Soccer

Football remains king in Alabama, but where does soccer fit in?

In Alabama, there is little doubt that football is king. The Crimson Tide and the Tigers dominate Saturday fall rituals, and Friday Night Lights shine bright on football fields from the Tennessee Valley to the Gulf Coast.

But that’s not stopping a public push to build newer and bigger venues for other sports, particularly soccer. And in Mobile County Friday, a celebration will be held commencing the construction of a long-awaited soccer complex that some believe will add a much-needed injection of sports tourism into a city starving for more playing fields.

“We have a 30-field deficit from a study that was done two to three years ago,” said Mobile County Commissioner Connie Hudson, the biggest public advocate for the new fields. “It’s amazing to me how much the sport has grown in spite of the fact that we don’t have adequate facilities in Mobile County. It’s sad for us because, oftentimes, when there are tournaments involving Mobile teams and Mobile is hosting, it has to be held outside of Mobile.”

The 10 a.m. groundbreaking will take place at the 60-acre, $4 million complex’s site near the intersection of Halls Mill Road and Lee’s Lane in west Mobile.

The project’s first phase includes creating two tournament-quality fields, two-seeded practice fields, irrigation and sewer, lighting and parking, and an entrance road. Future phases call for 10 fields that are a lighted and equipped for tournament play. And a championship-style field will be built with bleachers and concession/restroom buildings.

“Citizens and soccer enthusiasts have been anticipating this complex for a very long time and I am delighted that construction will now begin,” said Hudson.

‘State of Play’

The graphic is an age breakdown of sports played in order of popularity. The results are based off an Aspen Institute's survey of 1,721 youths in Mobile County, Ala., and were compiled in a report called "State of Play." (graphics from "State of Play" Mobile County by the Aspen Institute).

The graphic is an age breakdown of sports played in order of popularity. The results are based off an Aspen Institute’s survey of 1,721 youths in Mobile County, Ala., and were compiled in a report called “State of Play.” (graphics from “State of Play” Mobile County by the Aspen Institute).

Indeed, a 2018 study showed soccer’s widespread popularity among young teen boys and girls in Mobile County.

Soccer trailed only basketball as the sport most played by high-schoolers in grades 9-12.

The study by the Sports & Society Program at the Washington, D.C.-based Aspen Institute, surveyed 1,721 youths altogether, down to age 6.

The study – with an overall goal of pointing the way to encourage healthier lifestyles for young people — was a partnership involving the Community Foundation of South Alabama, the Jake Peavy Foundation and the Caring Foundation of Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama.

There were intriguing findings in the data when it was broken down by demographics:

-Soccer was the king of sports in Mobile County among white youths. White boys and girls list soccer as their No. 1 sport, followed by basketball and swimming. Nearly half of the white youths surveyed said they’d participated in soccer.

The demographic breakdown of sports played in Mobile County, Ala., based on a survey of 1,721 youths last year by The Aspen Institute. (graphic from the publication "State of Play" by The Aspen Institute).

The demographic breakdown of sports played in Mobile County, Ala., based on a survey of 1,721 youths last year by The Aspen Institute. (graphic from the publication “State of Play” by The Aspen Institute).

– Among black youths, soccer’s popularity lagged far behind other sports, ranking No. 7, with only 25% saying that they’d participated.

The study, titled “State of Play, Mobile County,” made several observations about Mobile County youth sports, one being particularly distressing: An zeal to chase college scholarships and pro dreams, and to win no matter what, was causing too many young athletes to get burned out. Another troubling development highlighted in the study was that Mobile County’s youths were considerably more overweight than the national average.

The study will be able to serve as a blueprint for planning and establishing future sports complexes and facilities.

“We believe any new sports facility using public dollars should be designed with the needs of the community in mind, and not solely as a home for college sporting events or as a tourism engine for youth tournaments,” said Jon Solomon, editorial director with the Aspen Institute Sports & Society Program.

“One drawback of sports complexes around the country is that they can fuel overspecialization, which can result in overuse injuries and/or burnout. Youth end up playing too many games for their own good, and parents end up spending more money traveling for these games.”

Sports tourism

The Mobile County soccer complex is expected to be flexible, like others across the country, in that fields can be converted to serve lacrosse, flag football, rugby and other sports.

Lacrosse, though not sponsored by the Alabama High School Athletic Association, is rising in popularity in Mobile County. According to Aspen Institute, the Mobile Lacrosse League has grown from one under-13 team in 2010 to more than 100 players from elementary-school age into high school.

