Fort Worth Youth Soccer holds one major tournament every year: the Cowtown Classic. This year, the tournament included 329 teams, but tournament organizers were forced to turn away many more.
“I had a waitlist, which is unheard of,” Janet Norman, executive director of the Fort Worth Youth Soccer Association, said. “If only we had more fields, I could have had all those teams playing.”
Fort Worth is tired of losing out on tourism dollars and seeing youth sports participation lag behind other parts of the metroplex. A variety of groups are offering three solutions: a relatively low-cost after school program, a 20-field tournament complex and a $100 million soccer stadium.
Youth-centered sports tourism is a $91 billion industry, and Fort Worth is routinely missing out on potential income from regional tournaments. The city is missing out on tax revenue, name recognition and most importantly, officials said, opportunities for kids to play soccer and other field-based sports.
By investing in soccer programs across the city, leaders hope to make significant gains in participation. Right now, the city lags behind. In Frisco, 15% of kids under 18 play soccer. In Fort Worth, only 5% of kids play soccer, a 2019 study finds
The Fort Worth Sports Commission advocates for major sporting events to come to Fort Worth. Recently, under the leadership of Vice President of Sports Jason Sands, the commission turned its attention to youth tournaments.
“We need fields to play on if we’re going to grow the sport of soccer. We’re at capacity right now,” Sands said.
Youth sports aren’t just an economic driver; they’re an essential part of how children grow and develop, studies say. Active children are 15% more likely to attend college, report lower levels of depression and achieve up to 40% higher test scores.
“The earlier we get kids engaged with teamwork and discipline and work ethic and all the things that go with playing sports, the more success that we’re going to have as a community,” Dave Lewis, assistant director over golf and athletics with Fort Worth Parks and Recreation, said.
Cost and transportation are also barriers to kids playing sports in Fort Worth. Instead of focusing on potential tournaments or economic development, Lewis is narrowly focused on how the city can get more kids to spend time with a soccer ball.
Option 1: Soccer programing in schools
Fort Worth Parks and Recreation currently serves about 1,500 kids with programming. Through his experience in Tacoma, Washington, Lewis learned that the best way to engage kids in sports is to meet them where they already are — school.
“If we’re going to go from serving 1,500 kids to hopefully 4,000 and eventually 10,000, it’s going to cost more money and people,” Lewis said. “There are still a lot of kids who don’t have access to sports, so we’ve got to think about this differently.”
Lewis envisions an after-school soccer program, in partnership with Fort Worth ISD, that provides low-income families the opportunity to play soccer without the barriers of transportation and registration fees.
The program would involve a partnership with existing after-school programs. The city would provide a coach and programming so that a Fort Worth ISD student can go straight from school to soccer practice with a free snack in between. There would be a registration discount based on a student’s free-and-reduced-lunch status.
Lewis hopes to launch a pilot program in the fall at sevel low-income elementary schools that don’t already have an established after school program. The program will target students who wouldn’t have the transportation or funds to participate in a traditional soccer league.
“We all have the common goal of serving as many kids as affordably as we can,” Lewis said. “One agency can’t do it by themselves even if it’s somebody as massive as the city.”
Parks and Recreation hopes to coordinate with the Boys and Girls Club, the YMCA, the Optimist Club and the Sports Commission, which all provide some sports-related programming to underserved students.
The city parks and recreation department is typically not in the business of programming. Mostly, the department manages the fields that are leased to sports leagues, like Fort Worth Youth Soccer. In its capacity as a field manager, the city is conducting a comprehensive athletic field study, set to be finished in September.
Lewis envisions improved soccer facilities in the north, south, east and west parts of Fort Worth so every resident will have easy access to high-quality fields. Sands shares that vision.
“There’s a potential opportunity for us to get caught up quickly when it comes to facilities and touch all the regions of the city — if we’re all working together and share the same vision,” Sands said.
Option 2: A new tournament facility
In the five years Norman has spent as executive director of Fort Worth Youth Soccer, the recreational league has grown from about 1,500 players to 2,400. Norman also added a competitive team, which increased the reach of the organization’s programming.
The Benbrook Soccer Complex is one of Fort Worth’s biggest but it doesn’t have permanent lighting. Fort Worth Youth Soccer leases the 15 field complex from the Fort Worth Parks and Recreation Department.
The complex doesn’t provide nearly enough fields for major regional soccer tournaments, Norman said.
To address the problem and ensure the city stops losing out on tournaments to other nearby cities, Visit Fort Worth hired a consultant to analyze where the city is missing out on sports tourism revenue. Huddle Up Group conducted a study of existing facilities and recommended the city build a complex with at least 20 long fields at an estimated cost of $52 million. The complex would bring in an estimated $16 million annually in new spending to Fort Worth.
“It’s the logical next step,” Bob Jameson, president and CEO of Visit Fort Worth, said.
The same consultants hired by Visit Fort Worth found that the city has zero acceptable tournament-class long field facilities. Rolling Hills soccer complex, in south Fort Worth, has enough fields to be used for a large tournament, but the fields are not up to tournament standards because they are far away from hotels and restaurants, have limited parking and a history of flooding.
Lacking facilities don’t just keep visitors away from Fort Worth; they push residents out of the city. Only 16% of youth soccer players who live in Fort Worth attend tournaments in the city. The rest are forced to attend tournaments in other parts of the metroplex, the study said.
City officials are eyeing Walsh Ranch as a potential site for the tournament-style fields. The location would bring a soccer complex to west Fort Worth where the majority of Fort Worth Youth Soccer participants already live.
“There’s a whole market that we were not fully immersed in because we don’t have the facilities,” Sands said. “Every day we don’t have it is a missed opportunity,”
Fort Worth currently has seven locations where residents and organizations can rent fields from the city.
Option 3: A soccer stadium and academy
The Basswood property in north Fort Worth sticks out from its surroundings. The field used for agriculture is boxed in by a major highway and sprawling subdivisions. Cary Moon, former council member and member of the Fort Worth Sports Authority, almost seems at home while hopping over a fence to illustrate the vast potential of this unutilized land. As Moon cruises around the 300-acre property, all he sees is potential.
Moon envisions a sprawling complex with a 10,000-seat soccer stadium, 10 practice fields and retail stores alongside a hotel. The development could be used for professional sports, graduations and festivals.
“We’re missing out on $16 million a year from sports tourism,” Moon said. “So when you add in professional soccer tourism things like that, it further expands on that opportunity.”
The Basswood property, located within Keller ISD, would serve as a stadium for Keller ISD sports and its band. The property would also serve as a home field for a United Soccer League team, and an academy for the European Barcelona FC.
The proposal could not be used for youth soccer tournaments, Jameson pointed out, because it would not offer enough fields. Norman, with Fort Worth Youth Soccer, said the project is primarily for economic development and won’t help children in other parts of Fort Worth.
“It’s all about the money,” Norman said.
Fort Worth’s partner on the project, Neltex Sports, which owns and operates sports-related properties, would provide an FC Barcelona programming and United Soccer League Team to occupy the development.
Neltex purchased the Austin Bold FC in 2021 with plans to move from Austin to another part of the state — Fort Worth being its first priority. Along with the existing men’s team, Neltex hopes to participate in a burgeoning womens league.
The United Soccer League has been a volatile business. The second-tier soccer league has seen rapid growth and abrupt losses. Since the league’s inception, 33 teams have folded or relocated.
However, a recently commissioned study illustrates positive attendance trends and improved stability among United Soccer League teams. A survey with 2,000 responses also indicated that Fort Worth residents are likely interested in a USL team.
Norman is skeptical that the study was conducted fairly and that those preliminary results are a good indication of potential ticket sales. Even if the team fails, the project would still be a good use of funds, Moon said.
“But the team is coming to DFW,” Moon said. “We have to get them to Fort Worth.”
The project doubles as a boon for economic development and youth-centered programing, Moon said, because it gives kids an opportunity to play for coaches associated with a major European club.
“That component makes it more than an economic development project,” Moon said.
Bringing a Barcelona-affiliated team to Fort Worth would afford young Fort Worth residents the opportunity to play soccer at a higher level and potentially earn an opportunity to play soccer internationally. These programs are not always what they seem, Norman said, and they should be viewed skeptically.
“It’s just like college scholarships. It’s often not what people think… The percentage of kids who go to play in Europe is very low,” Norman said. “I don’t really see it as a value for the kids that want to go out and play every weekend with their friends.”
Programming will extend down into southeast and west Fort Worth, Moon said, where low-income youth could get the opportunity to play for Barcelona FC.
The future of the Basswood property isn’t certain, and its potential benefit for underserved youth is not universally agreed upon. But one thing is clear: Basswood cannot be used for 20 tournament style fields and a large soccer stadium according to Jameson, Sands and Lewis. Yet, the stadium has taken priority for city leaders, like Moon.
If the city sticks with a simple 20-field soccer complex, it will sacrifice additional income from the soccer stadium, which has a wider application than just soccer tournaments.
Moon introduced the stadium project while chair of the Fort Worth Sports Authority. District 7 council member Leonard Firestone is the newest chairman of the Sports Authority.
Most recently, the city commissioned an engineering study to determine the feasibility of the stadium.
“Everything is still on the table. That’s just one option in the pursuit of the city’s goal to build a complex for youth sports,” Firestone said.
The City Council will pool information from the studies and use those to determine what Fort Worth could build and if it would suit the needs of the city.
When the council approved one of the latest studies for the soccer stadium, Mayor Mattie Parker reassured Norman and other soccer officials that a 20-field facility is still a top priority for the city.
Fort Worth has invested hundreds of thousands of dollars into the soccer stadium so far. Each study costs about $100,000 to conduct. The city has conducted three studies: To analyze sports facilities in Fort Worth, another to determine financial feasibility of the soccer stadium and another to analyze the design and cost of the stadium. The most recent engineering study could cost the city up to $300,000.
Four council members also took a trip to Barcelona to tour the soccer club’s youth academy, also known as La Masia, at a cost to taxpayers of about $6,000 for flights and transportation. Two of the council members used funds from Fort Worth Sister Cities International to dovetail Barcelona with an already scheduled trip.
The Basswood property is being purchased at a discount price, Moon said, although a price per acre has not been announced publicly. The sellers are willing to forgo some of the land’s value in exchange for favorable zoning and permitting that will make it easier to get the land sold. The property owners will also contribute to the cost of infrastructure like roads and sidewalks.
Funding for the project depends on creating a tax increment financing, or TIF, district in the areas surrounding the development. There are no guarantees that the special taxing district will generate enough revenue to cover the costs of the $150 million project.
What is a TIF?
A TIF is a strategic investment in infrastructure that encourages growth in a specific area. The TIF is typically used by the city to support economic development projects.
Also, while the TIF is in effect, any property tax revenue generated in the area will go directly back into the area, rather than being distributed across the city for other city services like roads.
The overall budget for the project will be modeled out in years, factoring income from the 3,500-acre TIF District. About $90 million would come from other project partners like Keller ISD, Moon said.
The greatest advantage of this project compared to a 20-field tournament complex is potential income from TIF revenue that will ideally ensure the project pays for itself. Moon also points to North Tarrant Parkway’s TIF 7, which expired in 2019, that generated more revenue than expected.
“There’s every indication that this TIF will overperform,” Moon said.
Meanwhile, other groups are advocating for the city’s money to be used elsewhere. In Norman’s ideal world, the city would fund 25 fully lit turf fields near Walsh Ranch. The city could also court private partners to cover a portion of those costs.
The city would need to invest about $50 million to build the 20 fields recommended by the city’s 2019 facility study,
“What I want is all about the kids,” Norman said. “I know the money is there, and there are plenty of people who would help pay for it.”
Separate from those two projects is Lewis’ proposed after-school program. He’s requested money for the program in the city’s annual 2023 budget, but there is no guarantee he will receive it. Lewis projects the costs of that program to be initially around $500,000.
He plans to advocate for his plan to members of the Fort Worth City Council. Then, the decision will be in council members’ hands.
“That’s what elected officials are paid to do, to decide: Do we want semi-pro teams? Do we want to serve kids? Or do we want to do both?” Lewis said. “If we do both, then something else has got to give.”
Rachel Behrndt is a government accountability reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.