Usually, when a mayor steps down after nearly a decade on the job, he will boast of a variety of lofty civic achievements accomplished while he was in office.
The list usually encompasses improved infrastructure, urban renewal, the creation of high-tech jobs and a hoity-toity cultural renaissance that includes museums, libraries and art galleries.
Joe Reardon, who just left office after two terms as the mayor of Kansas City, Kan., is a little bit different.
"As I look back on my eight years in office, the new soccer stadium is right at the top of the things I'm most proud of," Reardon told me in a phone conversation the other day. "It's benefiting the city in the short term and it's going to be amazing over the long haul."
That's right, a soccer stadium has become a civic jewel.
In a city where the NFL is king and college basketball is queen, America's heartland has fallen in love with the world's favorite sport.
"We're a pro football town with a great tradition in college basketball," Reardon says. "But we have embraced soccer. The atmosphere at the soccer stadium has been electric."
In Orlando, we are an NBA town with a great tradition in college football, and our mayor, too, believes in Major League Soccer. As Mayor Buddy Dyer told me a few weeks ago about Orlando's effort to build a new soccer stadium and attract a Major League Soccer franchise, "It's the world's most popular sport married to the world's leading tourist destination. I can't think of a better mix."
Neither can I, and that's hard for an American sports traditionalist like me to admit. Full disclosure: I'm a college football and NFL helmet-head who never watched a soccer game until my daughter started playing as a kid. My favorite sport remains American football, but you'd have to be suffering from severe head trauma brought on by a helmet-to-helmet collision not to realize that international fútbol is gaining momentum in this country.
This is why I believe Orlando should jump on board the soccer train, invest in a soccer-specific stadium and bring another major league sport to our town. Let's face it, Orlando is not going to get an NFL or Major League Baseball team anytime soon, but we have been assured of an MLS franchise if we build the stadium.
Not that Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs should simply rubber stamp the construction of a new stadium. Not when plans call for public funds to cover half of the estimated $85 million costs of the first phase of the stadium. County commissioners and tourism officials, as they should, are holding public meetings this week to discuss a sports and arts venues package that would include $20 million going toward the soccer stadium.
Even with that $20 million and $30 million from the team, $15 million from the city for the property site and an additional $5 million from the city for construction costs, the first-phase funding plan is still $15 million short. Where is that money supposed to come from?
"It's a process," Reardon says. "We had a lot of community dialogue before we made our decision in Kansas City. When we entered into our public-private financing plan, it was when the economy was at rock bottom, but we felt it was a good investment."
So far, so good.
The headline blared atop a huge story in the New York Times a few days ago, "Serious Investment and Savvy Marketing Revive Soccer in Kansas City." Kansas City not only hosted the MLS All-Star game last week, it has become part of the regular rotation when the U.S. national team hosts big international matches.
Kansas City's MLS franchise, Sporting Kansas City, has sold out 29 straight times and actually has a waiting list for season tickets. In 2011, the first year of the new stadium, the team's average attendance was 17,810. Last year, it was 19,017. This season, it is 19,723.
"The interest has been phenomenal," Reardon says, "and one of the exciting thing about soccer is that it compliments other businesses. The crowd trends younger and because soccer games only last about two hours, fans are out before and after the game experiencing the other venues and businesses around the stadium."
If it can happen in Kansas City, which also has NFL and Major League Baseball franchises, think of how successful soccer could be in Central Florida. After all, we are a bigger metropolitan area with a larger international population and only one competing pro sports franchise.
The world's most popular sport married to the world's leading tourist destination.
Even an American football fan will you tell you this is a sure touchdown.
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