Sports - January 2005

Cities get a kick out of soccer tournaments
By Chris Roush

Does your city need to fill hotel rooms, pack restaurants and attract shoppers? Hold a soccer tournament. Nearly every major city across North Carolina plays host to one, and some are adding millions of dollars to their economies.

The state has become a magnet for some of the biggest college tournaments, including the 2004 women’s Final Four at SAS Soccer Park in Cary. That’s due, at least in part, to the success of the UNC Chapel Hill women’s soccer team, which has won 18 National Collegiate Athletic Association championships since 1981. Cary also played host to the Atlantic Coast Conference men’s and women’s tournaments in 2004, while the NCAA Division III men’s and women’s tournaments were held in Greensboro.

That’s not to mention the dozens of youth soccer tournaments around the state that draw teams from across the Southeast. “It’s in every single community and every single state,” says Angela Pratt, sports-sales manager for the Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau. “And while business travel has decreased significantly, sports travel has remained the same or increased. The parents say, ‘I’ll be darned if I’m going to miss my kids’ soccer tournament.’ Parents will travel, and they will spend money.”

Her organization estimates the economic impact of tournaments organized by the Capital Area Soccer League at $6.1 million in 2002 and $7.4 million in 2003. Charlie Slagle, CEO of CASL and former men’s soccer coach at Davidson College, says the 2004 figure could be as high as $8.9 million because more teams came to its tournaments.

Greensboro officials expected to reap at least $1 million from the Division III event. An August tournament brought 8,000 to High Point and had an economic impact of $1.9 million. And the Kepner Cup Soccer Tournament run by the Cabarrus Soccer Association kicks an estimated $1 million annually into the Cabarrus County economy.

Greensboro played host to the 2003 Snickers U.S. Youth Soccer Region III Championships at Bryan Park Soccer Complex. A U.S. Youth Soccer Association regional championship is the Holy Grail of youth soccer, says Marc Bush, president of the Greensboro Sports Commission. “From an economic standpoint, it’s as big as an Atlantic Coast Conference basketball tournament.”

That’s quite a claim. The 2003 ACC basketball tournament, also held in Greensboro, had an economic impact of $13.6 million. But Bush doesn’t back down. “They spend money. The No. 1 youth event is girls’ soccer, ages 10 to 15. Those are the ones that bring the most people.”

Greensboro played host to the youth tournament in 1992 and 1997. The Greensboro Youth Soccer Association and North Carolina Youth Soccer Association hope to do it again, Bush says. But the Bryan Park complex will need to add two fields to accommodate new bidding requirements.

More tournaments could be on the way to North Carolina. The National Soccer Coaches Association of America held its convention at the Charlotte Convention Center in January 2004, attracting nearly 3,000 coaches. Charlotte, site of the 1999 and 2000 NCAA men’s championships, used the convention to promote the region for future events.

But a glut of tournaments could overwhelm the market. Organizers canceled the Bank of North Carolina Thanksgiving Shoot-Out in High Point after a lower-than-expected turnout in 2003 and a meager response for the 2004 event. Officials had hoped the event would pump more than $300,000 into the local economy.

Slagle and CASL want to attract more NCAA tournaments. The 2005 men’s championship is coming in December, and he plans to submit a bid next month for the 2006 Division I men’s and women’s championships. But he is concerned about having both events on the same weekend.

Currently, CASL and N.C. State University, which run the NCAA tournaments with help from the city of Cary, sell tickets to the college semifinal and championship games to the players attending youth tournaments held the same weekend. The cost — $24 per youth ticket and $30 per adult ticket — is added to a team’s registration fee.

Holding the men’s and women’s championships the same weekend at the same venue — and having boys’ and girls’ youth tournaments at the same time in nearby locations — might be too much. “My worry would be trying to fill SAS Stadium for both events in the same weekend,” Slagle says.

The NCAA women’s tournament costs CASL and N.C. State about $120,000 to operate. Profits are small, Slagle says, because the NCAA first recoups its costs for teams to travel to first- and second-round matches. It also doesn’t allow him to sell corporate sponsorships. Still, CASL makes money because the attraction of the college event ensures it can fill the field for its youth showcase tournaments held the same weekend. It had 242 teams in its 2003 event. Together, the two events generated about $2.6 million in economic impact, including nearly 10,000 rooms booked at hotels, according to the Greater Raleigh CVB.

But while the men’s 2005 NCAA finals will be in Cary in December, CASL and N.C. State lost the bid for the women’s championship. “The only glitch is that because Carolina is so close and so good, every game they play [in the tournament] is like a home game, so we will never get it every year,” Pratt says. “But if we get it once every two or three years, I think we will be happy with that.”