Tucson soccer giving sports tourism a kick
February has long been the month for northern snowbirds to migrate to the sunny 70-degree desert oasis that is Tucson
But a new reason to travel to the Old Pueblo is emerging, and it's proving to be a boon for the local economy: soccer.
The world's most popular sport isn't new here, but with the recent departure of spring training baseball, Southern Arizona had a hole in its sports tourism attractions. Tucson City Councilman Paul Cunningham and several budding entrepreneurs are looking to fill the void with one of the United States' fastest growing sports.
The Fort Lowell Shootout, a youth soccer tournament for under-14 boys and girls, has long been an amateur sports staple in Tucson. Another event, the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup that pits four Major League Soccer teams against each other, is still growing as it enters its third year.
Add to that a Canada/Denmark exhibition on Jan. 26, Tucson's first-ever international friendly, and aspirations to hold future MLS preseason games. If it all gets put together, Cunningham's dream of a "gold month for soccer in Tucson" is nearing.
And with that growth in soccer come dollars for the Tucson economy.
"This soccer nest we've evolved into has basically allowed (hotels) to be at full capacity for a month," Cunningham said. "If we're able to do that in Tucson, we can see growth in other industries in tourism because we're able to expand our hotel room base, we're able to create more air traffic."
"It exponentially increases Tucson's profile as a destination worldwide," he said.
This year's 36 days of soccer could fill 4,600-4,700 more hotel rooms above the normal yearly average, Cunningham said. Those tourists could provide the city with the most desired type of currency in local economies, "outside dollars".
Although most professional soccer games are played at Pima County facilities, Cunningham's a booster of the sport because of its potential economic impact on the city.
The currency is injected into the Tucson economy from outside sources and then stays in the city while the tourists travel back home, said Vince Trinidad, the director of Tucson Sports and an adjunct professor at The University of Arizona.
For Greg Foster, a co-managing partner for FC Tucson of the Premier Development League, the potential for growth was on full force Feb. 5 with the turnout for a simple exhibition game between the rival Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders.
"The more that people attend the games like our game where it was 75 degrees and sunny and people were there from Portland and Seattle, the more people will think of Tucson in February for soccer," Foster said. "It's another reason to travel here."
"I think we're slowly building is another great Tucson event, like the rodeo, like the gem show, like the Accenture Match Play. So I think that economic impact is just starting to unfold."
When Major League Baseball spring training left Tucson in 2010, ending a 64-year stay, the city was left with two empty ball fields and a halt in incoming revenue. According to a report by FMR Associated, a Tucson-based company, Cactus League games brought in $422 million in direct economic benefit to Arizona in 2012.
With the Arizona Diamondbacks, Colorado Rockies and Chicago White Sox gone, so too is Tucson's chunk of the revenue.
Now, with several soccer events happening in a short period, county has found a use for the stadium and fields, giving fans the opportunity to see both youth and professional games in Tucson. Plans for a 2,000-seat soccer stadium for FC Tucson were recently announced.
"The more we have locations or destinations and find what we do well, and try to maximize those areas," Trinidad said, "the more potential for not only (the) revenue a city can generate but a higher quality of life for its constituency base."
Fort Lowell Shootout
While most of the events are in their infancy, the Fort Lowell Shootout is a long-lasting staple of the Tucson youth scene, bringing in 6,600 people this year and $3.1 million of their direct spending, Trinidad said.
He described the under-14 co-ed tournament as a "signature event" in Tucson and a "huge economic driver" as 358 teams compete during a three-day event.
Curt Cannon, an operations director that's worked with the tournament for 23 years, estimated that around 200 teams came from outside the Tucson area.
The tournament's Olympic-style contest before the games start adds excitement to the tournament because it's so much different than other youth soccer tournaments, Cannon said.
Excitement isn't the only benefit, though. The opening ceremonies on Friday provide additional activities for the teams to participate in, which in turns requires another night in a Tucson hotel room.
Canada vs. Denmark International Friendly
The game was a dud as Denmark ran Canada off the pitch with a 4-0 win on a dreary Saturday afternoon. It wasn't about the on-field product for Foster and FC Tucson, though.
The first-ever international friendly in Tucson brought out 3,042 fans, with a mix of both casuals and country-specific supporters that showed up to Kino Sports Complex despite the heavy rains before kickoff.
"We wanted to demonstrate that Tucson was ready for international soccer and we wanted to demonstrate to Tucson that it's possible to bring it here," Foster said. "We thought that this game was a perfect opportunity."
The stadium had several empty sections, especially near what used to be home plate. Others were filled to the rim, including right behind the south goal where droves of Danish fans waved red flags and donned eccentric hats.
That turnout was what Foster and his company had been hoping for. Their goal was to show that Tucson could be an international friendly destination to the booking company of Soccer United Marketing.
"I think that we not only showed that we can host that type of game," Foster said, "We showed that could support it even in extreme weather circumstances. We're thrilled with the outcome of that game."
With $976 million dollars being brought into Pima County by Mexico each year, tapping into the international market entices both Foster and fellow co-managing partner of FC Tucson, Chris Keeney.
FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup
The signature professional soccer event in Tucson is the FC Tucson Desert Diamond Cup, which brings in four MLS teams to compete in a four-day tournament spread over two weeks.
Last year's exhibition cup was the first to feature four MLS teams, with notable stars David Beckham and Landon Donovan capturing the tournament title for the Los Angeles Galaxy.
Keeney, FC Tucson's chief business officer, said last year's event was "wildly" successful, with more than 30,000 fans showing up in total for the tournament. The Desert Diamond Cup is continuing on in the same format as last year, but what's changed is the number of teams practicing in Tucson.
Ten of the 19 MLS organizations are using Tucson as a spring training destination, bringing with them supporters from out of town, most notably Seattle and Portland.
The fledgling business of FC Tucson still has a way to go, with both its PDL team and the yearly Desert Diamond Cup, before it's a booming business. Keeney said they were able to make it through all of the expenses last year, but are far away from a flourishing business.
"We are not rich sports owners by any stretch," Keeney said. "We're still living on shoe string and cereal. But the opportunity is there.
"Again, this is a business. Sometimes sports organizations look at it from a sports-first perspective. We're very passionate about the sport, but we're very passionate about the business and making good expense decisions, good investment decisions, taking calculated risk."