Finish the sentence: “If you build it…”
The quoted (and sometimes misquoted) line from Field of Dreams is used as a rationale for building a sports facility. Unfortunately, the movie line and school of thought ignores the inherent challenges that communities face when bringing any major development project to life.
“People tend to look at what’s going on in other destinations,” says Matthew Libber, executive director of the Maryland SoccerPlex in Boyds, Maryland. “When a sports facility is being done right and is getting a lot of use hosting tournaments, and those tournaments are filling up the hotels and restaurants and just generally being very successful, then yes, it’s easy to say, ‘We should do that too.’ But it’s not that simple.”
From concept to finished product is a long road – and it’s a perilous one where many missteps can occur.
“I can’t count how many times I’ve been part of the study group for a community that wants to build something,” says Libber, “and the risks outweigh the benefits. It’s not something you like to tell people, but it’s better to find out sooner rather than later.”
What could be risky? After all, the reason communities are so interested in putting in sports complexes is the sheer number of success stories nationwide; the Maryland SoccerPlex, run by the Maryland Soccer Foundation, a 501(c)3 nonprofit, has been hosting tournaments and leagues for more than 20 years. In Panama City Beach, Florida, the Publix Sports Park is relatively new, having opened in 2019. As of last year, the park had attracted more than 208,000 visitors and had an economic impact of about $110 million. Cary Tennis Park, a public facility in North Carolina with 32 championship courts, opened in 2002 and has hosted everything from free drop-in play to the ATP Tour.
Image courtesy of Maryland SoccerPlex
Evan Eleff, a partner at The Sports Facilities Companies (SFC), a firm that plans, develops, and operates sports, recreation, and events complexes for municipalities, says that a success story is often a snapshot view.
“Here are two examples. If you were to walk into a fitness center at 6 p.m. on a weekday, you would see it was busy, and you’d think, “Wow, they must be just about printing money here.” You’d think the same thing if you walked into a massive sports complex on the weekend and saw a big tournament going on. But that’s not really a representation of what the fitness center looks like at 10 a.m. during a weekday or what the sports complex looks like during the week when all the kids are in school.”
There must be, says Eleff, an understanding that business will not always boom in the commercial sense and that there needs to be a balance of programming to fill those slow times. Communities or their contracted facility operators need to cultivate local programming aggressively rather than just assuming it will be there.
“There is a balance of how facilities operate and balance use. For sports facilities, you need to talk about expanding local programming and about adding classes or programs that encourage or motivate people to work out during lunchtime. How are you bringing in active older adults at 10 a.m. when other people are at work or when kids are in school? If it’s a big sports complex, which local organizations or leagues will use it during the week when tournaments aren’t scheduled?”
Image courtesy of Maryland SoccerPlex
“The common denominator of all successful facilities, large or small, public or private, indoors or outdoors, is the comprehensive planning that took place long before they went in”, says Pam Sloan, a consultant with MRG, LLC. The Wilton, California-based firm provides cities, counties, and government agencies with professional strategic services. Sloan, who previously spent more than three decades in the parks sector, now helps communities transform their ideas into reality.
Whenever possible, that is. Often, communities will be in the midst of a ten-year master plan when something hits the radar in a big way, setting off more immediate requests to get it done.
“Right now, we’re hearing a lot of people saying they want to build pickleball courts. We work with them to see if that fits into the plan.”
One of the most crucial parts of laying the groundwork for any new project is a feasibility study. That study will examine not just the funding for the venue, it will also provide a window into whether there is appropriate infrastructure, including parking, utilities, and/or a traffic study. There should also be meetings to seek the input of community members.
“Know your neighbors,” says Alex Levitsky of New Jersey-based Global Sports & Tennis Design Group, LLC. “Supportive neighbors are a big part of the process in both the short and long term.”
“You want to have a partnership with the community,” says Sloan. “And if you’re in a residential area, policy development is critical. If you’re building outdoor tennis courts or pickleball courts, what time will the lights be shut off at night? When do the courts open in the morning? What are you going to do about noise abatement? Where is the parking going to be? People want to know how this will affect their lives. You want their feedback. The more people see you are listening to them, the more likely they are to be in favor of the idea.”
Image courtesy of Maryland SoccerPlex
Sloan and Libber all agree that it is essential to keep an open mind during the community meeting phase. While a soccer park might be planned, for example, a multi-purpose facility might find better acceptance because it could accommodate a wider variety of user groups.
“Sometimes, a council might have something in their head, and it’s like tunnel vision; it’s all they can see,” says Sloan. “Then, someone comes to the table and says, ‘Hey, have you thought about this?’ and it turns out to be a good idea. That is why these meetings are such a critical piece.”
“You assume you are truly in the sports or recreation business, but in reality, you’re in the time and inventory of space business,” adds Eleff. “For example, if you have a 24,000-square foot facility and you’ve built it to host basketball, what you have is an indoor facility with good lighting and a flat floor and high ceilings. As experienced planners and operators, we see other uses, too – graduations, meetings, symposiums, conferences, and of course, other sports. What you need to be planning for is flexible use and a wide range of services.”
Libber says a sports facility should have a ready population of local user groups. If it’s also serving as a tournament site, it should provide a unique opportunity for that region rather than siphoning business from an adjacent community.
Image courtesy of Sven Mieke on Unsplash
Planning should also encompass the cost of regular maintenance and staffing and should take into consideration peripherals such as fencing, spectator facilities, and any planned concession areas. Restrooms need to be built at the same time as the venue itself.
“Every tangible element of the business has a related cost,” says Levitsky.
And once the facility is open, if it will need to be self-sustaining, the business should be lined up in advance.
“You need to market the venue so that you have contracts in place for end users before you put a shovel in the ground,” says Libber. “For example, if you’re opening in 2025, you want contacts signed in 2024. If you don’t get ahead of the curve, your fields might be empty their first year.”
Libber, Levitsky, Eleff, and Sloan all emphasize the need to work with a consultant who has had experience with the type of facility being planned, as well as an understanding of the factors that will influence its design and/or construction (weather, user demographics, a timeline of any other construction or renovation in the area, etc.) However, that person should not have a personal stake in the outcome.
“You need someone who is not from the area,” said Libber.
Community members are often frustrated by the amount of time spent on the planning process, since in most cases, they want their new amenity now. But without proper planning, the resulting facility might be poorly designed and underused. Putting the time in on the front end is essential to developing a facility that is truly a long-term asset to the community.
“You should build it,” says Eleff, “when you know they are coming.”