For the last six months Mobile County officials have debated about where to place a soccer complex and how to fund it, but while those details continued to get ironed out, members of the soccer community in Mobile say there is still great need of additional facilities.
Chad Harrelson, director of coaching for the Mobile United Football Club, said his 600 members aren’t even a quarter of the youth soccer players in Mobile County. Harrelson said Mobile United FC has more than 40 teams, and currently has to coordinate practice schedules at more than 14 different sites around the city.
“I could spend hours talking about the dilemma we face just in our club,” Harrelson said. “We use one field at Sage Park, the outfields at Cottage Hill Park, a couple of churches let us practice on their property, and one family even built us a soccer field in their front yard. Basically, we practice on any patch of grass we can find.”
Though youth soccer has big numbers here, it’s still on the upswing, and Mobile isn’t isolated from the national growth in the sport’s popularity. Though it has plateaued slightly, the National Federation of State High School Associations reported a 7 percent growth in soccer participation between 2008 and 2012.
According to a 2014 NFSHSA Participation Survey, more than 152 schools fielded teams in Alabama alone.
However, for Mobile United FC and other organizations, growth isn’t the only issue. According to Harrelson, there aren’t currently any public places to play Division I youth soccer in Mobile at all, and even some Division II games are played on questionable fields.
Making do, Mobile United FC has been allowed to use fields at Spring Hill College and The University of Mobile and some teams play “home games” as far away as Montgomery. However, Harrelson said those options aren’t always available.
“There’s was a letter sent to our state association from a team we were forced to play at Sage Park, (and they) called the fields we play on ‘deplorable,’” Harrelson said. “I’ve seen injuries from people stepping in holes. It is a danger.”
Harrelson said if money wasn’t an factor, his players could fill up a 10-field facility like one proposed by Mobile County Commission President Connie Hudson every night of week. Hudson hopes to see the complex paid for through RESTORE Act funding.
However, money is a big factor when creating championship caliber soccer facilities. Though the details haven’t been discussed, Hudson recently acknowledged a figure of $40 million when asked to price the proposed soccer and aquatic complex at the I-65/I-10 corridor.
An exact price for constructing the 10 soccer fields hasn’t been disclosed, but is expected in early November as part of a master plan being created by Neel-Schafer Inc.
Though the cost of building a facility may vary due to the time of construction and the location of the property, other municipalities have already constructed soccer facilities for far less than that $40 million figure.
Escambia County has two large sports complexes with soccer facilities — the Ashton Brosnaham Complex and the Southwest Escambia Sportsplex (SES), which opened its doors in 2012.
According to Michael Rhodes, director of parks and recreation for Escambia County, the 200-acre SES features 17-fields, including six soccer fields, 10 baseball diamonds and a regulation football field.
Constructed with local option taxes for just over $9 million, no private funds were used for its creation, but the facility is managed in a partnership with the Perdido Bay Youth Sports Association and the Perdido Bay Futbol Club.
Like the area proposed for Mobile County’s complex, Rhodes said the SES was built in an area “that had a lot of wetlands around it,” which had an effect on the overall price.
To give a better idea of the cost of a basic soccer field, Rhodes discussed a recent addition to the older Ashton Brosnaham Complex.
“Paving the parking lot around the facility, paving a hard-court roller area and adding two soccer fields cost around $250,000 to $300,000,” Rhodes said. “That was on property that we already owned that was pretty much shovel-ready. For the fields that includes the earthwork, irrigation, fencing and turf, but it doesn’t include lighting.”
Rhodes said adding top-of-the-line lighting would cost an additional $50,000 per field.
Though the cost of creating a new facility is high, Orange Beach Parks Supervisor Danny Martin told Lagniappe the long-term maintenance costs could be even higher.
“That’s the tough part — the regular maintenance, labor and your preventive maintenance on the facility are very expensive,” Martin said. “And, it’s that way from there on out or your infrastructure will start to deteriorate.”
Orange Beach and Gulf Shores both have Sportplexes with soccer facilities. The annual maintenance costs for the city Gulf Shores were requested but couldn’t be provided by the publication deadline for this report.
Without regard for the cost of upkeep, soccer events — especially multi-team youth tournaments have shown to bring substantial economic impact for an area, which officials have touted while trying to make the proposed Mobile County facility a reality.
Sally Garst of the Pensacola Sports Association said more family members travel with youth teams than adult teams — a determination supported by data collected at soccer events in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
According to that data — collected by the Gulf Shoes and Orange Beach Sports Commission — a 2013 NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championship generated 1,090 room nights at local hotels and an estimated $305,000 in visitor spending in the two cities, which is around 26 percent less than a youth soccer tournament that brought in $413,000 and 1,193 room nights the same year.
Michelle Russ, who helped collect the data for the Sports Commission, said those numbers came from room night information collected for each event and from onsite planners at each tournament. They are also calculated using a 1.3-percent economic multiplier, according to Russ.
Danny Corte, executive director of the Mobile Sports Authority, said there’s a lot of money in competitive sport events and soccer would only add to what Mobile already enjoys.
According to data collected by MSA, 37 sporting events generated a more than $62 million in economic impact. That includes events like the Servis First Bank First Light Marathon and the U.S. Tennis Association’s Southern Mixed Doubles tournament, which brought in $2.1 million and $4.5 million respectively.
“No matter what the competition is, if it’s bringing people to town and it matches with our facilities, that’s very clean business for us,” Corte said. “They’ve got to stay somewhere and they’ve got to eat somewhere and then you have gas, retail and some of the attractions we have here.”
While the debate over the potential cost and benefits of a county-funded soccer complex rages on, Harrelson said soccer players will continue working around a lack of facilities that most municipalities of Mobile’s size have had for years.
“There’s this big argument that this shouldn’t be built with public money, but you can’t find a city half the size of Mobile with in 100 miles that doesn’t have soccer fields built with public money,” he said.