Youth sports plans hinge on small stadium proposal

When it comes to youth sports, the key to making it big is to think small.

That’s the assessment of Doug Berman, CEO of All-American Games, the outfit behind the FBU National Championship youth football tournament held each of the last three years in Collier County.

Berman, the former state treasurer for New Jersey, is an unabashed proponent of the regional sports park under consideration by county commissioners.

Such a park would make an ideal long-term home for the football event for middle school athletes, especially if it includes one key element – a small stadium to host championship events.

Berman and Steve Quinn, vice president of All American Games, plan to attend the June 13 county commission meeting to lobby for the sports park.

Commissioners are set to decide that day whether to forge ahead with the park and whether to raise the tourist tax from 4 to 5 percent to pay for it.

To visualize Berman’s idea, think Ohio Stadium, the famous horseshoe-shaped home of the Ohio State Buckeyes.

But where more than 100,000 scarlet-and-gray-clad fans pack the stands on fall football Saturdays, the Collier County version would hold only about 3,500.

That’s less than half the size of a typical baseball spring training stadium. JetBlue Park and Hammond Stadium, Lee County spring training homes to the Boston Red Sox and Minnesota Twins, each hold about 10,000.

The Atlanta Braves were interested in holding spring training in Collier County, with the same increase in the tourist tax touted as a way to pay for the facility and a surrounding sports complex.

The spring training idea was rejected, but the concept of a sports park for amateur local, regional and national events is still alive.

The county’s investment would serve the dual purpose of promoting sports tourism to boost the economy and increasing the number of fields available for local use.

A 2016 consultant’s report on sports facilities in Collier County rated the need for more soccer, lacrosse and football fields as “high.”

“There just aren’t enough fields for kids to play on,” Quinn said.

At next week’s meeting, Quinn said he’ll focus on the benefits a sports complex would bring to locals.

Berman, on the other hand, will be discussing the economic aspects.

His time in government gives him an appreciation of how government investment in infrastructure can spur economic development, he said.

And he’s clearly put some thought into what that infrastructure should look like.

The open-ended stadium would allow camera angles to show the outside world, perhaps palm trees and blue skies.

The small size provides intimacy. The fans are right on top of the action. At high school fields, where the FBU games have been played, a track usually circles the field, creating distance between the fans and the athletes. And the large seating capacity of a high school stadium spreads the crowd out, making it appear sparse on TV.

“There’s a whole different feel to a sports event when there’s a crowd,” Berman said.

The field would be multi-purpose, capable of hosting football, soccer, lacrosse, baseball and softball.

The field would also be blank. No permanent lines would mark it.

Lines would be drawn on before every game, an additional expense but a feature that would make each event look like the stadium was built just for it.

And sponsors could have their logo added for each event. That isn’t possible in existing stadiums, where the school logo takes up the center position.

“It’s easier to provide benefits to your marketing partners,” Berman said.

Camera positions would be incorporated into the design, and the stadium would be wired to optimize live streaming, which is a way more and more people are watching sports, Berman said.

Berman is obviously thinking about the youth football championships, which will bring more than 40 teams and an estimated 5,000 people to Collier County in December, but other sports could use the same format – preliminary rounds on adjoining fields with the stadium hosting the finale, he said.

Others, including Jeff Butzke, founder of the Southwest Florida Adrenaline soccer club, have also pitched the idea of a sports complex for local and regional use.

Done properly, Collier County could carve itself a niche in the youth sports world the way Williamsport, Pennsylvania, has with the Little League World Series.

Already, Berman says, youth football teams consider “making it to Naples” a goal.

“That determination to get to Naples is echoing across the country. All the (Little League) teams say, ‘We’ve got to get to Williamsport.’ Our objective in youth football is to have people say, ‘We’ve got to get to Naples.’ “- by Brent Batten, Naples Daily News (Florida)