete would somehow be more likely to wager in a sportsbook, which would be located off-campus in the retail district, seem absurdly naïve. Especially when you considering that physical sportsbooks are already located within intimate proximity to major sports stadiums, ballparks and arenas — all with full exposure to families.

Meanwhile, SPIRE/Geneva Sports’ sports betting partner, Out The Gate, has been bold in identifying its target audience. OTG hopes to attract experienced, savvy bettors — who some contend are shunned by the more recognizable sportsbooks — by offering better odds and higher wagering limits on its Ohio sports betting app. In other words, there’s zero overlap between the Academy’s focus and its sports betting partner’s business strategy.

“If you look at what we are and what we do every day, in the wide-ranging components that we pursue to support our business model … we want to continue to drive the economic impact we have (in this part of Ohio),” Ehrenfeld said. “We bring in over one million visits a year to SPIRE, which is huge.  Our economic impact is in the tens of millions of dollars each year.

“Our hope is that (the sportsbook partnership) can be a profitable venture and that the earnings of that venture will come back to support the other components of our business over time. So, long-term, we do see this as beneficial for everything we’re offering at SPIRE.”

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Contributors

Bill Ordine was a reporter and editor in news and sports for the Philadelphia Inquirer and Baltimore Sun for 25 years, and was a lead reporter on a team that was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News. Bill started reporting on casinos and gaming shortly after Atlantic City’s first gambling halls opened and wrote a syndicated column on travel to casino destinations for 10 years. He covered the World Series of Poker for a decade and his articles on gaming have appeared in many major U.S. newspapers, such as the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Miami Herald and others.

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