For more than 60 years, Tucson was synonymous with spring training. Then 13 months ago the Colorado Rockies and Arizona Diamondbacks decamped for Maricopa County, taking with them tens of millions of tourist dollars and leaving gaping holes in the city's coffers and its sports landscape.
Chris Keeney thinks he can fill both voids by bringing spring training back. Only his idea has nothing to do with baseball.
Keeney believes Tucson's climate, location and population is perfectly suited to professional soccer — and he has managed to persuade six of Major League Soccer's premier teams to come down this month and take a look. Four of them — the league champion Galaxy, New York Red Bulls, New England Revolution and Real Salt Lake — are even staying long enough to play in this week's Desert Diamond Cup.
"In Tucson, we're the story," says Keeney, CEO of Texas-based A3 Sports Consulting and a managing partner of FC Tucson, a two-year-old semipro soccer team. "This is the opportunity. It can just get bigger. And MLS likes that idea — of being the focal point, being the destination."
How long the league will stay, however, depends on whether the city and surrounding Pima County can find a way to build or refurbish enough soccer fields to host as many as a half-dozen MLS teams at a time. Most of the practice facilities the teams have used this month were baseball fields Keeney said his group spent $110,000 to convert temporarily.
And that's not good enough says Dan Courtemanche, MLS' executive vice president for communications.
"For us to seriously consider Tucson for a permanent training site," Courtemanche says, "they would need to be able to convert those temporary fields into permanent world-class soccer pitches."
That will cost money — money the city and surrounding Pima County may not be willing to spend during difficult economic times. But for Richard Elias of the Pima County Board of Supervisors, it's an investment that could pay off by putting the region back on the national sports map.
"As far as economic development goes, it's a vital boost right now at a time when we have no professional sports here in town," he says. "It brings people out in a lot of different ways. But it's also about spending dollars in a community, the motel rooms that are rented by the teams and by their fans. Restaurants. All of that stuff feeds upon itself."
Six weeks of spring training baseball were said to be worth about $16 million for Pima County. Soccer, Elias believes, could recoup more than half that lost revenue. He offers three reasons: the late February temperatures, which hover in the 70s; the popularity of both youth and adult soccer in a community that is 35% Hispanic; and the growing flow of visitors and their pesos from Mexico, with Keeney quoting estimates that say $1 billion comes across the border into southern Arizona each year.
"I don't think there's any way to replace baseball. It's about moving on to something different. Something maybe better," Elias says. "We pursued MLS because we know there's a great interest in our community.
"I'm kind of excited about it. We've got something different to offer. What we need to do is get our facilities caught up."
MLS has experimented with centralized preseason training sites before. In its inaugural season in 1996, for example, five teams were ordered to Del Mar and five others to Boca Raton, Fla. Two years later MLS teams trained at the Disney complex outside Orlando and in 2000 there was a mandatory training camp in South Florida.
Over the last dozen years, however, teams have been able to pick their sites, with some straying as far as South Africa and Cyprus. But as with baseball, the majority eventually settled in either Florida — six MLS teams have been in Orlando this month — or Arizona. Chivas USA is among the exceptions; since it leaves Sunday for a training camp in Oregon.
"We believe there's a tremendous benefit to having many of our clubs in one geographic area for preseason training," Courtemanche says. "First and foremost it's a great benefit for the fans. It becomes a destination for fans."
Galaxy Coach Bruce Arena, who has long ties to the Tucson area, agrees.
"I like the idea of being out of town a little bit and having some competition," he says. "MLS using Tucson as a preseason venue has a lot of potential, and we're hopeful this works out."