Soccer fields are “low-impact” when it comes maintenance, said Reid Cummings, director for the Center of Real Estate and Economic Development at the University of South Alabama.

“You think about football, with the cleats and heavy bodies tearing up the turf and in baseball, the infield needs protecting, and so forth,” said Cummings. “In soccer, it’s just a grass field. Go out and play. There is not a lot of wear in tear.”

Public money won’t be spent on maintaining and operating the new complex. Mobile United Futbol Club is expected to shoulder those responsibilities.

Said Hudson, “With 10 tournament fields, we’ll have enough (room) for 20 youth fields and it can be used for a variety of these other sports, including lacrosse and rugby. The need has been there for a long time. To me, it’s more of a quality-of-life issue for our community.”

The new complex, though, has the potential to make an economic impact in Mobile. Soccer tournaments can draw dozens of teams, hundreds of players and their families, to a city for multiple days and nights. That means hotels and restaurants fill up and, over time, can provide a noticeable revenue bump for city and county governments.

Danny Corte, executive director with the Mobile Sports Authority, said the new soccer fields will be packaged with three existing fields at Herndon-Sage Park as part of an enticement to lure soccer events and tournaments.

The potential also exists that tournaments at the Mobile County complex can be packaged with those in Foley or Fairhope. Foley has the state’s largest soccer complex, opening a few years ago next to the OWA amusement park. The 16-field complex also include a championship field with seating for up to 1,000 spectators.

“There is some synergy there, but there is a bit of a stretch between Foley to Mobile,” said Foley Mayor John Koniar, who has advocated for the Mobile County project. Foley is about an hour drive to west Mobile.

“It’s about getting the region known for soccer in general,” said Koniar. “If they come to Mobile, they will come to Baldwin County as well. It’s not any competition. There more fields we have, the more tournaments we’ll have.”

Fairhope has an additional nine soccer fields, which are more geared toward local events. But mega-events do occur, and they also pack a financial wallop: A “Halloween Bash” tournament last year generated an economic return of about $2.4 million for the city. That return represented nearly half the $5 million cost of creating the soccer complex, according to parks and recreation director Tom Kuhl.

Another benefit for the Mobile County fields is that they will be lighted.

“That’s the only important thing,” said Ron Simmons, vice president of destination sales with the Montgomery Chamber of Commerce Convention and Visitors Bureau. Montgomery’s Emory Fulmer YMCA Soccer Complex has six fields that were renovated and had lights added to them in 2013, fueling a surge in attention from traveling soccer clubs.

“(Soccer tournaments) are looking to consolidate into one spot,” said Simmons. “In Foley, that facility is designed to have multiple fields and the fields are lit. It’s an incredible asset when you that.”

The sports tourism bug is also biting other cities around Alabama. Huntsville, in late February, held a ribbon cutting for four new lighted soccer fields with artificial turf at the new Merrimack Sports Complex. The project is the first phase of a two-phase $10 million development that, when completed, will feature nine new multi-use playing fields.

Near Birmingham, the final leg of the $80 million Hoover Metropolitan Complex was completed earlier this year. It featured five multi-purpose fields suitable for soccer, lacrosse and other sports.

In Tuscaloosa, for example, the multi-faceted Elevate Tuscaloosa plan calls for more sports complexes, including soccer fields.

“Last year, sports tourism grew by double digits nationwide, and having a young family, I see firsthand for the foreseeable future, that this generation is going to travel to compete which places the responsibility on communities to have first-class facilities,” said Tuscaloosa Mayor Walt Maddox. “For cities, tourism is a clean investment that not only benefits people coming into your community, but it provides a higher quality of life for your citizens because they will utilize those event and sports centers for the majority of the year.”

John Vincent, professor of sports communication and coordinator of the University of Alabama’s sports management graduate program, said soccer makes economic sense that is often overlooked in a state often viewed as an epicenter of college football.

“The rationale behind it is that soccer has an upper middle class and fairly wealthy demographic,” said Vincent, a longtime soccer coach. “Youth soccer tournament are held over a weekend when you can attract tourist dollars for an event. The parents are typically spending two nights in a hotel and on a Saturday or Sunday night, they are spending money in restaurants and there is a real significant economic impact.”

Professional soccer is also emerging in popularity in Alabama where the Birmingham Legion FC is drawing large crowds to its games during its inaugural run in the United Soccer League. Soccer fans also fondly recall the city and state’s embrace of the sport during the 1996 Olympic games in Atlanta, when soccer matches held at Legion Field drew some of the largest crowds during the competition.

