By Jason Garcia, Orlando Sentinel
1:53 PM EST, December 23, 2012
With a rich assist from Florida taxpayers, Walt Disney World and local sports promoters are hoping to make Orlando a magnet for soccer fans this February.
Disney and the Central Florida Sports Commission have organized the region's first formal "Soccer Spring Training" program, which will feature six Major League Soccer teams holding preseason camps across Central Florida for 18 days in February.
As part of the arrangement, each of the six teams — Toronto FC, Impact Montreal, DC United, the Columbus Crew, the Philadelphia Union and Sporting Kansas City — have committed to play in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic, an annual tournament the giant resort hosts at its ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex.
Organizers are also planning about a dozen ancillary events — about half of which will also be take place on Disney's sprawling sports campus — including a combine for college players hoping to sign professional contracts, a President's Day "soccer festival," and an amateur seven-on-seven tournament.
Underwriting the concept is a $1 million earmark from the Florida Legislature that Disney successfully lobbied for earlier this year even as lawmakers cut state funds for everything from hospitals to universities.
That money is being used in part to pay the six MLS teams for participating in the spring-training events. Each team is getting a $30,000 upfront fee, according to the individual contracts.
What's more, the public funds are subsidizing the sale of vacation packages to soccer fans. Each team is entitled to payments based on a sliding scale that ranges from $50 to $125 for each package sold. A team can ultimately earn as much as $75,000 in such payments, provided it sells enough vacations.
It's unclear how necessary the incentives were to persuade teams to come to Central Florida. A spokesman for one club — Sporting Kansas City — said the team chose to participate not because of the incentive payments but because it had appeared in the 2012 edition of Disney's soccer tournament and "had an excellent experience down there, with quality training grounds, good competition and a nice resort."
"We did start the 2012 season 7-0-0 and maintained first place throughout the year, so whatever we did in preseason seemed to work," team spokesman Rob Thomson added. He said that about 80 Kansas City fans traveled to Orlando this year to watch the team train, and he expects more than 100 in 2013.
The general manager of DC United, Dave Kasper, added that the incentives are "certainly a benefit to get some of our expenses covered, but we are equally excited to participate in the Disney Pro Soccer Classic, which has grown in size and stature in recent years."
Not all of the public money will go to the teams. Kevin Coulthart, vice president of marketing and events for the Central Florida Sports Commission, said roughly $250,000 will be used to cover administrative and general marketing costs.
Coulthart said the commission expects to spend roughly $600,000 in all, short of the total amount authorized by the Legislature. "We're trying to be judicious," he said.
He and other supporters think the spring-training concept has the potential to blossom into a major annual event drawing tens of thousands of passionate soccer fans who would spend money on area hotels, restaurants and attractions. The sports commission expects to draw about 15,000 people with this first attempt.
"What we're doing is building a property that has the potential to grow into a significant economic driver for our community," Coulthart said.
But Disney, which generated a company-record $5.7 billion profit in its fiscal 2012, is likely to see the biggest boost of any individual business.
The incentive agreements require each team, in addition to participating in the Pro Soccer Classic tournament, to send a "head scout" to a six-day "international trials" event, during which unsigned professional players will audition for new deals, as well as a three-day "college combine," during which college players will perform in front of agents and other talent evaluators in hopes of landing professional offers. Both events, like the main soccer tournament, will be staged at Disney's Wide World of Sports venue.
Each team is also required to send two starting players and either its head coach or assistant head coach to a VIP event on Disney property during which they — along with "Soccer Mickey" — will meet and pose for pictures with fans.
Two of the six teams — Toronto and Kansas City — will do all of their training at Wide World of Sports. The other four will be spread out across the region, with Montreal and DC at separate venues in Sanford, Columbus in Kissimmee, and Philadelphia in Deltona.
And for teams to earn the bonus incentives, the sports commission has created two baseline travel packages for them to sell: a Walt Disney World-specific vacation that includes rooms in a Disney-owned hotel; and a "General Central Florida" package with rooms in one of a several non-Disney hotels.
Some government-spending watchdogs say the state has no business propping up a private venture between Disney, other travel businesses and Major League Soccer. When the state does get involved in such projects, they say, the biggest beneficiaries are too often large, well-heeled companies like Disney, which employs more than a dozen lobbyists in Tallahassee and spent close to $4 million on political campaigns during the 2012 elections.
"I do not believe the taxpayer should be subsidizing Disney or any private company," said Matthew Falconer, a conservative activist. "This has absolutely nothing to do with economic development and everything to do with corporate profits."
A spokesman for the region's second-largest tourism business, Universal Orlando, said it has not had any involvement in planning the soccer spring-training program. Universal declined to comment further.
Disney said it could not predict what sort of bump its business will receive from the spring-training effort.
"While it's still too early to accurately predict the impact these efforts will have on our business and on the region, we think there is potential for some modest growth at our event," Disney spokeswoman Andrea Finger said. "We believe the [sports commission's] efforts are laying a foundation that will enable future growth."
email@example.com or 407-420-5414
Copyright © 2013, Orlando Sentinel