The most-visited sports facility in Minnesota is about to get even bigger.
The National Sports Center in Blaine — which draws about 4 million visitors a year — will build 20 additional playing fields, bringing the total to 66, along with hockey rinks, a golf course and more.
While some amateur sports venues have struggled, the state-owned, nonprofit Sports Center appears to have come up with a successful formula. The cornerstones include aggressive national and international marketing efforts, staying on the front edge of amateur sport trends and creating its own events to fill the schedule instead of waiting for outside bookings. A team of three recruiters travels internationally to promote events.
“We get those attendance numbers because we are busy year-round and we are participation-oriented. The vast majority of people coming here are doing something, not just sitting in a seat watching,” said Barclay Kruse, the center’s chief communications officer.
The National Sports Center covers 600 acres and includes multiuse fields for soccer, rugby, lacrosse and ultimate disc play, as well as eight indoor ice rinks, a golf course, a sports hall for indoor soccer and football, a velodrome and a convention center.
It houses the largest soccer complex in the world, according to Guinness World Records, and its signature Schwan’s USA Cup tournament in July attracts more than 1,000 youth teams, including nearly 200 from outside the U.S.
The expansion will be done on 80 acres of sod farm the center acquired a number of years ago. The expectation is that eight of the new fields will be open next year.
The center, run by a nonprofit board, got $3.2 million in state bonding this year that will help pay for the expansion. But Kruse says the complex generates enough revenue each year to cover its own operating costs.
“We do not get an annual operating subsidy from the state. It’s something we are proud of,” he said.
The success of the 24-year-old complex has paralleled the explosion in youth sports and the rise of adult leagues. The center offers sports programs for everyone from toddlers to senior citizens.
“We’ve ridden that growth and that health,” Kruse said. “We did very, very well during the recession. Some of our best years financially were during the recession.”
This year’s Schwan’s USA Cup tournament will take place from July 11-19. Blaine Mayor Tom Ryan attends the opening ceremony every year and credits the tournament and the complex with making his city a destination.
Next month’s field will include teams from as far away as Brazil, Norway, Croatia and India; the Yuwa Supergoats will be the first team from the latter country.
Ryan remembers attending the Sport Center’s grand opening in 1990, when he was a City Council member. Then-Gov. Rudy Perpich was among those there.
“I remember standing out there with Perpich. It was a dream he had,” Ryan said. “The day we opened it was really nasty windy. Everyone thought, ‘Here goes another fiasco,’ but it didn’t turn out that way. … It’s been awesome for us.”
The first year, the National Sports Center, with its sights set on hosting major national championship events, reported an operating deficit. “We discovered a lot of those major, ticketed events were high risk,” Kruse said. “They were an easy way to lose money.”
Management quickly retooled, backing away from major events that relied on ticket sales, and focused on youth and other more grass-roots events and tournaments.
“The revenue was built on participation fees. It was much more stable,” Kruse said.
The center has covered operating costs ever since that first year, he said.
Meanwhile, in a 2009 survey of merchants conducted by the city, almost 90 percent of the 41 respondents said their sales increased because of center events.
The new fields will allow organizers to expand the youth soccer tournament, which at times has had to turn teams away. Being big is critical to the center’s appeal and success, said Paul Erickson, executive director of the Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission.
“In order to maintain our market position as the leading amateur sports destination in the United States, it’s economies of scale. The margin in amateur sports is small. If you have a big event, you can operate successfully.” Erickson said.
The center says it also tries to stay ahead of the curve.
“We are always looking to what is the next big thing? How are the sports themselves evolving? Are we meeting those needs?” said Kara Radeke, senior director of soccer and field sport programs.
Realizing that some of the parents at the USA Cup were hankering for a chance to play, for example, organizers last year added an indoor tournament for adults that is played at night. They also added an indoor tournament for younger children to correspond with USA Cup.
For years, the fishing opener in May was a dead weekend at the Sports Center. Staff was challenged to come up with an event that would draw a crowd. The winner would earn bragging rights and a six-pack of beer. The result: the Walleye Chop adult hockey tournament and fish fry.
Early spring and late fall were slow, so staff created youth soccer tournaments, which have evolved into some of their biggest tournaments of the year.
While part of the facility’s mission is to “bring an international experience” to Minnesota, 92 percent of its visitors come from in state.
Tommy and Jean Soehn and their four children are more than visitors. The Soehns looked in the south and east suburbs before buying a home in the city, less than five miles from the National Sports Center. All four kids play soccer year-round, Jean Soehn coaches one of her daughters, and Tommy Soehn is an assistant coach for the Major League Soccer team the New England Revolution.
“It’s everything. It’s not only our livelihood; it’s our true passion because of what it teaches on and off the field,” Jean Soehn said.
Soehn, who grew up in Roseville, remembers playing in the first Schwan’s USA Cup in the mid 1980s.
“I have always said I want my kids to have the experience of the USA cup. Now, it’s come completely full circle,” she said.