Drawing a Crowd

The city of Lancaster, Calif., was faced with an economic downturn in the early 1990s that also affected many communities across the nation. Loss of aerospace employment was particularly hard on the area due to its proximity to Edwards Air Force Base and the local Air Force Plant 42. However, the decline of a previously booming housing market, the new demands of the community for additional recreation opportunities and the environmental restrictions imposed by the adjacent Air Force Plant 42 on a large parcel of desert land were challenges that the city converted into opportunities.

A Strategic Plan

In 1993, the city organized a committee of leading citizens to formulate an economic development strategy tied to sports tourism. The Lancaster National Soccer Center (LNSC) emerged as a top priority, and the city aggressively sought funding to convert the 240-arce parcel into one of the largest soccer complexes in the nation, eventually completed in 1998. Simply by assuming the outstanding assessment costs, the city acquired the property and constructed the complex using redevelopment funds. The $15-million complex consists of 35 fields--11 of which are lighted, with 18 additional fields utilizing practice lighting. Six additional fields meet the international FIFA specifications for field quality. The LNSC also provides 2,800 paved parking spaces, two activity buildings, seven restrooms, two snack bars, two children’s play areas and two large, covered pavilion areas.

The marketing program for the city’s sports tourism is designed as part of a larger recruitment effort for business and industry, by providing a quality-of-life component with recreational and cultural facilities and recreational programs. This ambitious effort--under Parks, Recreation and Arts Director Lyle W. Norton--includes city recreation initiatives, such as the Lancaster National Soccer Center, Clear Channel Baseball Stadium for the Lancaster JetHawks (a minor-league baseball team and Red Sox affiliate), the Big 8 Softball Complex, Prime Desert Woodland Preserve, the Lancaster Performing Arts Center, the Lancaster Film Office and the Museum/Art Gallery.

Going For The Goals

The initial goals of the Lancaster National Soccer Center were two-fold, with the first goal to serve the ever-increasing resident demands for soccer facilities. The development of the complex provided fields and buildings for both league and tournament play, which directly benefited local soccer organizations, public and private educational institutions and adult leagues. More than 3,000 local youth practice and play at the LNSC, including the American Youth Soccer Organization (AYSO), Lancaster United Soccer League, Lancaster Rattlers AV United Soccer League, High Desert Men’s Soccer League, elementary, middle school, high school and college teams. The city has strived to make this facility affordable for its citizens, allowing youth leagues and clubs to practice under the lights four nights a week for $15 per field per night, and to play Saturdays for $15 per field.

Once the LNSC was completed, the city undertook the second strategic goal to implement a comprehensive marketing program to attract major regional and national tournaments. A major economic development objective of the complex was to generate direct and indirect revenue to the LNSC and the city. This initiative has resulted in the generation of an annual average income of $300,000 from fees, concessions and admissions. More significantly, indirect benefits from lodging, restaurants and retail trade result in up to $6,000,000 annually, including transient occupancy and sales-tax revenues. The recently awarded, weeklong U.S. Youth Soccer Far West Regional Championships, scheduled for June 2009, will provide an estimated $13 million in economic impact to the region. The city’s Director of Economic Development, Vern Lawson, credits the city’s soccer and softball tournaments as a factor that major hotels and retailers consider when deciding to locate to the fast-growing Lancaster area. With business and aerospace professionals utilizing hotels and services during the week, sports tournament visitors have filled the weekend gaps previously left vacant.

Marketing To The Masses

One of the most important components of the initial Soccer Center marketing campaign was to offer a product with a competitive edge. The LNSC is the largest single-use facility of its kind in the West. The high-quality maintenance and service of the facility initially resulted in valuable word-of-mouth promotion. The five international-quality championship-sized fields, with prescription turf and tournament-quality goals, offered marketing advantages over other soccer venues. However, the fields themselves were not enough to provide the influx of events hoped for by the city. Although only an hour from Los Angeles, the city understood that the High Desert area where Lancaster is located was not a prime attraction for activities outside of the soccer events taking place at the complex.

