Brent Nelson, senior vice president of business development of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission, is hardly going stir crazy during the pandemic. He is splitting time between his home in Orlando, his girlfriend’s place in South Florida and a coastal property by the beach. Not bad, all things considered.
All of the moving about is ironic, given that Nelson is celebrating a rare feat in the transient sports tourism industry: 25 years with the same organization. Usually when a person makes it a quarter-century with one employer, he or she is nearing retirement. But that is hardly the case for Nelson, who describes himself as a “seasoned veteran” at this point.
Connect Sports caught up with Nelson to talk about his eventful first 25 years with GO Sports and learned more than a few interesting tidbits.
1. Nelson started as an unpaid intern. After graduating from Florida State University, Nelson knew he wanted to be in sports. A paying job would have been preferred, but the Winter Springs, Florida-native chose being close to home and a foot in the door. The rest is history.
2. He talked the commission into going after WrestleMania. A fan of the then-WWF during the Hulk Hogan era, Nelson knew what a big get the event would be for Orlando back in 2008. Others in the commission took come convincing. “Thank goodness they agreed with me,” he says, noting the city is now a two-time host of wrestling’s biggest event.
3. Orlando’s first WrestleMania set up the event’s rapid growth. Just as Indianapolis is credited with upgrading the Super Bowl fan experience template, Orlando upped the ante in 2008 with a block party, arts show and other ancillary events. By the time WrestleMania returned in 2017, “it was a totally different event,” notes Nelson. It included a weeklong fan fest, Hall of Fame ceremony, other televised programs and more—likely inspired by Orlando’s initial success.
4. The NCAA just awarded Orlando 17 championships. GO Sports was a big winner in the latest NCAA bid cycle. Among the highlights in netting the men’s and women’s tennis championships for Division I (2023), Division II (2023-24; 2024-25) and Division III (2023).
5. Orlando went a decade without March Madness. Given the region’s universal appeal, it’s relatively shocking the NCAA bypassed Orlando for 10 years. The snub ultimately had a positive effect as it pushed the community to build Amway Center, which is why the NCAA Tournament returned in 2014. “That was something I’ll always remember,” says Nelson. He’ll make another memory when Amway Center hosts again in 2023.
6. Orlando is breaking another draught. The International Waterski & Wakeboard Federation recently awarded the 2021 World Waterski Championships to Lake County, Florida, part of the greater Orlando region. The event is marking its 75th anniversary and is returning to the United States for the first time in 18 years.
7. Nelson says sports tourism is recession proof. Nelson has been around long enough to see the power of sports. He believes firmly that what occurred in 2008—when parents put their money into their children’s activities over all else—will continue as the country recovers.
8. The sports tourism boom surprised him (somewhat). Nelson has seen the explosion of youth sports first-hand. Even in 1995, he knew there was room to expand, but perhaps not as much as it has. “I always kind of thought that it was going to continue to grow,” he says. “Now did I expect it to grow at this rate? Probably not.”
9. There’s always something new in Orlando. Nelson says one reason he’s never left the commission is the region keeps changing, making his job fresh. A lot of that is the massive number of facilities built during Nelson’s tenure. Besides Amway Center, where the commission is housed, the USTA National Campus opened in 2017 and boasts 100 lighted tennis courts. Explora Stadium, a soccer-specific venue for the city’s MLS team, opened in 2019. Seminole County added Boombah Sports Complex in 2017. “There's so much going on at any given time, it's always kept things interesting and fresh in my mind,” says Nelson.
10. Nelson has no horror stories. You’d think in 25 years there would be at least one event that was on the verge of collapsing at the 11th hour. “I’d tell you if there was,” Nelson says. But he says the sports commission’s partnerships have proven so solid there is no such near-miss.
11. The game’s afoot for the World Cup. Camping World Stadium hosted the World Cup in 1994 and is among the 17 American contenders remaining for the 2026 event spread across the U.S., Canada and Mexico.
12. Don’t look for the Olympics. As the home of Walt Disney World, Orlando is an international destination. Does that make it a future Summer Olympics host city? “I don’t know if there is an appetite in our community to go after the Olympics,” he says. If that were to change, Nelson says the commission would be all-in. Meanwhile, the 2022 Special Olympics Games are bound for Orlando.
13. But don’t count out the Pro Bowl. Orlando first pried the Pro Bowl from Hawaii, but the NFL has awarded the All-Star game to Las Vegas as part of the Raiders’ welcoming package. Nelson acknowledges the city, already known for hosting various all-star festivities, will try to win it back.
14. Don’t ask for a favorite event. After a few minutes listing some of the great events he’s played a part in, Nelson admits he could never pick just one. “It would be like picking your favorite child,” he says.
15. GO Sports has five buckets. Nelson says the commission breaks sports tourism into five sectors in its pursuit: Marquee events (World Cup, WrestleMania); Collegiate business (NCAA); National governing bodies (USA Gymnastics, USA Football, etc.); Youth/amateur and eSports. The myriad venues and counties within the destination allow for such a broad spectrum.
16. Nelson is begrudgingly a mentor. Make no mistake about it, Nelson loves to give back to sports tourism through his various association work. But he still is growing accustomed to rising industry stars looking up to him. “I hate to think of myself in that capacity, but I certainly am” a mentor, he admits.
17. Rick Hatcher is one of his mentors. Head to another Florida destination and you’ll find someone Nelson looks up to: Treasure Coast Sports Commission Executive Director Rick Hatcher. “He's been a very good friend and a mentor. He's a true leader and veteran of our industry, and I know many of us support him and appreciate all that he's done,” says Nelson.
18. The bubble never burst. Orlando was front-and-center in the return of pro sports in 2020, hosting both an MLS tournament and the NBA’s playoffs in a bubble. The fact both events, as well as a high-profile AAU volleyball event, went off successfully was a major victory for the city. “It was a reinforcement that Orlando is open for business,” he says.
19. There is power in positivity. Not all destinations have been as fortunate as Orlando to host large events during the pandemic. To his compatriots who are struggling, Nelson says to keep the faith and hope, like the rest of us, the vaccines work as well as promised.
20. Numbers matter. That said, Nelson is practical. CVBs and DMOs are seeing massive budget cuts and layoffs that are going to make it harder to sell. It’s up to tourism officials to underscore their importance with money tight. He says: “We need to be telling the story of what the lost opportunities look like and how it's impacting tourism and the hospitality community, and more importantly, what the opportunities will look like down the road when it does come back, and how it will support jobs and it will generate important tax dollars.”
21. Cooperation is key. The regional nature of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission allows Nelson and his team from local conflicts. Lake and Seminole counties fall under its jurisdiction, allowing for teamwork to boost central Florida. “The greater good is for all of us,” he notes.
22. Nelson is working without a camera. In this year of Zoom, Nelson’s computer camera broke just before the COVID-19 outbreak in March so people can’t see him but he sees them. For what it’s worth, Nelson promises he is not in some underground bunker growing a crazy beard. In fact, Nelson says his girlfriend is making sure he remains clean cut (not that we could see him to confirm that fact).
23. Pandemic protocols are a not going away. Nelson says COVID-19 taught some valuable safety measures that will remain implemented, especially by NGBs.
24. Don’t expect a major move. Says Nelson: “We do see a lot of transition, folks leaving sports and going into other tourism and hospitality sectors. My roots are deep here. I’ve met so many great people. It would be very difficult to leave, quite frankly.”
25. Nelson may make it another 25 years. Well, he wouldn’t commit to a full 50 in Orlando, but he certainly is in as good a position as anyone. He is still in his prime—a benefit of starting right out of college.