Challenging football

Despite the interest, no one believes soccer will surpass football in terms of fan enthusiasm in Alabama.

“I’ve seen the growth and popularity in soccer … but I don’t think that soccer is going to challenge football’s economic sporting status in the great state of Alabama,” said Vincent.

In general, participation in youth sports nationwide has declined in the past decade. And soccer hasn’t been immune from that.

In 2017, 7.7% of youths ages 6 to 12 nationwide played soccer, down from 10.4% in 2008, according to an Aspen Institute national survey.

The Top 10 sports played by boys and girls in order of popularity in Mobile County, Ala. The chart was compiled from a survey of 1,721 youths by The Aspen Institute. The information was released in a report called "State of Play" for Mobile County. (graphic from the publication, "State of Play," by The Aspen Institute).

The Top 10 sports played by boys and girls in order of popularity in Mobile County, Ala. The chart was compiled from a survey of 1,721 youths by The Aspen Institute. The information was released in a report called “State of Play” for Mobile County. (graphic from the publication, “State of Play,” by The Aspen Institute).

The New York Times, in a July 2018 story, cited a statistic from the Sports & Fitness Industry Association – which analyzes youth athletic trends – that showed the percentage of 6- to 12-year-olds playing soccer regularly had dropped nearly 14 percent over the past three years.

The story suggested multiple factors: High burnout rates for pushing younger children into travel leagues, expensive travel league clubs, and a lack of expanding the game into poorer and underserved communities.

Nationwide youth participation in tackle football also was slumping, driven by fears of concussions and other severe injuries.

But neither soccer nor football is taking a participation hit in Alabama. The National Federal of State High School Associations, which tracks of high school sports participation statistics by state, shows Alabama as one of the few in the South and in the Midwest to see an increase in the number of high school youths participating in 11-man tackle football and soccer when comparing 2011-2012 to 2017-2018.

In Alabama, the number of 11-man football participants increased from 22,715 in 2011-2012 to 30,882 last school year. Other football hotbeds – Texas, Mississippi, South Carolina, Tennessee and Louisiana – all saw slight declines. The declines were significant in Big 10 states like Ohio, Michigan, Iowa, Illinois, and Wisconsin.

All those states showed an uptick in soccer participation among high school boys and girls.

“I think youth football, and pee wee football, has a real problem with this issue of concussions and CTE,” said Vincent, at the University of Alabama. “Youth football’s numbers are declining in recent years because of this issue. I’m not saying soccer will really compete with the iconic and traditional appeal of football in the great state of Alabama where there is the Crimson Tide. But because of its upper middle-class demographics and because of a growing popularity, it’s certainly a viable sport to attract tourist dollars.”

‘Perserverance’

At Halls Mill Road and Lees Lane in west Mobile sits approximately 60 acres of land that will someday be turned into soccer fields. The property is located a mostly industrial stretch of road filled with construction firms, machine shops and mini-storages. A groundbreaking for the first phase of the complex's construction is scheduled to take place on Friday, May 17, 2019. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

At Halls Mill Road and Lees Lane in west Mobile sits approximately 60 acres of land that will someday be turned into soccer fields. The property is located a mostly industrial stretch of road filled with construction firms, machine shops and mini-storages. A groundbreaking for the first phase of the complex’s construction is scheduled to take place on Friday, May 17, 2019. (John Sharp/jsharp@al.com).

Hudson said she is unsure if a decline in tackle football participation in other states is correlated to soccer participation. For her, the focus of building the new soccer fields in Mobile County is about filling a need which soccer enthusiasts have been focused on for years.

It’s a long-time coming. The complex was first discussed seven years ago, and the entire project almost completely died in 2016, when a previous incarnation of the development that included an aquatic center was shot down by the commission by a 2-1 vote. The concerns at the time revolved around money: The $20 million price-tag was a worry because it relied upon future lodging tax revenues to finance debt.

Hudson, about a year ago, offered $3.7 million of her own discretionary money to kickstart the project. An additional $1.2 million from offshore oil and gas lease proceeds through the Gulf of Mexico Energy Security Act (GOMESA) is funding the construction of an environmentally friendly permeable parking lot.

“To pursue something like this for seven years shows that Connie Hudson is truly passionate about it,” said Cummings, at USA. “I applaud her perseverance.”



Read Full Article

Categories: Soccer

Tagged as: , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *