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Will Fort Worth get a pro soccer team? Talks heat up for suburban plan

Fort Worth Star-Telegram logoFort Worth Star-Telegram 7/22/2021 Luke Ranker, Fort Worth Star-Telegram

Jul. 22—Talks of building a major soccer venue in Fort Worth are picking up after a professional league met with City Hall, calling the city an "A-plus location" for an expansion team, but no one has committed to the necessary investment.

United Soccer League representatives met earlier this month with Mayor Mattie Parker to discuss the possibility of bringing a USL Championship team to Fort Worth, league COO Justin Papadakis said. The only thing holding Cowtown back is the lack of a high-quality stadium, he told the Star-Telegram.

Meanwhile in Dallas, the sports commission estimates the city will see $72 million in economic impact related to youth soccer this year. That's on top of the $55.6 million visitors to Gold Cup matches brought in July. Fort Worth likely didn't see much spending related to that tournament, according to Visit Fort Worth, which has been eyeing a youth soccer complex for a few years. Though Frisco, a popular city for soccer and home of FC Dallas, estimated youth soccer had a $2.6 million impact in 2019, Fort Worth officials believe the sport could bring as much as $16 million to the city.

"I just want people to understand how we're not competitive right now," said council member Cary Moon, who last fall pitched an ambitious plan to keep soccer dollars in Fort Worth. "People don't really understand how big the industry is and what we're missing out on."

The $150 million project involves a number of partners, but Moon told the Star-Telegram earlier this month he expects that "in the next 60 to 90 days there will be a lot of movement."

Moon's plan is not the only option on the table for soccer in Fort Worth, but so far it's the most fleshed out. The massive Walsh development in growing far west Fort Worth offers another possibility, but developers there did not want to comment for this story. As many as 50,000 Fort Worth residents could be living the Walsh area when it's all built out. Moon said he believed there is enough demand to build more than one complex.

North Fort Worth soccer complex

The Fort Worth Star, as Moon calls it, is slated for a vacant tract of land at Interstate 35W and Basswood Boulevard. The concept includes a 10,000-seat stadium and about 16 soccer field for tournaments. A youth development academy associated with a professional club would also draw players from around DFW, he said.

A rendering from Architect HNTB provided by Moon shows a U-shaped stadium flanked by smaller pitches and commercial development.

There's also plans for a performing arts center that would feature a 1,200-seat theater, a smaller 240-seat space and a 4,000-square foot dance floor. The sports and performing arts center would be surrounded by private commercial and residential development in the area.

Moon said development on about 300 acres around the complex will pay back any public investment in the Fort Worth Star through a special tax district. He estimated the development would generate $730 million in new property taxes, though that would require a private land owner to sell and private developers to take interest.

"What this does is move the needle more toward the city relying on commercial tax than on residential taxes," he said, adding that he didn't think developers would be given incentives to build around the Fort Worth Star. "The complex is an anchor that will bring 400 events a year. That's the incentive."

Part of the project requires getting the Keller school district on board.

Superintendent Rick Westfall told the board last year the project would fill the need for a performing arts center and a large sports complex, two long term district priorities. The Keller school district would have priority over the performing arts center and be able to use the stadium. The school district would forgo its portion of new taxes generated by increased development to pay for the funding the school put forward.

In an email Westfall this week said the district remains interested in the complex.

"We're still very excited about the possibility of a public-private partnership," he said.

United Soccer League

Papadakis, the USL executive, wouldn't provide details on his meeting with City Hall officials but both he and Parker described it as "exciting."

Interest in soccer has grown "exponentially" over the last 20 years in part because of youth soccer programs but also a solid fan base among millennials, he said. To capture that fandom, the USL wants to expand the 31-team Championship League with eight to 10 more teams. Expansion teams are in the works in Queens, New York, and Monterey Bay, California. Fort Worth would join Austin Bold FC, El Paso Locomotive FC and San Antonio FC. At least 20 teams will be added to the One League, a division for smaller markets.

Fort Worth would have a serious fan base for a USL team, Papadakis said, despite having an MLS team in nearby Frisco.

"What we're seeing in soccer is teams that really want to represent their city. Fans really want to cheer for a team that plays in their town," he said, noting that New York and the Bay Area support MLS and USL teams with hyper-local fan bases.

"There's nothing minor about USL," he added later.

He pointed to success in two other markets. Louisville City, which has a new 11,000-seat stadium, is "regularly at capacity," he said. A 7,500-seat stadium for Colorado Springs Switchbacks FC often sells out, he said.

Based on games through the end of June, Louisville's stadium has averaged just under 9,500 fans and Colorado has averaged a little more than 6,000, though a USL spokesperson noted some stadiums have had limited seating due to COVID-19.

In 2018 when Louisville and the state of Kentucky approved a new stadium, the total economic impact was expected to be $3.8 billion, according to the Courier-Journal. The stadium, which opened last year, is a bit larger than the Fort Worth concept with 11, 700 permanent seats that can be expanded to fit 15,304 spectators. With the surrounding mix of office and retail, the total project cost about $200 million. The stadium itself was about $65 million.

The Fort Worth Star would offer a similar style of development with the stadium anchoring a large sports complex surrounded by retail, commercial and hotels.

Parker, in an email, said the city was in the early stages of exploring the project.

"I'm excited to see Fort Worth pursuing opportunities that capitalize on the success of sports tourism, especially as it has potential to create great local economic impact and allow Fort Worth to increase our presence on an international stage," she said.

Youth Soccer

Visit Fort Worth, the city's tourism and convention bureau, has not seriously evaluated the potential impact of professional sports in the city, President and CEO Bob Jameson said. That includes Panther City Lacrosse, a professional lacrosse team that will play in Dickies Arena.

Instead, Visit Fort Worth has been focused on youth sports.

A 2019 Sports Authority study showed the city would gain nearly $12 million to more than $16 million per year in economic impact if a large multi-field sports complex existed. It recommended a $50 million investment and a multi-sport approach. A second study noted a site like the Fort Worth Star, as well as sites in east and west, Fort Worth would be viable options for the complex.

"Our focus has been on creating a tournament-quality set of fields that allow us to hold events that involve bringing teams from across the state or from out of state," Jameson said. "We just don't have anything here."

When the Star-Telegram first reported on the Basswood Boulevard plan, there was skepticism the 16 fields would be large enough to host a major tournament, with one youth soccer official saying more than 20 were needed.

In Dallas, soccer has grown by 136% in the last decade based on hotel room nights, Dallas Sports Commission executive director Monica Paul said.

Soccer now makes up about 16% of the commission's "core sports," which also include football, volleyball and cheerleading. Much of that success comes from Moneygram Soccer Park, a 19-field complex northwest of downtown Dallas that frequently hosts tournaments. Paul said an informal survey showed DFW needed more than 100 new soccer fields to meet demand.

"Soccer has been a real growth opportunity for us," she said.

Jameson thinks it can be for Fort Worth too.

"It's recession proof," Jameson said of youth sports. "You may or may not go buy tickets for a sporting event for your entertainment, but you're going to make sure that your kids are out there playing the sport they want to play."


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