SPORTS: A sports fanatic’s playground
If you love watching the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLS professional sports teams, Florida has a plethora of teams playing in phenomenal stadiums and arenas. For those who want to participate in the action, the opportunities are equally impressive with a variety of biking and hiking trails in urban and wilderness areas, numerous marinas with deep sea fishing and yacht charters, dozens of top-notch scuba diving sites just offshore and a spectacular inventory of golf courses and tennis courts.
FIELDS OF DREAMS
Baseball fans flock to Florida during the month of March when 15 teams train and play exhibition games prior to the season. It’s a great way to see your favorite players when they’re more accessible for autographs and you can be closer to the action. The engaging venues include George M. Steinbrenner Field in Tampa, where the Yankees train and which has a massive Yankees memorabilia store, and Jet Blue Park in Fort Myers, a Boston Red Sox training venue featuring a replica of Fenway Park’s Green Monster.
From April to October, enjoy regular season Major League Baseball in Miami with the Miami Marlins, a National League team now owned by famous baseball player Derek Jeter, and with the Tampa Bay Rays, an American League team that competes at St. Petersburg’s domed Tropicana Field.
You’ll have little difficulty teeing it up in Florida, which boasts more than 1,400 golf courses and over 50 resorts where golf is the main amenity. Many of Florida’s golf resorts are world-renowned and home to iconic courses like THE PLAYERS Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach, the Blue Monster at Trump National Doral in Miami and Copperhead at Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort near Tampa. In addition, there is a plethora of superb daily fee courses to play with designer tags like Jack Nicklaus, Tom Fazio and Robert Trent Jones.
The PGA Tour utilizes Florida every year as sites for some of its most prestigious tournaments. You can stroll among the lush fairways and palm trees and watch some of golf’s
greatest stars. The tournament lineup includes The Honda Classic at PGA National Resort & Spa in Palm Beach Gardens in February; Valspar Championship at Innisbrook, a Salamander Golf & Spa Resort in Palm Harbor in early March; Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill Club & Lodge in Orlando in mid-March; and THE PLAYERS Championship at TPC Sawgrass in Ponte Vedra Beach in mid-May.
You can follow the bouncing ball in Florida from October to May with the NBA’s Orlando Magic and Miami Heat. Both teams play in the hotly contested Southeast Division, which also includes the Atlanta Hawks, Charlotte Hornets and Washington Wizards. Check schedules because it’s a great chance to see the NBA’s brightest stars like LeBron James, Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant play against the Florida teams. The Magic play their games at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando and the Heat play at the American Airlines Arena.
For major college basketball, the menu is impressive led by Gainesville’s University of Florida two-time NCAA champions. The University of Miami and Tallahassee’s Florida State University annually field strong teams.
Gridiron icons like Don Shula, Dan Marino and Tim Tebow are synonymous with football in the Sunshine State. Pro and college football dominate the sports scene in Florida in the fall and early winter.
Home to the Miami Dolphins, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Jacksonville Jaguars, Florida gives fans the chance to watch NFL football games in warm, sunny weather even in October and November.
College football passions run deep in Florida with highly successful programs like Gainesville's University of Florida Gators, Tallahassee's Florida State Seminoles and Miami University Hurricanes. The Gators have won three national championships, the Seminoles have won three and the Hurricanes have captured five. Other colleges with top-flight Division 1 programs where you can experience the game with all of the colorful pageantry are the University of Central Florida in Orlando, University of South Florida in Tampa and Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. The Miami Dolphins and the Hurricanes began playing in a new setting in 2016 after the SunLife Stadium underwent a US$500-million facelift and changed its name to Hard Rock Stadium.
At the end of each season in December and early January, Florida hosts several major college football bowl games, including the Miami Beach Bowl at Marlins Park in Miami; Boca Raton Bowl at FAU Stadium in Boca Raton; Capital One Orange Bowl at the Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens; St. Petersburg Bowl at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg; Russell Athletic Bowl and Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl at Camping World Stadium in Orlando; TaxSlayer Bowl at Everbank Field in Jacksonville; and Outback Bowl at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa.
Florida has quietly become a haven for great professional soccer. Orlando City SC of the MLS, founded in 2013, plays to recordbreaking crowds at Orlando City Stadium in downtown Orlando. The team has a loyal fan base as well as fun tailgating parties before the games.
The Orlando Pride of the National Women’s Soccer League is led by superstar Alex Morgan.
Fortunately, there are plenty of opportunities to see the sport in Florida. The state has three North American Soccer League teams—the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Fort Lauderdale Strikers and the Jacksonville Armada—and a National Premier Soccer League team, the Boca Raton Football Club.
ICE, ICE BABY
With two NHL teams in the state, Florida offers fans superb opportunities to see topnotch hockey on their visit. The Tampa Bay Lightning, a playoff team in 2016, plays their games at Amalie Arena in downtown Tampa. Farther south in the Miami metropolitan area, the Florida Panthers, which were founded in 1993, skate at the BB&T Center in Sunrise. Both teams have had their moments in the limelight when the Lightning won the Stanley Cup in 2004 and the Panthers played in the NHL finals in 1996.
The fuzzy ball set loves to play and watch tennis in Florida. Resorts like Boca Raton Resort & Club, Saddlebrook Resort near Tampa and Omni Amelia Island Plantation Resort north of Jacksonville have expansive, world-class tennis complexes. Spectators enjoy the Miami Open, which dates back to 1985 and has featured major stars such as Martina Navratilova, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic and Rafael Nadal. The 2018 Miami Open will be staged from March 19–26 in the Tennis Center at Crandon Park on Key Biscayne.
RACING TO WIN
It doesn’t get any bigger and better than the DAYTONA 500 in Daytona Beach, NASCAR’s speedy answer to the NFL’s Super Bowl. The 2018 race is slated for February 18.
