Beginning Friday, the Western Hemisphere's largest international youth soccer tournament plays out on 52 soccer fields at the National Sports Center in Blaine.
As more than 14,000 soccer players from 958 soccer teams representing 22 states and 16 countries run, dribble and kick their way to on-field glory in the Schwan's USA Cup, developers will design plans, make contacts and crunch numbers to see whether adding 16 to 24 baseball fields to the 600-acre campus makes dollars and sense.
Adding America's pastime would mark the center's first significant expansion of playing field space since 2006. Opened 22 years ago amid big dreams of attracting the Olympics and star athletes, it's expected to generate $13 million in revenue this year and attract 4 million visitors through its less-spectacular but more reliable niche as youth and amateur sports mecca.
Consultants Conventions, Sports & Leisure International will spend two months examining the feasibility of developing a large baseball/softball complex at the NSC's site near the heart of the north metro suburb that already boasts 52 soccer fields, eight ice rinks, a velodrome, soccer stadium and the National Youth Golf Center.
The state, Anoka County, the city of Blaine and the Twins all have contributed to the study, which will weigh myriad factors from user demand to economic impact. The proposed site includes 75 acres of land owned by the NSC and could feature an indoor practice facility and domed practice fields. A design firm also has been enlisted for the study, which should be complete in August.
The decision to look at the potential for baseball fields, which first surfaced years ago, gained renewed interest in the wake of the Metrodome's roof collapse.
"At this point we are super- enthusiastic because of the ability to tap into a new sport and new users," NSC spokesperson Barclay Kruse said. "I think it's good to take a serious look at whether we can re-create the success we've had with hockey and soccer in baseball."
Until recently, a never-realized plan to convert the NSC Stadium into a baseball facility for a Northwoods League team was the closest the campus got to baseball.
Discussions intensified after the Metrodome's collapse in December 2010 and eight-month renovation brought two Twins-related events -- and hundreds of baseball fans -- to the NSC campus.
Wes Johnson, project manager at Conventions, Sports & Leisure International, said the locally based company has helped in the development of Target Field, the Xcel Energy Center, TCF Bank Stadium and the recently approved Vikings stadium. In addition, CSL helped develop Pizza Hut Park in Texas, a complex featuring 17 soccer fields and a stadium housing Major League Soccer's FC Dallas.
CSL studies economic impact through team interest and demand for facilities. Johnson said the sports center's status as a nationally established brand is an advantage. Also beneficial is the availability of land and existing resources.
But as Johnson pointed out, "They are not doing baseball right now and there is no guarantee the model they've used in other sports will transfer." And while the USA Cup tournament was once a new concept, the model has been replicated in many parts of the country. Several signature baseball tournaments mean more challenges in finding a foothold.
"We're taking a more measured, formal approach because we don't know the baseball market," Kruse said.
Slow start triggered change
A focus on being a host to large youth sports facilities and events saved the NSC from financial ruin. Built in 1990, the NSC was the hub of Minnesota's investment in Olympic-caliber infrastructure in hopes, spurred on by then-Gov. Rudy Perpich, of being awarded the 1996 Summer Olympics.
But the Olympics went to Atlanta, and hosting major international events proved financially risky for the sports center. Track and field star Carl Lewis and three-time Tour de France champion Greg LeMond competed before small crowds. Staff cuts were ordered as the NSC lost $400,000 in its first year.
"The mission had to be adjusted for us to be financially viable," Kruse said.
Rather than entering bidding wars for high-profile events that could fail to generate revenue, NSC officials turned to being host to events such as their already viable youth soccer tournament.
The event has grown through the years and could get better yet, Kruse said. In addition to looking at baseball/softball fields, officials are considering adding several soccer fields as part of the expansion.
The NSC became a year-round destination in 1998 by building four ice sheets at the Schwan Super Rink. An additional four ice sheets were added in 2006. The NSC is home to the U.S. Women's National Hockey Team and the Minnesota Stars pro soccer team.
In 2008, the Stars (then Thunder) returned to the NSC. The stadium field was moved 80 feet closer to the grandstand to provide a better fan experience.
Cost of dong business
The state built the original campus for $14.7 million. It now features $55 million in land and buildings. The National Sports Center Foundation, a nonprofit, operates the facilities.
Financial information from 2010 shows the NSC brought in about $12.4 million in revenue: $6 million from the Super Rink, $3.4 million from field sports rental and programs, $1.8 million from host services and facility rental, $800,000 from golf and $1 million from sponsorships.
The NSC funds its own infrastructure improvements for its massive ice and field operations as well as the Hat Trick Café, Schwan Event Center, Victory Links Clubhouse and dormitory.
"Since we do not receive an operating subsidy from the state, we must operate in the black to meet our financial demands," Roger Stawski, chief financial officer, wrote in an e-mail. "Without sponsors, we would be operating in the red."
The facilities generate more than $37 million in annual out-of-state economic impact, according to the NSC.
Curt Larson, economic development specialist for the city of Blaine, said the NSC "made a definite impact" on retail and restaurant development such as the neighboring National Market Square. Retailers include Target, Kohl's, Caribou Coffee and Chipotle.
"Stores will tell you they go to the top-10 nationally during the week of USA Cup," Larson said. "The NSC gets the city a lot of exposure around the metro and around the world. People know where Blaine, Minnesota, is. You can't get that through any kind of advertising."