The Paso del Norte Group’s hand-picked sports consultant seems to see it. El Paso native Omar Salgado being picked first in Major League Soccer’s draft last year supports it. And if we have the gonads to put votes and money on the line, it may even come to pass.
The best thing El Paso could — and should — build for itself is a soccer complex.
This would be better than building a baseball stadium. Better by far than another arena. Better than swimming pools, multi-purpose gyms and skate parks.
And not just a stadium, either. A whole soccer complex. Multiple soccer fields around one large stadium.
It’s something I’ve thought about for years, so in the face of the Paso del Norte Group’s sudden reappearance in the news and the bond issue it would like passed, I’ll actually unveil my thoughts on how to spend other people’s money at the end.
THE TIME IS NOW
If you’re not a soccer fan, I’m not here to tout the “sport of the future” and convert you. Don’t make me ill by dredging up those useless prophecies from the 1970′s.
I am here to tout the sport of the present. The sport played by thousands of El Pasoans, from peewees to retirees. The sport that gave El Paso it’s first top draft pick in any professional league, ever. The sport that sports more jerseys around town than any other.
And, speaking of the future, If El Paso is to have one in sports outside of UTEP, it will be through soccer, immediately making it more important than building a baseball stadium.
A big, new ballpark would be great, and I’ve said so. But in comparison to a soccer facility, a ballpark is at most two-dimensional: it’s wonderful entertainment and spurs downtown revitalization. That’s big, but that’s all.
Forget the arena talk. With three other arenas within a 40-mile radius ready to undercut a large and expensive facility when bidding for concerts and events, I can’t see a new arena being anything but an albatross for the city.
But a legitimate soccer complex? Now we’re talking.
Reading the comments from Horrow Sports Ventures chairman, Rick Horrow, in the El Paso Times’ piece on the bond being put on a ballot this November, I was honestly surprised a soccer stadium was part of this plan. Frankly, I’m a little relieved I’m not alone.
But it can’t just be a stadium awaiting a professional team. This is only truly worth it if it’s a complex.
GOING TO THE WELL
Why soccer over other sports and facilities?
In part because we have hundreds of good soccer players, here. More and more soccer programs are discovering El Paso’s wealth of talent, and if Salgado lives up to his potential and becomes a star it will only attract more pro and college scouts and coaches.
But the lament of many teams around town is El Paso’s ridiculous lack of good fields and facilities. High school teams play on skinny football fields of plastic grass or natural turf that, by Texas’ high school season in mid-winter, has hardened into adobe.
Even more important to development in soccer are club teams. If it weren’t for the Sun Bowl Association’s growing Academy Sports+Outdoors club tournament, El Paso’s soccer clubs might starve for lack of civic attention when it comes to addressing needs. Teams could bang their heads against a goalpost and get more love from their hometown.
A city that wishes to nurture it’s very real talent needs the facilities to do so. That El Paso’s soccer teams continually scratch and claw for fields on which they can practice, much less play, is almost criminal.
Just because El Paso doesn’t have a lot of grass doesn’t mean there’s no grass-roots support.
And what if El Paso gets this facility? What is the end result?
We already mentioned one — the Sun Bowl Association’s big soccer soiree. It’s already the largest youth tournament in the Southwest. Allowing it the space to grow only brings more teams, more families, more hotel stays and meals. More scouts and coaches for our kids, too.
Doubt that’s a big deal when it comes to economic impact? You’re wrong. Just saying. I’m living this right now. Sports tourism is a single wave of money waiting to wash over a city that does things right.
CATCHING THE WAVE
I have a daughter who plays club volleyball. We travel to other cities around four times a year. We took her to the world’s largest volleyball tournament in Dallas two weekends ago, the Mizuno Lone Star Classic.
One parent told me walking into one of these big tournaments with hundreds of volleyballs flying everywhere was like watching popcorn pop. If there is a more apt description, I have yet to hear it.
And, oh, did they set this thing up brilliantly. As soon as families walked into the Dallas Convention Center’s massive hall, you walked into a…mall, really…of booths selling ribbons and hairbands and purses and bedazzled t-shirts and Justin Bieber posters, and it drew the thousands upon thousands of teenage girls and their daddies’ wallets like big-eyed bees to flowers.
