Following the Garden City Commission’s approval of an ordinance creating a STAR Bond district, Greg Cotton, Sporting Kansas City’s chief of staff and general counsel, and Korb Maxwell, Sporting’s development counsel, held a question-and-answer session with local media about Sporting’s proposal to develop a soccer training center in Garden City using the state’s STAR Bond program.
The following is a summary of the question-and-answer session between the Sporting officials and local media:
Q: What’s the timeline for creating a project plan, cost benefit analysis, and other items called for by the Star Bond rules?
Cotton: Over the next three or four months we’re going to do the hard work of putting together those items. Sporting is going to jump in with both feet to determine what the program looks like, do a deep dive looking for local partners, and put the whole plan together.
Q: Are you looking for a local investor?
Cotton: We are. We’re looking for local participation. How the whole financing package comes together is to be determined. But we’re looking for a local investor to step up and be the local face of the organization. We’re happy to be the brand. We’re happy to lend our technical expertise, but it’s really important to have local ownership and local buy-in.
Q: What is PDL?
Cotton: Premier Development League is called the third or fourth rung down in American soccer. It is a semi-pro league, but the concept is it would be tied into this youth club, as well as Sporting Kansas City. Kids from this area that maybe aren’t quite there from a professional standpoint that could move over to our academy or to our first team at Sporting would have the opportunity to stay here and play in front of their friends and family, in front of big crowds in a stadium that would be built at the facility, as well.
Q: What ages are you looking at?
Cotton: On the competitive side, we start at age 8. We would like to have 8 to 18 in the youth club, on the competitive side. Recreational soccer can start as young as 3. When you start to talk about tactical and technical development of players, we believe you have to start around 8 years old.
Q: Do you have a ballpark number of how much the project will cost to build?
Maxwell: On the soccer specific pieces, we’re talking probably about a $20 million budget. The program as a whole ... is probably closer to $100 million range when you add in all the private investment that has been done, all the private investment that will occur. We could be butting up against $100 million. As we mentioned before, we really need three to four months to put that all together for final sources and uses.
Q: Do you know how much of a piece of the financing puzzle would come from STAR Bonds?
Maxwell: We don’t. We really need to work through the project plan component. We have estimates of what could be produced, but we really need to first get the project district created, which we had today by the city commission, but the next step is the secretary of commerce and the Brownback administration approving this. Moving forward from that, we’ll work it into the project plan.
Q: Could you talk about the timeline of when all this started?
Cotton: I think we started having the discussion six to eight months ago. But I, as a Sporting Kansas City executive for the past eight years, I’ve had my eye on this community almost from the very beginning. The first guy I hired in 2006 was Leo Prieto, who is from this community. He lives in Kansas City now and works for Truman Medical Center. He said you guys have got to figure out a Garden City plan because everybody’s playing soccer. We sent our scouts and youth development folks out here and came back with a couple of players. But the overall sense was it’s really far away, we don’t have assets or a branded presence. The absence of a professionally developed youth club made it difficult.
Our stadium was built with STAR Bonds, so we were familiar with the process. When we had discussions about there being this incredible opportunity in Garden City, I went back to those discussions I had with Leo. If we could figure out a way to really put Garden City on the map from a national perspective, I think we’re going to be able to attract kids from all over the region to this training academy and develop them into professional soccer players. That’s really the impetus for it.
Q: How many players will be in this academy, and how do you find instructors?
Cotton: We will bring in professional soccer coaches or develop them locally. The first stage will have to be bringing in professional coaches. We are developing the national coaching and training center in Kansas City, Kan., so we will have access to and interaction with the finest coaches in the country. We’ll be not only training here but teaching in our community in Kansas City.
Through that process, we believe we’ll identify three to six coaches that could come here. But also, we’re going to lean on the local community to find us the very best coaches we can find here.
As far as the kids are concerned, I think this club could very quickly be a 1,500-kid club. At the very top level, the competitive side, it will be just what the market will bear. I think it’s probably three or four teams in each age group with a top team in each tier, and that top team at each age group would be offered a tryout with the sporting academy. There will be a competitive side for girls, too. We just don’t have the academy structure in place to offer them the opportunity to play professionally. But we have a very strong relationship with FC Kansas City, which is the (women’s) pro team in Kansas City, and would work with them, as well.
Q: How do you compete for youth interest in soccer when there are so many other sports available?
Cotton: We’re always going to be competing against other sports, unlike Europe, Mexico, South America, where there really is only one sport — soccer. There are many sports for kids to play, and we don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. But at some point, if you’re going to be a pro, if you’re truly going to be an elite soccer player, you’ve got to focus on our sport.
Academies like we’re establishing here, and like we’ve already established in Kansas City, and we’re working on with our other affiliates, gives us the opportunity to give those kids a chance to not only be good players or collegiate players, but to be pros and elite players on the world stage.
Q: Were any of the other affiliate facilities built using STAR Bonds?
Cotton: Sporting Blue Valley, which is the biggest affiliate based in a suburb of Kansas City, has its own facility but we didn’t help build it. It was built with the transient guest tax. It’s a $35 million facility. We built a facility for our academy called Swope Soccer Village, and it was about a $20 million facility. That’s the only facility we have constructed. None of the other affiliates has anything remotely like what we’re proposing here.
Q: How do you create the numbers for the program?
Cotton: In five of the 13 jurisdictions, we’ve merged clubs to create an academy affiliate. Blue Valley merged two very strong soccer clubs into a really big club of 8,500 kids. In several others, like Kaw Valley in Lawrence, they’re already established. What we do is lend our brand, help them with the technical side of it, coaching, all the same things we’ll do here. It depends. If you merge a club, it takes a little longer unless it’s established. Here, it might take a little longer because quite candidly we don’t know this market, and we’re going to have to get smart about it really quick. We need the community’s help with that.
Q: How confident are you about support from the state?
Maxwell: We feel very good. We were communicating with state officials even during the meeting, and look forward to getting the ordinance over to them immediately and getting quick approval of the STAR Bond district.
Q: Do you have other PDL franchises affiliated with Sporting Kansas City?
Cotton: No. We actually had some initial conversations about associating with a Kansas City PDL franchise, but that never materialized. There are MLS clubs that have associations with PDL teams — quite a few — but no, we don’t have an association.
Q: What kinds of amenities will there be? Fields, locker rooms, dormitories, stadium?
Cotton: That’s the next step. What we have proposed is a combination of all those. We think we can utilize all those to great effect. But we don’t know exactly what the STAR Bond component, the financing package, the site. All those things have to be determined in the weeks and months ahead. Once we know what the project plan looks like, then we go into design.
Sporting has never created rectangles and put programming in them. We design experiences, and then we give that to our architect and tell them to design the experiences to maximum effect. It’s a different way of doing it, more time consuming, but it produces truly world class amenities. And we’re not interested in doing anything if it’s not world class. That’s the next step. What do we need? What’s really important to the community, the youth soccer community, economic development, Chamber of Commerce? All of those conversations are going to need to be had, and quite frankly, that’s the fun part of these deals — putting together the actual plan and getting excited about it, pitching it to the community.
Q: Are PDL players paid, and would that hurt college eligibility?
Cotton: PDL has been around a long time. The rules are you can pay three players. That may or may not happen here. It depends on what the local owner wants to do. But we have tight controls over eligibility issues with our players. Basically, every legal issue we control — their transfer opportunities, immigration issues, eligibility issues. We prepare them for the next step. We take care of our players and have a reputation for doing so in the league.
Q: Are you conducting a search for a local owner of the PDL team?
Cotton: We are. We hope to have that concluded within the next couple of months. We are actively looking for that partner right now.