If Mike Brewer were the kind of guy to say “I told you so” he’d be saying “I told you so” today after more than 10,000 soccer fans filled Hi Corbett Field last week to watch the Desert Cup soccer tournament involving two Major League Soccer teams.
Brewer, a retired property manager, Marine, ordained chaplain, veteran’s advocate and community activist, is also a soccer fanatic who has tried to convince the powers that be in Pima County for more than 20 years that professional soccer was an economic gold mine waiting to be dug.
Brewer, 62, has played soccer since he was a kid, coached and officiated it for 30 years and even briefly owned his own semi-pro team here. He was convinced the huge and growing soccer fan base that exists in Tucson would support a professional soccer team.
But few would listen, even when he was executive director of the Pima County Sports Authority in the 1990s when Tucson was obsessed with baseball and securing the AAA team for the state’s new Major League Baseball team, the Arizona Diamond Backs, and adding more spring training teams.
Brewer moved to California last year but the organizers of the soccer tourney brought him to town to watch the games last week. He sat with tears in his eyes in what amounts to a luxury box at Hi Corbett last Saturday as a parade of Tucson’s Who’s Who walked past patting him on the back and welcoming the voice in the soccer wilderness in from the cold.
But as Brewer will tell you, the tournament wasn’t the mother lode of Tucson’s soccer mine; it was only the first turn of the shovel.
The economic potential comes from having a Tucson minor league team that plays two dozen or more home games a year, having MLS teams play exhibition games here or establish Tucson as a spring training home for one or more teams and having a first-class soccer stadium and training fields that when not being used by pro teams can host high school, college and youth soccer tournaments, namely the Fort Lowell Shootout. If all were to come to fruition, it’s an economic impact equal too or greater than MLB spring training’s estimated $30 million a year.
The Desert Cup tournament was organized partly to help awaken Tucson’s power brokers – the city and county governments, the county sports authority, the chamber of commerce and the Southern Arizona Leadership Council – to pro soccer’s potential but mostly to help kickoff Tucson’s latest attempt to field a pro soccer team, FC Tucson.
A functioning, profitable pro soccer team, no matter how far down the minor league soccer totem pole, is one of the keys to getting the gold mine going.
Another key, and perhaps the most vital, is for that team to have a place to play and practice that’s not a high school football field or public park, but a real stadium.
That means either the city’s Hi Corbett Field or the county’s Kino Veteran’s Memorial Stadium (formerly Tucson Electric Park) and their numerous unused practice fields.
But those stadiums and fields are currently tied up with Tucson’s futile love affair with pro baseball – Hi Corbett with the Tucson Toros, which isn’t even minor league baseball, it’s semi-pro, and Veteran’s Memorial with the San Diego Padres vagabond AAA team.
Like a jilted lover crying and begging for his beloved to come back to him, Tucson continues to court pro baseball even though we’re never going to get spring training back, at least not unless we’re willing to spend $100 million to $200 million for new stadiums to compete with the spring training palaces built in Phoenix the past few years using a countywide sales tax (which Pima County doesn’t have).
And AAA baseball failed here. The Tucson Sidewinders left for Reno a couple of years ago after barely 3,000 fans a game showed up, which was near the lowest attendance figure in the Pacific Coast League.
The Padres AAA team playing here for a couple of years while a new, better stadium is built for it in Escondido, Calif., is like an ex-girlfriend moving into her old boyfriend’s place while her fiancé builds the couple a new house.
Pro baseball has abandoned Tucson. Get over it.
Major League Soccer has shown it’s a vibrant and growing professional sports league. It needs a home for spring training. A handful of teams have set up spring training in Casa Grande simply because Casa Grande offered.
But no one really likes Casa Grande, it’s a backwater weigh station stuck in the desert between two great cities, Tucson and Phoenix.
The opportunity exists now for Tucson to grab pro soccer before Phoenix or cities in Florida do. While we lost the stadium wars for MLB spring training, we’re now in the unusual position of having an advantage over Phoenix: empty stadiums.
Baseball is Tucson’s past. Soccer is its future.
Hey Mike, you were right. It’s finally time for Tucson to start digging that mine.