Dribble-down effect

Soccer moms: They’re a highly prized demographic on Madison Avenue, and a cliche for comedians. But when they show up in Asheville by the busload (or, more appropriately, the minivan-load), local businesses might just be laughing all the way to the bank.

May 2-4, the Asheville/Buncombe Youth Soccer Association and the Highland Football Club will host the opening round of the North Carolina Youth Soccer Association’s 2003 State Cup Series. The two-day tournament will bring in more than 80 teams from around the state, pitting North Carolina’s best young players against one another in a fight for Tar Heel bragging rights. And for local aficionados of the Beautiful Game, it’s a chance to sate one’s soccer appetite for free — there’s no admission charge for spectators at the Buncombe County Sports Park, the tournament site.

According to projections by the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce, soccer fans won’t be the only locals benefiting from the tournament: Marla Tambolini, vice president of the Chamber’s Convention and Visitors Bureau, estimates that the hordes of families flocking to the area will have a $1.6 million impact on the local economy. “That impact goes beyond just hotels and restaurants,” she noted in a recent interview. “There’s also incidental shopping, souvenirs, they buy gas, [and] if they eat in a restaurant like Salsa’s — who buy their produce locally — local growers benefit as well. This money is spread around.”

For ABYSA President-elect Bob Somerville, the tournament is “a feather in our cap.” His organization, Somerville told Xpress, is pleased to undertake the considerable work it takes to host a sizable tournament. “We’re lucky to have such a nice soccer complex at the Buncombe County Sports Park. We’ve got seven fields in one location. The local soccer community is more than happy to provide the support needed to pull this off, in return for yearlong access to the fields.”

ABYSA won’t be lacking in the support department either; with more than 3,000 local players, the group boasts an impressive fan base. Their Recreation Division, notes Somerville, has 2,500 players; the more competitive Challenge Division has a complement of 450 young athletes; and the top-tiered Classic Division features 400 more — the cream of the crop of local booters, who play under the banner of the Highland Football Club.

Of course, with so many local youngsters involved in organized soccer, the demand for playing fields continues to grow; and here in the mountains, finding flat land suitable for a pitch can be a challenge. It’s even become a political issue of late, as the soccer community has started flexing its collective muscles.

The nonprofit Western North Carolina Soccer Foundation raises funds for new playing fields; their president, Lloyd Sigmon, has also been a presence at Asheville City Council meetings, lobbying hard for the Parks and Recreation Department’s new Azalea Road complex. To date, the group has succeeded in meeting one-third of its $3.5 million fund-raising goal to help pay for the complex, he reports. The new park will include four fields and support facilities.

The economics of soccer, says Sigmon, are simple: Tournaments bring in the families. “Last year, we hosted the State Cup for the first time,” he relates. “We had 88 teams, each with 16-18 players, their families, coaches, referees and administrators. These people created 1,600 room nights in hotels and spent money locally. It adds up; the trickle-down effect is there.”

To support his claim, Sigmon references a report issued by the Greensboro, N.C., Chamber of Commerce. “Greensboro has a soccer complex with 17 fields. Last year, they hosted eight tournaments that averaged $1.1 million each in economic impact. That’s close to $9 million annually going into Greensboro.”

If Sigmon’s arguments seem well-rehearsed, it’s because they are. Last November, his organization received a $400,000 grant from the Tourism Product Development Committee. Established by the Chamber in 2001 to distribute room-tax revenues, the committee supports local efforts to entice visitors to stay in Asheville longer. If tourists stay overnight, the thinking goes — rather than simply taking in Biltmore Estate before moving on to Pigeon Forge — they’ll spend more money locally. Facing stiff competition from proposals by the Chamber itself (to help fund a new visitors’ center), The Buncombe County Historical Society (for a museum), and the Buncombe County Parks and Recreation Department (for a tournament softball complex), the WNC Soccer Foundation scored a hit with a presentation that wowed those controlling the purse strings. “They were able to prove that the project will have a positive, incremental impact on the number of room nights,” said committee member Michael Kryzanek. “They proved their case.”

Somerville also sees the economic side of soccer tournaments. In the end, however, the biggest profit for him lies in the growth of the game he loves and the players he mentors. “This is the fastest-growing sport in America. There are currently 19 million players nationwide. It appeals to boys and girls equally; it’s estimated that fully 45 percent of those 19 million players are girls. This weekend, we get to see the best in the state — including some of our own — test themselves in the State Cup. Many of [them] are future college players. We’re going to have games going on all day Saturday and Sunday. You wouldn’t believe how entertaining it is.”

And you can take that to the bank.

The games will run all day Saturday and Sunday at the Buncombe County Sports Complex on Sand Hill School Road (behind the Sand Hill-Venable School) in Enka-Candler.

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