The place looked like the Dallas Fire Department had hosed it down with neon pastels and glitter.
My wallet was whisked out of its pocket with such velocity, my hip is still recovering from the burns. And that’s before it took the hit for the $9 smoothies!
If every team brought 10 girls, that’s also 10 families. Multiply that by the more than 1,400 teams that attend over two weekends. That is major bank for the city of Dallas — an eight-figure shot spreading from the convention center and area restaurants and hotels all the way down to the booth that sold my girl her big purple hair thingie.
MAKING OUR OWN WAVES
There won’t be a 1,400-team soccer tournament anywhere anytime soon, but the Academy Sports+Outdoor tournament is expected to have between 170 and 200 teams this June. Do some simple math. Say, 15 players per team (probably more) with 200 teams. That alone is 3,000 soccer players. Now add their parents and other relatives, all looking for hotel rooms and places to eat.
Now imagine you could double the size of this tournament with the right venue. Hold one big tourney and two or three smaller ones each year. Boo-yah, El Paso!
This is why it needs to be a complex, not just a stadium.
And the end game of this brings it all together, turning a good two-dimensional idea into something truly great that can benefit El Paso at every level.
Yes, I’m still talking soccer.
Think about it. If El Paso were ever to break into any big league, which league would it be, the NFL, NBA or MLB?
Are you kidding?
If it’s anything, it’s MLS — Major League Soccer.
And if the next Omar Salgado is waiting in the wings, MLS already has an apparatus that allows teams to claim homegrown talent.
A BIG PAYOFF
If you’re one who thinks we should never spend money on sports, I think you’re wrong. Don’t underestimate the power and attention it brings. We do plenty of other good things worth morsels of attention from time to time, but the spotlight never shines as brightly on this city — positively, anyway — as it does when it shines on our sports.
Right now, the Hyundai Sun Bowl and UTEP (when the Miners win) are the two things that lift this city’s reputation past the baseless and harmful border violence blather coming from our own governor’s office.
When Rick Perry won’t retract statements that car bombs are blowing up in our midst, he might as well be spray painting gang slogans over every El Paso tourism billboard in America. We’re the safest city in Texas and our governor uses us as a political pigskin so he can talk tough on crime.
This is what we’re up against in our own state. We need all the help we can get.
How about another great message about El Paso that extends not just beyond the political phonies within our own big-money borders, but internationally? A message that can also nurture an already-solid base of local talent, perhaps giving the best of it a boost into a world that plays the same game.
MLS is international news. If he makes the grade, MLS will be Omar Salgado’s ticket to playing soccer in Europe someday. What if El Paso could be the city to make that happen for the next hometown kid?
You see what I mean about added dimension? You would never get anything close to this from Triple-A baseball. A soccer complex couldn’t be placed downtown, but this is something that would go way beyond revitalization.
And so, here you go — the grand plan, such as it is. A mountain stadium and shopping center in the southwest corner of Transmountain Road and U.S. 54. There are more practical locations, but I was searching for an eye-catching spot at an important intersection.
I know. It’s federal land and, even if Uncle Sam sells, it would have to be combed for old unexploded shells from its days as a Ft. Bliss gunnery range. But it seems to me that Northeast El Paso is, first, central to what is more and more El Paso del Norte — not only El Paso, but also southern New Mexico, including Las Cruces and Alamogordo. Transmountain Road and U.S. 54 is the main crossroad of this central location.
Second, Northeast is the only area where big box anchor tenants do not exist outside Walmart and Lowe’s. No Target, no BestBuy. Those two alone would go a long way toward making any shopping center profitable.
Part of my thinking is, if a soccer complex had to be built with private money, what could you do to not only build it, but sustain it financially? I know my thinking on this is incomplete — I’m no business/real estate brain — but a property management group built not just to sell itself to the next big mall management firm, but built to sustain a shopping center and put money into a soccer franchise and its facility might be just the thing.
Big malls make big money, but a lot of that money goes to pay big rent to firms that aren’t located here, so that’s money that doesn’t necessarily stay in El Paso.
I’m sure there are plenty of other places, plenty of other plans, but, for what it’s worth, this one’s mine.
Don’t hate, just debate. And if it’s on the ballot, vote Yes.
(This column originally appeared on 600ESPNElPaso.com.)