Not since the Beatles landed in New York has the nation's attention been so laser focused on the arrival of another British rock star, soccer hero David Beckham. The buzz surrounding the newest recruit to Major League Soccer (MLS) and the sport's growing popularity in America have spawned a fresh crop of soccer stadiums. What's more, the construction wave could lead to more mixed-use development in both the inner cities and suburbs.
Soccer-specific stadiums like the one under construction for the New York Red Bulls in Harrison, N.J., can be catalysts for surrounding development. Originally designed as an office project, the site attracted team owner Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), which saw the opportunity to build a new 25,000-seat stadium.
With the stadium as its cornerstone, the $1 billion Harrison MetroCentre project just outside Newark took on a mixed-use bent, with 3 million sq. ft. of offices, 3,500 residential units, and 450,000 sq. ft. of retail planned. Infrastructure work on the development begins in January 2008.
“We've been involved in this development since 1998, but once the stadium became a reality with AEG, it got a whole head of steam,” says Kevin Tartaglione, head of development at Harrison MetroCentre.
A new soccer stadium in the Chicago area has spawned $65 million worth of adjacent mixed use. In suburban St. Louis, attorney Jeff Cooper estimates that a proposed stadium and surrounding development he is pushing will generate $27 million a year in local tax revenue.
A study conducted in late 2006 by Bay Area Economics regarding a proposed soccer-specific stadium in San Jose, Calif., concluded that “a MLS stadium can spur some economic development, even if not on the same scale as a Major League Baseball stadium.” But the jury is still out on more formal analysis, since most soccer-specific stadiums have been built after 2000.
While Beckham's on-field American debut was less than stellar — he played a scant 16 minutes in the July 15 opener — the game drew an average of 1.5 million viewers to ESPN, which is the largest audience for the cable outlet involving a MLS team, according to Nielsen Media Research.
And it was the night's most watched program among men aged 18-34 and 25-54. Those ratings bode well for putting fans in the stands. Still, the long-term gains for stadium owners and surrounding commercial development are yet to be realized.
In the meantime, MLS owners and managers are extolling the virtues of Beckham's future star power. They also hope to capitalize on the fledgling sport's growing U.S.-based youth movement. Member registration in the U.S. Youth Soccer Association has jumped from 100,000 in 1974 to more than 3.2 million players today.
While Beckham continues making appearances at MLS games around the country through the league's regular season ending in October, cities from coast to coast are busy pitching for new franchises — and new stadiums — in their towns.
From L.A. to Frisco
Michael Hitchcock's office is not the model for professional sports managers. Yes, there are the requisite signed star players' jerseys and assorted sports memorabilia strewn about, obviously waiting for the appropriate wall space to open up.
But there is also a large plastic stadium floor tile propped up against his desk, and sitting against a back wall is a huge painted portrait of the rock band Nickelback autographed by all five band members.
Hitchcock wears many hats as the president and general manager of one of the hottest MLS franchises and stadiums in the country, a role he took on in October 2005.
So, is Hitchcock based in New York? Maybe Los Angeles, home to the Beckham faithful? Nope, this is Frisco, Texas. This once sleepy little town, located about 30 miles north of downtown Dallas, now ranks as the seventh fastest-growing suburb in America. The community totaled 80,499 residents in 2006, up 128% from the 35,299 recorded in the 2000 Census.
Hitchcock's office is nestled in a corner of Pizza Hut Park, the $65 million centerpiece of a 117-acre complex built on a soccer foundation directly across the street from Frisco's new city hall. The property includes a 21,193-seat stadium that opened in August 2005 and is home to the FC Dallas MLS club, along with 17 tournament-grade fields.
The entire complex is used 300 days a year, hosting MLS matches, U.S. men's and women's national team soccer matches, major concerts, international soccer matches and high school football. Pizza Hut has signed a 20-year primary sponsorship agreement for the naming rights.
A public/private partnership led by Dallas-based Hunt Sports Group, the City of Frisco and its Economic and Community Development Corporations as well as Collin County and the Frisco Independent School District, financed the park's construction.
Hitchcock says he was offered positions with the Los Angeles Galaxy and Salt Lake City club two years ago, but chose Frisco over the rest. Why? The Frisco facility is at the epicenter of the area's explosive development, as evidenced by the construction cranes rising outside his second-story window.
