Pima County begins construction on new soccer stadium

In the city of Tucson, soccer is not considered the sport of choice. In terms of attending a sporting event, that distinction belongs to University of Arizona men’s basketball, football or baseball. In terms of leisure, it belongs to golf.

However, the fastest growing sport in the United States could be the solution to overcoming a nearly $1 million revenue deficit in a special taxing district of Pima County.

Construction began April 25 on a new soccer stadium at the Kino Sports Complex as part of the Kino North Fields Modification Project.

The construction of North Stadium, which will be operated and occupied by local semi-professional team FC Tucson, started a little over a month after the Pima County Board of Supervisors voted to provide $2.8 million to fund the creation of a 2,000-seat stadium, concession stands, a scoreboard and restrooms.

North Stadium will be ready in time for FC Tucson’s 2014 season.

This is phase two of a larger project to repurpose the Kino Sports Complex in an attempt to make up for revenue lost from the departure of Major League Baseball spring training. The goal is to make the complex more soccer-friendly by converting several baseball diamonds into soccer fields.

“Pima County is investing $2.8 million in a new stadium because we believe this public-private partnership will bring children and families together, and help serve as an economic boost for our region by bringing more professional and youth soccer to the Kino Sports Complex,” said Richard Elias, Pima County District Five Supervisor.

In 1997, Pima County created the Pima County Stadium District and spent $38 million to build the Kino Veterans Memorial Stadium as a spring training facility for the Chicago White Sox and Arizona Diamondbacks.

According to Deputy County Administrator Hank Atha, the two teams generated between $500,000 and $1 million in revenue each year, which was more than enough to maintain the facilities.

However, in 2008 and 2010, the White Sox and Diamondbacks respectively terminated their contracts with Pima County to move to stadiums in the Phoenix area. Since then, the county has struggled to make money off a mostly vacant complex.

The county has attempted to fill the void by hosting events such as satellite shows of the Tucson Gem and Mineral Show and concerts, as well as becoming the home stadium of the Tucson Padres. The minor league baseball team has called Kino Sports Complex home since 2011, but will leave after this season to move to El Paso, Texas. The Tucson location has always been seen as temporary and El Paso will have a brand-new stadium ready in time for the 2014 season.

These events generated $1.3 million in FY 2011-2012, according to Atha, which is still $928,000 less than it was during the height of the MLB era.

While the events have done a good job of temporarily sustaining the complex, the county still needs to find something that will make up for the nearly $1 million deficit.

This is where Pima County and the city of Tucson hope that soccer can step in and fill a void.

According to a study done by social scientist Rich Luker, soccer is the second most popular sport among Americans age 12-24. In addition, 10 percent of Americans ages 12 or older consider themselves avid Major League Soccer fans, which is the highest level the league has ever reached.

“As a result of our city’s demographics, our proximity to Mexico and the beautiful weather, the perfect storm has been created for soccer to flourish here,” said Paul Cunningham, Tucson Ward 2 Councilman.

Soccer has already generated a $7.5 million economic impact in Tucson in 2013, according to Tucson Director of Sports Development Vincent Trinidad. This estimation came from three events, the Tucson Association of Realtors Shootout, the Tucson Soccer Academy Tournament and Desert Diamond Cup.

Soccer represents as much as $10 million annually for the Tucson economy, according to Cunningham.

“Soccer is a substantial replacement for the hole in the economy left by Major League Baseball,” Cunningham said. “It brings Tucson a major international presence for tourism and establishes a viability as an athletics destination.”

The county completed phase one of construction last September, which converted former baseball diamonds into youth soccer fields. According to Atha, use of the fields has generated $40,149 from events over the past six months.

The Tucson Association of Realtors Shootout, which takes place every January, is the largest youth soccer tournament in the Southwest. With over 350 teams and 5,000 players, the tournament is held at multiple fields across the city.

According to Pat Dunham, who is in charge of media relations for the tournament, this year’s tournament generated about $3.1 million for the local economy. That includes $1,795 of revenue for the Kino Sports Complex in just two days.

“Those fields are a huge boon for youth soccer,” Dunham said. “It’s not enough for an entire soccer tournament, but it’s nice to have nice fields to play on.”

Perhaps the biggest event hosted at the Kino Sports Complex is the Desert Diamond Cup, a series of exhibition games as part of Major League Soccer spring training. Four professional teams come to the city to train and scrimmage each other and FC Tucson. Due to success of the competition, an additional six teams are expected to train in Tucson next season.

According to Ted Prezelski, a Cunningham staffer and soccer writer for the Tucson Sentinel, the success of the Desert Diamond Cup has put Tucson in line to become the soccer capital of the West Coast.

“Major League Soccer is interested in signing a long-term deal to make Tucson its western hub,” Prezelski said. “They are very interested in being here and are very invested in the city.”

According to Hank Atha, Tucson’s main competition for hosting MLS preseason is the ESPN World Wide of Sports Complex in Orlando, Fla. However, it is possible that both locations could host teams, serving as the West Coast and East Coast hubs, respectively.

If Tucson is able to earn that distinction, they plan on bidding for the 2014 MLS Combine, according to Atha. The event would attract the best college, high school and international players, as well as representative from all 19 teams, to the city for pre-draft workouts.

With all the momentum and involvement of the MLS in Tucson, it is not completely out of the realm of possibility that the city will eventually have a professional soccer team.

“There is a history of the MLS having teams in small cities, like Columbus, Ohio and Portland, Ore.,” Prezelski said. “FC Tucson looks at Portland as an example of what they want to do. They want to move slowly and join the MLS because of a strong fan base and strong community connections.”

Representatives from the city and county also said they think that it’s only a matter of time before the MLS finds itself with a franchise in Tucson.

“The local soccer community has been energized with the emergence of FC Tucson, so I absolutely think that Tucson will eventually have an MLS team,” Cunningham said.

“FC Tucson is well on its way to becoming an MLS team,” Richard Elias said. “There’s so much energy around soccer her in Southern Arizona right now and I’m confident that excitement will pay big dividends for our region.”

Note: This assignment was completed for my Journalism 413: Reporting Public Affairs class.