Thursday, July 8, 2010

Soccer dream comes true

Officials want more out of Jack Allen
By Catherine Godbey, Staff Writer, The Decatur Daily

It happens every four years. Fans from around the world converge in one city for one sport and one event. For 90 minutes, the fans, their painted faces displaying their loyalty, watch intently, every goal producing joy and every penalty, anguish.

It is the World Cup, the premier tournament for the most popular sport in many countries, but not the United States.

In America, soccer lags behind football, baseball, basketball and auto racing.

But in Decatur, 8,000 miles away from South Africa, the sea of painted faces and buzzing vuvuzelas, the sport is growing.

The World Cup gave soccer a boost nationally, as televisions in offices, homes and bars across the country tuned to the sport the world calls football.

Decatur, officials said, received an extra jolt, one five years in the making.

In 2005, the city built the 10-field Jack Allen Soccer Complex as a resource for the community and a revenue generator for the city.

“Our goal was to get to the point where we could pick and choose what tournaments came,” said Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Dunlap. “We built a first-class, state-of-the-art facility, so there was no doubt in my mind tournaments would come. It was just a matter of how fast it would happen. I thought it would take eight years.”

The facility is three years ahead of Dunlap’s schedule.

“We are at the point where we are having to turn people away,” Dunlap said. “We cannot meet the demand of the tournaments and travel teams.”

“There are people from all over the Southeast wanting to come use the field,” said Parks and Recreation Board member Patrick Hillis. “We’re the Joneses, and everyone is trying to keep up with us.”

The quality of the fields combined with a stream of tournaments translates to money.

Since opening, the soccer complex has generated more than $5 million in economic impact from state, regional and international tournaments. And more are coming. Earlier this year, the city secured hosting duties for the 2010 and 2011 National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics women’s championship, the 2010 to 2012 Alabama Youth Soccer Association State and Governor Cups, and the 2011 President’s Cup.

When Decatur previously hosted the President’s Cup, teams, fans and families filled 1,057 hotel room nights, said Tami Reist, president of the Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.

While the facility is gaining attention from tournament officials, it also has caught the eye of potential rivals.

“What we are doing here is getting attention,” Hillis said. “There is a new complex going in at Liberty Park in Vestavia that has 10 fields. People are jealous of what we have.”

Although considered one of the top soccer complexes in the Southeast, Parks and Recreation wants more.

Bigger is better

Officials envision more fields, a playground and splash pad, locker rooms and a recreation center.

“At the top of our list is fields. We need more fields. We have a shortage of fields right now with the Decatur Youth Soccer Association, club soccer and the tournaments,” Dunlap said.

River City United President DeLayne Dean said participation in club soccer continues to grow with 19 teams confirmed for the 2010 season.

“We look to have 230 to 250 in the River City Club, another 300 in the recreational program and 20 to 30 in the Hispanic youth team,” Dean said. “While the numbers have not increased by huge amounts, the areas where we are drawing players has increased.”

The soccer complex is luring players from Athens, Cullman, Guntersville, Arab, Huntsville and Madison to Decatur clubs.

While adding two fields would cost $2 million, they would meet an increased need and expand tournament capacity by 15 percent. The extra room, officials said, could attract extra tournaments.

And Dunlap has his eye on two specific tournaments, the Alabama high school state championship, currently held in Huntsville, and the SEC championship, now held in Orange Beach.

Hosting the tournaments would add to what leaders define as an already-accomplished résumé. In the past five years, the Jack Allen Soccer Complex has hosted international competitions, featuring the Mexico and Argentina women’s teams, Olympic development programs and college squads including Alabama, Ole Miss, Duke, Vanderbilt, Oklahoma State and Mississippi State.

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