Restaurants, clubs, shopping centers, two hotels and multifamily projects are now sprouting out of the ground and lining the perimeter of the complex. “This is going to become a sports and entertainment district. People will be working here, playing here and soon living here,” says Hitchcock.
“These property owners like that we're bringing in 1.6 million people to this complex. There is the opportunity for them to get not only the normal flow of traffic from residents, but also the people who attend these events we have year round,” says Hitchcock.
And as the stadium's general manager, Hitchcock recognizes the real estate realities of his environment. “It's a great mix. Sports owners are now in the real estate business more so than ever in the history of sports entertainment. The value of this stadium goes up as everything gets built up around it, as does the local real estate market for homes.”
The business model
To save itself from over-expansion madness — the downfall of the last great American soccer league experiment in the 1970s — MLS has adopted a slow-growth strategy to avoid oversaturating the public's appetite for soccer too quickly with an inferior product on the field.
The league has said it plans to expand from 12 teams today to 16 by 2010. “The managed growth is by design,” says Hitchcock. “We take a lot of pride in that we're run as a business.”
Other teams are using Hitchcock's facility as a prime example of what can happen when the formula is executed correctly. “There is more interest in expansion than the league would allow us to expand over the next six years,” says Hitchcock. “There are 20 markets that are chomping at the bit wanting to get a major league soccer team in their market.”
Hitchcock says he guides prospective investors and owners through his Pizza Hut Park every other week. “We're a profitable business venture and these wealthy, successful businessmen who somehow get hooked on soccer are interested in MLS and they want to take this business model and build a stadium in a high-growth community like Frisco. They're going to replicate this success all over the country.”
Today's new breed of soccer-specific stadiums is also designed to drive revenue from a variety of events. In one 68-hour period, for example, Pizza Hut Park held a nationally televised soccer game on ESPN2 for 15,000 fans during the day, hosted a Jimmy Buffet concert for 30,000 that night, and held another nationally televised soccer game the following day starting at 2 p.m.
Columbus complex struggles
America's first stadium built exclusively for soccer opened for play long before Beckham came to town, to a packed house of 24,000 on May 23, 1999 near downtown Columbus, Ohio. The stadium, built by the same entity as FC Dallas — Dallas-based Hunt Sports Group — is home to the Columbus Crew MLS franchise. Hunt Sports Group is a private investment entity affiliated with the Lamar Hunt family of NFL fame.
But while the ownership is the same, the two facilities' successes are miles apart. The club experienced dismal 2005-2006 seasons on the field, and the front-office sales and marketing staff were overhauled in the last offseason.
Attendance averaged 13,294 in 2006, up slightly from the league low of 12,916 per game in 2005. And a naming rights deal is still in the works, some nine years after the stadium opened.
Now the club is looking to Pizza Hut Park in Frisco as the model for a possible $20 million expansion with new practice complex to attract youth leagues that generate more revenue. General Manager Mark McCullers says he wants to mirror Frisco's success in establishing closer ties to community groups, which ultimately will help the Crew franchise.
“That is the model we're going after, and the quality of our facility will be superior,” says McCullers.
St. Louis makes a pitch
Competition for new league teams is fierce. Putting two feet squarely in the running, St. Louis attorney Jeff Cooper in mid-August presented plans to the city council of suburban Collinsville, Ill., for a new $100 million, 18,900-seat soccer stadium on 400 acres about 10 minutes from downtown St. Louis.
The obvious hope is that the venue will entice MLS to award the city a team by 2009. “There is no city in the United States more deserving of Major League Soccer — and more ready for it — than St. Louis,” proclaims Cooper.
Many take issue with those words, but Cooper is giving the effort to secure the franchise a serious go. He hired St. Louis-based Crossroads Development LLC to manage the project, which is designed to include eight outlying soccer fields along with an ambitious $572 million mixed-use component with 300,000 sq. ft. of retail, 400,000 sq. ft. of office space, two 120-room hotels, 1,200 apartment units, an on-site school, bike paths and green space.
Cooper has some experience in scoring teams. An MLS franchise would add to his ownership stake in the yet-to-be-named women's professional soccer league slated to start play in 2008. Cooper also owns a semi-pro Women's Professional Soccer team that began play in 2006.
You win some
Second chances are usually not in the offing when it comes to franchise awards, but in one of the most unlikely bounce-backs MLS announced in July that the San Jose Earthquakes would become the league's 14th team franchise. The team begins play in 2008, but as of press time no specific stadium deal had been struck.
