LARGO — The game of youth soccer has taken a dramatic turn in the past 20 years. A combination of competitiveness and cash has changed the game for some from a recreational outlet to a lucrative enterprise that includes numerous affiliations and big-time tournaments.
If the city of Largo’s parks and recreation staff members didn’t know that a few months ago, then they certainly do now after a seemingly innocuous decision regarding the Belcher Soccer Complex caused a stir that led to the department’s director apologizing to the City Commission.
That director, Joan Byrne, said a change in the process for how the city chose an organization to provide programs at the complex is what led to a flurry of emails from parents and coaches to the commission.
“It is clear that the business of soccer has changed dramatically in the 40-plus years that the city first entered into a facility-use agreement with any soccer club,” she said April 20 before receiving permission from the commission to start the process over.
In the fall, Byrne said, an area soccer club expressed its desire to take over operations at the Belcher Soccer Complex, which is about 4 acres and includes four fields, three of which are lighted. The current three-year agreement with Largo United Soccer Club expires at the end of May.
The contracts are not unusual for the city, which has many agreements with organizations to operate programs at its facilities, such as Largo Central Railroad at Central Park, Byrne said.
“This was the first time there’d ever been any kind of a challenge to continuing those long-term relationships,” she said.
So, using an informal process, staff solicited proposals from the members of the Gulfcoast Youth Soccer Association, which includes 14 soccer clubs in Pinellas. Each local soccer club has anywhere from 20 to 100 teams, according to the association’s website.
In March, the city received proposals from the St. Pete Raiders, Pinellas County United Soccer Club, Florida Celtic Soccer Club, and Largo United Soccer Club.
After a review, staff invited two clubs to make a presentation.
That’s when the emails started to flood in and City Manager Henry Schubert decided to get the commission involved.
“I know that we created quite a stir in the soccer community in general, because I don’t think anybody has done it quite this way in terms of reaching out to other clubs and having people bid,” she said.
Byrne said the process has been a learning experience for the city, but it has also helped it to understand how valuable the soccer complex is and could be moving forward.
“I’ve even received a call in the last week from the Rowdies, if you can imagine that,” Byrne said, referring to the professional team that plays in St. Petersburg. “So, there’s really interest out there.”
In previous years, Major League Soccer teams had also expressed interest in training there.
‘These are Largo fields’
Whatever decision ends up being made, commissioners made it clear that they want some changes to the agreement that takes a hands-off approach.
Mayor Woody Brown said he had some strong opinions about the topic.
“The reason that I’m the mayor is because I tried to rent Largo soccer fields about 20 years ago and I wasn’t able to,” he said.
He sought out ways to change that, which led him to the Recreation Advisory Board, “and one thing led to another and now I’m running a meeting,” he said.
Brown said he has always advocated building partnerships with groups, but also didn’t want to lose ownership of the fields for residents.
“These are Largo fields. I don’t mean the city of Largo. I mean Largo — the people that live here,” he said. “That should be the primary focus, the folks that live here.”
Vice Mayor Jamie Robinson agreed, adding that he’s had to deal with an organization there and it was a difficult process.
He said the city pays for the upkeep of the fields, so it should be more accessible for all Largo youths.
“It’s an asset for the city of Largo and our residents,” he said.
Brown said he wasn’t sure how they would achieve that balance, but he envisions partnerships and a focus on new activities, such as summer camps and tournaments.
“Regardless of who we choose, I think some changes really need to happen. We need to focus on the kids that play here,” he said.
Competitive soccer is becoming much more expensive, he said, so he would also like the fields to be accessible to children from all backgrounds.
According to a National Sporting Goods Association survey, more than a third of those playing soccer in the U.S. come from families who make more than $100,000.
“I think this is an opportunity for us to help garner some kids that aren’t wealthy and put them through a quality program,” he said.
Byrne said a new agreement would reflect the city’s priorities and the value of the complex to the community.
“We would also build into the criteria those things that are of most interest to the city, which is to have a robust recreational program,” she said. “We want to be able to serve a more diverse population and really be able to reach out to some of those areas and populations that are underserved and really leverage that outstanding facility that’s in the heart of Pinellas for both club practices for games as well as to incorporate into the provisions some kind of agreement on tournaments.”
She said staff would revisit the proposals, gather more information and expedite a new recommendation for the commission’s approval.
“We felt this was going to be a great idea,” she said. “It turned into a much bigger thing than we ever anticipated and we learned a lot and we’d like a chance to do a little bit better.”