Sebring in Central Florida is hosting the popular 65th Annual Mobil 1 12 Hours of Sebring event on March 17, however racing fans may want to be there when gates open on March 14 for four days of octane-fueled fun.
Just south of Miami in Homestead, the Homestead-Miami Speedway hosts NASCAR’s Ford Ecoboost races in mid-November.
Ocala, 80 miles north of Orlando, with 600 thoroughbred horse farms is known as “The Horse Capital of the World.” Area farms have produced 45 national champions and six Kentucky Derby winners. Several of the farms offer tours and Ocala is home to national equestrian events and competitions, including the HITS Ocala Winter Circuit, Live Oak International and Ocala Breeders’ Sale.
In Northeast Florida, the Jacksonville Equestrian Center features 80 acres of horse paradise complete with a giant indoor arena, outdoor show rings and over 400 stalls.
For polo enthusiasts, matches are contested in Palm Beach, Sarasota, Wellington and The Villages south of Ocala.
Florida’s high-profile horse racing tracks are Gulfstream Park Racing & Casino in Hallandale Beach, Hialeah Park Racing & Casino in Miami and Tampa Bay Downs in Tampa.
You’ll be reeled in by all of Florida’s phenomenal fishing possibilities. Amazingly, Florida has over 8,000 miles of shoreline if you include inlets, bays and capes. Better still, the weather is warm yearround so you can fish any day of the year.
Marinas for deep-sea charters are located in all parts of the state. Two of the most noted are Islamorada in the Keys, which is known as the “Sport Fishing Capital of the World,” and Destin in the Panhandle that’s been dubbed “The World’s Luckiest Fishing Village.” There are also numerous piers, docks and bridges where you can drop a line and make a big saltwater catch as well as reefs and wrecks offshore where fish congregate.
For freshwater enthusiasts, Lake Okeechobee and rivers in the Everglades are great spots to fish for largemouth bass, bluegills and sunfish. Throughout the state, a network of lakes, canals and
channels provides excellent places to fish for largemouth bass, catfish and crappie.
EXPLORE THE SEA
One of the appealing aspects of snorkeling in Florida is the wide variety of “shore dives” possible. You don’t have to swim far to see amazing marine life.
The Florida Keys has dozens of intriguing spots such as Cannon Beach at John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park, where you can see placed remnants of an early Spanish shipwreck about 100 feet off the beach, and Fort Zachary Taylor Historic State Park and Beach off Key West, where you can view tropical fish and live coral. Other prime snorkeling havens throughout the state include Red Reef Park in Boca Raton, Phil Foster Snorkel Trail in Riviera Beach and Blowing Rocks in Jupiter.
For those who scuba and want to dive deeper, Florida’s thousands of miles of coastline and numerous lakes offer a plethora of opportunities. Many divers flock to the natural reefs near Fort Lauderdale and Miami. There are also several artificial reefs in different parts of the state created by sunken steel ships and structures. Freshwater divers can explore caves and caverns in various springs and lakes.
If you like riding on two wheels instead of four, Florida has some exceptional paved bike trails. Recreational riders absolutely revel in the temperate year-round biking weather and the flat terrain that makes cycling easier.
Some of the more popular trails include the West Orange Trail in Orlando, which stretches 22 miles and passes through quaint towns like Winter Garden and Oakland; Cedar Key Railroad Trestle Nature Trail, located 50 miles southwest of Gainesville, a 13-mile ride to three connecting keys; Amelia Island Trail, a 5.7-mile trail in the picturesque coastal village of Fernandina Beach; and the 22-mile Sanibel Island Bike Trail, a stunning ride that takes cyclists through the pristine J.N. “Ding” Darling National Wildlife Refuge and past a lighthouse, beaches and Periwinkle Way, where restaurants and shops are easily accessible.
Keeping in shape is easy in Florida, which has an excellent menu of nature, hiking and running trails in both urban and wilderness settings.
Runners have a lengthy lineup of topnotch races, marathons and triathlons scheduled throughout the year. Some of the biggest in 2018 are the Walt Disney World Marathon on January 7; Miami Marathon on January 28; Florida Challenge Triathlon in Clermont on March 17; and Star Wars Half Marathon at Walt Disney World Resort on April 22.
A popular spot for serious fitness training is the National Training Center in Clermont, 20 miles west of Orlando, which has a 400-meter outdoor track, cross-country course, sports fields and 70-meter-long swimming pool.
Swimming enthusiasts can enjoy ocean swimming and just about every hotel and resort has a swimming pool. To learn about the history of swimming, visit the International Swimming Hall of Fame and Museum in Fort Lauderdale.
For those who prefer canoeing and kayaking, Florida is a paddling paradise with more than 1,700 miles of rivers, streams and creeks formed by 700-plus natural springs. The area around Naples and Marco Island is an increasingly popular spot for paddlers. The Wilderness Waterway is a 99-mile water trail from Everglades City to Flamingo, with no development along the course, and the Paradise Coast Blueway is a system of paddling trails with GPS-marked routes from Everglades City to Marco Island.
TOP: Aerial view of the island green at the Ponte Vedra Inn & Club in Northeast Florida. ABOVE: Exterior view of Marlins Park in Miami. OPPOSITE TOP: 12 Hours of Sebring event. OPPOSITE BOTTOM LEFT: Streamsong Resort in Polk County. OPPOSITE BOTTOM RIGHT: Clearwater Beach volleyball.
BELOW: EverBank Field Club Level 1 in Jacksonville. CENTER: Cycling through the countryside in Sebring. BOTTOM: Delray Beach International Tennis Championships. OPPOSITE TOP: The Jacksonville Equestrian Center.