In 2005, San Jose lost its MLS franchise to Houston when it could not overcome scheduling issues with Spartan Stadium. But team owners Lew Wolff and John Fisher held a three-year option on a new club.
Of course, the key to winning back a new franchise was the promise of a new stadium, which Wolff, also owner of the Oakland Athletics Major League Baseball franchise, is advancing in nearby Fremont, Calif., next to San Jose International Airport.
Wolff continues negotiating with the city on the land it owns by the airport. Meanwhile, design studies on the new stadium are now underway.
“With the development of the new soccer-only stadiums, expanded national television exposure and increased fan and corporate sponsor support, we expect a very bright future for this team,” Wolff told a packed press conference. “Our staff is getting bored just talking about soccer — we want to do something!”
Ben Johnson is a Dallas-based writer.
Out with the old stadiums, in with the new
Outside of Major League Soccer, more traditional sports teams have launched their own efforts to build stadiums. For example, Major League Baseball and National Football League teams in Minneapolis and New York are finalizing plans to build two new stadiums for local franchises.
In Minneapolis, a new $522 million stadium for the Minnesota Twins broke ground on Aug. 30. The 40,000-seat park is expected to open in 2010. A 15% sales tax increase in local Hennepin County is helping to fund the $90 million authorization to buy the land — a former parking lot and rail line — and build infrastructure. The stadium is located in the relatively neglected North Loop area, but is expected to spawn new surrounding retail development, building a link to downtown Minneapolis.
Meanwhile, to the east, the New York Giants and Jets football teams closed on separate financing packages totaling $1.3 billion in August for construction of a new 82,000-seat stadium that will house both NFL teams. The facility would replace the 30-year-old Giants Stadium.
Citicorp negotiated the Jets' $650 million deal, while Goldman Sachs and Lehman Brothers weighed in for the Giants. The NFL had already loaned the teams $300 million as part of the league's new program to help teams pay for new stadiums. The new stadium will be located within the Meadowlands Sports Complex near the existing Giants Stadium.
The New York Mets and New York Yankees baseball teams are gearing up to play in new stadiums, once completed in 2009. The $610 million Citi Field — sponsored by Citicorp in a 20-year naming rights deal — replaces the original Shea stadium built for the Mets in 1964 in Queens. Not to be outdone, the $800 million Yankees Stadium replaces its 80-year-old facility, which was home to 26 major league world championships and spawned the legendary moniker “The House that Ruth Built.”
Both new stadiums include their share of surrounding development opportunities, including a new hotel, convention center and $45 million train station for the new Yankees Stadium.
— Ben Johnson
Stadium construction kicking into high gear across continent
Soccer stadiums are popping up all over North America as cities vie for the next hot growth product. Here are the major developments completed or underway:
A phased development is underway for the United Soccer League's Silverbacks franchise. Currently there is a 3,000-seat stadium, with subsequent phases including expansions to 7,500 and up to 15,000 seats with the addition of an upper deck by 2009.
The 25,000-seat, $70 million Toyota Park opened in suburban Bridgeview, Ill., in June 2006. Home to the Chicago Fire Major League Soccer (MLS) team, it has spawned area redevelopment including a new hotel, restaurants, and theaters.
The $130 million Dick's Sporting Goods Park in Commerce City, Colo., home to the MLS Colorado Rapids, opened in April 2007. The 18,000 seat stadium is nine miles northeast of Denver. It has 22 luxury suites, and the stadium is considered state-of-the art.
The new home of the Red Bull New York franchise, the $200 million Red Bull Stadium is scheduled for completion in 2008. The stadium is part of a $1 billion development called Harrison MetroCentre outside Newark.
The Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., opened in 2003 as home to the Los Angeles Galaxy franchise, and is now David Beckham's new home away from England.
Salt Lake City
A $55 million stadium is now under construction for the MLS franchise Salt Lake Real, with expected completion in 2008.
The 20,000-seat BMO Field kicked off its inaugural season in 2007 for the Toronto FC as the first soccer-specific stadium in Canada.
D.C. United's principal owner, San Francisco real estate magnate Victor MacFarlane, and local politicians broke off talks in July over the amount of public funding needed to support a new 24,000-seat stadium in the city's poorest area known as Ward 8. MacFarlane continues shopping for a site while his team plays in the time-worn RFK Stadium.
— Ben Johnson