The city determined to begin the marketing of its soccer complex by naming it the Lancaster National Soccer Center, thereby branding it as a newly competitive entry into the exclusive soccer market. This gained appeal in the Southern California market with the California Youth Soccer Association (Cal South), the U.S. Youth Soccer Association and the American Youth Soccer Organization, with its national headquarters based in the Los Angeles area. Soon after its completion, the Cal South State Cup and National Cup competitions, and the AYSO Area and Sectional playoffs, were shifted to the new facility, which is now recognized as an Official Cal South Venue.

The city then went national by organizing the Inaugural Lancaster Cup at Disney’s Wide World of Sports, a unique tournament marketing concept. The preliminary matches took place at the LNSC, while the finals were held at Disney World in Orlando, Fla. Collaboration with the prestigious Disney logo and utilizing its renowned Wide World of Sports complex placed Lancaster on the national map. The preliminary tournament resulted in Northern California teams competing against Southern California teams, while the finals pitted teams from Florida against teams from California, both long-standing regional and national rivalries.

A promotional video and DVD documented the success achieved by the complex while promoting future development and event opportunities. The DVD production not only included the promotion of the soccer center and its amenities, but stressed the advantages of the Lancaster area as the gateway to a diverse and exciting tournament and vacation experience. Lancaster is less than one hour from Six Flags Magic Mountain, Hurricane Harbor, Universal Studios, Burbank Studios and Hollywood; ninety minutes from Disneyland, Knott’s Berry Farm, beaches and other Orange County attractions. The city stressed the nearby diverse shopping, dining and entertainment opportunities for tournament participants. The combination of marketing the LNSC and the Southern California attractions helped position Lancaster as a premier soccer destination.

Drawing Them In

After winning a national competition for the event, the city hosted the AYSO National Games in 2004. The city committed staff, financial resources and its National Soccer Center to insure its partnership with AYSO, and ultimately the National Games were a success. The week-long national games attracted approximately 200 teams from throughout the United States as well as from the Virgin Islands. More recently, in January 2007, the complex hosted its first lacrosse tournament, teaming with Adrenaline Lacrosse of San Diego. The Warrior Challenge attracted 75 teams from throughout the western United States for the college showcase tournament.

Other Venues

Soccer is not the only generator of sports tourism for the City of Lancaster, however. Another element of the city’s sports tourism program takes place at the Big 8 softball complex. Each year, the complex hosts about 50 tournaments over 34 weekends throughout the year. Several ASA National Championship events have taken place at the eight championship fields, including the 2007 Class A Girls U18 and Men’s Class D Championships. These and other softball events, including the annual 110 team Oktoberfest Girls Fast Pitch Festival, generate over $2 million in economic impact. Besides the tournaments, the city offers three seasons of league softball to residents. The year-round program of men’s, women’s, coed, and church teams keeps the fields busy six nights a week to accommodate over 500 participating teams, says Jeff Campbell, Sports Supervisor for the Big 8 Complex.

Supplementing the sports tourism program is a State of California film office located within the Parks, Recreation and Arts Department. The film office facilitates the filming of commercials, feature films and still photography. Outlying desert regions provide a perfect backdrop for open-road automobile commercials, while isolated rock ruins, buttes and Joshua trees are in demand for still shots, feature films and music videos. Included among the well-known movies and television shows partially filmed in the area are the Terminator, Pirates of the Caribbean, the Die Hard series, ER, and Flags of Our Fathers.

Combined, the Soccer Center, Big 8 Softball Complex and the Antelope Valley Film Office combine for almost $15 million annually for the region. This has become a model for other cities, counties and organizations looking to develop sports facilities. As general manager of the LNSC, I get several calls each year, with occasional site visits from committees or councils, looking to develop similar programs. I take this as a well-earned compliment that the city is doing something right.

Mike Rosa has been the general manager of the Lancaster National Soccer Center for four years. He can be reached via e-mail at mrosa@cityoflancasterca.org