Whether driving through Winter Haven, visiting a local golf course, or passing the soon-to-be-completed improvements at Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium, one fact cannot be missed — our winter visitors have returned. And while some might groan over the road congestion or bemoan how crowded their favorite fishing spot is, these returning visitors are good for our economy.

But ponder this the next time you pass a golf course or a soccer field: According to a comprehensive study released recently by the Florida Sports Foundation, the business of sports in Florida is good business.

According to the study, dubbed “The Economic Impact of the Florida Sports Industry,” more than a half-million jobs in the Sunshine State and nearly $60 billion in sales are generated by 16 million visitors from outside Florida who are drawn here to participate in sporting activities.

The study, conducted over the last year, reports that roughly 15 percent of all tourism to the state is due to the sports industry, with the vast majority of that — more than 12.5 million people — visiting to participate in leisure sports such as golf, fishing, wildlife viewing, or a team sport. According to the study, team sports bring in the largest number of people — nearly 5.3 million visitors — while golf is close behind with nearly 4.6 million visitors.

As for economic impact, amateur and leisure sports, versus a college or professional game, account for roughly a $43.5 billion impact on Florida’s economy and nearly 210,000 jobs across the state. That’s a pretty large share of the nearly $60 billion pie.

Golf contributes $16.5 billion toward this, which isn’t surprising when you think Florida accounts for 12 percent of the U.S. golf economy.

What might be surprising is that amateur and leisure sports — softball tournaments, say, or the upcoming RussMatt Baseball Spring Classic — amounted to nearly $6.7 billion of economic impact. Close behind are parks and recreation-based leisure sports — think surfing, wakeboarding or cycling — at $6.08 billion.

And while both figures are less than fishing, at $7.5 billion in sales alone, they are higher than the impact NASCAR has on the state, at $1 billion in total sales, or hunting, at nearly $750 million.

As we near the return of the boys of summer to Florida, the economic impact of spring training cannot be diminished. Spring training accounts for $1 billion in economic impact and roughly 10,000 Florida jobs, thanks to the nearly 1 million non-resident visitors.

Overall, professional sports — the state’s two Major League Baseball teams, two National Hockey League teams, two National Basketball Association teams, three National Football League teams and single Major League Soccer team — generated $2.4 billion in total sales. In comparison, collegiate athletics brought in $1.8 billion dollars in everything from the athletic programs of the Gators and Seminoles to bowl games and other activities.

None of this can underscore the importance of our tourism-driven sector of the Sunshine State economy.

Whether here to bask in the sun, drive a golf ball or simply to escape from the blight of winter, every tourist dollar spent means jobs. Are some of those jobs service industry jobs? Sure. But for each hotel and restaurant that is built, there are technicians, plumbers and electricians that go to work, managers hired, and opportunities for lifelong careers available.

And let’s not forget the impact tourism has on the tax bill of the average Floridian; according to Visit Florida, the state’s official tourism marketing corporation, households would have to pay $1,535 each to maintain the current level of government services without the tax revenue generated by tourism.

None of this is new to those of us connected with these ventures.

The Florida Sports Foundation, of which Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing (PCTSM) is a member, is a nonprofit corporation that helps promote amateur sports development as well as serving as a resource for sports tourism research and information.

Here in Polk County, PCTSM is a division of the County Commission and is fully funded through the bed fee, which is placed on each room rented in the county. Over the past three years Polk County has set new bed fee revenue records — our most tangible in-house method for tracking our impact on the community — continuing a seven-year growth trend.

We feel that PCTSM has contributed to this growth, which has outpaced the national average, due to aggressive demand-driving strategies coupled with results-oriented supply-side investments, wisely determined by various boards and, ultimately, our county commissioners.

These investments have been needed, since Florida remains the most competitive tourism destination in the country.

As other counties try to lure parts our nearly $1.5 billion tourism industry away, we need to press forward to not only sustain what we have, but improve as well.

By staying relevant, strengthening our partnerships with the private sector and creatively using our competitive advantages, PCTSM seeks to keep Polk County competitive in the local and national game for these tourist dollars.

PCTSM would like to thank the people of Polk County for their unending friendliness and the welcoming spirit they share with visitors.

Perhaps it is simply Southern hospitality or the fact that people here realize that life truly is better in Polk County, but visitors always rate the kindness of strangers as one of the factors that set us apart.

So the next time you visit Publix Field at Joker Marchant Stadium or a golf course, or attend your child’s Florida Youth Soccer Association-sanctioned soccer tournament, your kindness toward others helps us all keep Polk County great.

Mark Jackson is the executive director of Polk County Tourism and Sports Marketing.