Back in the mid-1960s, the Los Angeles Times ran a story under the headline, "Is Soccer the Next Big Thing in the U.S.?" Despite gains at the youth level, the answer, nearly a half-century later, is still, "No, not really."
In the mid-1960s, the No. 1 professional sport in the country, in terms of paid attendance, was not baseball or football or basketball, but rather horse-racing. The attendance numbers back then were absolutely stunning, and despite a decline over the past few decades, they still reportedly remain in the range of 60 million paying fans per year. (By comparison, the National Football League drew less than 18 million paying fans in 2009.)
It would be difficult to find two sporting activities more divergent than soccer and horse-racing. In theory, these sports should never meet, but at Rillito Regional Park—for the time being, at least—they share a facility controlled by the Pima County Department of Natural Resources, Parks and Recreation.
The park is frozen in midtransition due to budgetary constraints, and thus it is an uneasy coexistence, one in which one side invokes its legacy and tradition, while the other claims to be riding the irresistible wave of what is to come.
In 2006, the 14-member Rillito Regional Park Advisory Committee reported to the Pima County Board of Supervisors their recommendations regarding the future use of the park. While the committee acknowledged the need for more sports fields in Pima County, its members also said, "(Rillito Racetrack) is a significant part of Pima County's history and an important entertainment attraction for our community."
They came up with a plan to build a track in Marana to replace the track at the Rillito park. (The committee also considered a proposal to upgrade the existing Rillito Racetrack facilities, but that was rejected.) If the Marana site was deemed unacceptable, an alternate site at the Pima County Fairgrounds was recommended. And that would leave Rillito for soccer.
In all, the committee made 11 recommendations, but their first (and unanimous) recommendation was that "all existing uses at Rillito continue until a suitable replacement facility is established for horse-racing."
And that's where we are now.
The Rillito Park Racetrack occupies some prime real estate in Tucson. It's just southeast of the intersection of First Avenue (where it begins its ascent into the hills) and River Road (which, in theory as well as in practice, separates the upscale foothills area from the common folk). Like many things in Tucson, it was basically out of town when it was built, but has now been absorbed by the growing city like a pig being swallowed whole by an anaconda.
The racetrack opened in 1943, right in the middle of World War II. At the time, it was surrounded by a couple of farms and open desert. It still has the original 3/8-mile "chute," a straightaway dirt track generally associated with quarter-horse racing. It also has a half-mile oval track.
For decades, the track was one of the biggest draws for winter visitors. Tens of thousands of people would pack into the facility each year. (Here's something that isn't reported very often: In 2009, the track drew 68,277 for the brief racing season in January and February; according to racetrack management, while the much-ballyhooed Accenture Match Play Championship golf tournament drew about 65,000. Golf obviously has a greater cachet, but the numbers are significant.)
Big spenders and movie stars were regulars at the track. John Wayne, who made several movies at Old Tucson, reportedly loved the ponies. The track was a showcase for Tucson, an absolute must-visit place for anyone in town during the early winter months.
But times have changed; even its staunchest supporters will agree that it has seen better days. Back in the 1960s, it was considered to be the finest horse-racing venue in all of Arizona, far superior to tracks in Prescott and Flagstaff and even better than Turf Paradise in Phoenix. These days, with casino gambling available on the other side of town, and racing limited to just a few weekends in January and February, it still draws relatively well. According to Pat White, president of the Pima County Horsemen's Association, the nonprofit group that runs the racetrack, "We averaged 6,400 fans (per day) last year. That's a robust number. The last two days of the season, we had 9,000 and then 10,000."
This year is off to a slower start, with the second weekend washed out by a series of rain-heavy storms that swept through Southern Arizona.
However, the track's biggest threat is not dwindling attendance or the weather, but rather the county-built soccer fields that lie adjacent to the track on the west, as well as the three that have been built on the infield of the track. It is an odd layout by anybody's standards, and because of tight money, it appears it may stay that way into the foreseeable future.
Pima County Supervisor Ann Day, in whose district the track sits, explains it this way: "We planned on moving the horse-racing to the Pima County Fairgrounds and putting more soccer fields in that location to handle the demand. I know that (Rillito) is a nice track, but moving the racing to the fairgrounds just seems logical.
"However, we don't have the money to do it—we don't have the money to do a lot of things these days—so we're stuck. We're hoping to pass a bond issue in the fall to cover those costs, but with things the way they are ..."
Day adds that the county had hoped that private funding could be found to build a track out in Marana, but that never got off the ground. So the status quo remains in place, with horse-racing operating on year-to-year, lame-duck status, and the soccer people champing at the bit (pardon the reference) to take over the entire property.
Pat White hopes that day never comes.
"I don't see why we can't coexist. We have races in the winter; there are other events during the year, and the soccer teams can use the fields we have.
"The deal is that the soccer people have these grand plans to turn it into a soccer showcase to be used for tournaments, and kids won't even be able to practice on the fields."
Dave Cosgrove is The Man when it comes to soccer in Tucson. A former coach at Amphi High School and now coach of the perennial national powerhouse men's soccer team at Pima Community College, he is also the head of the Tucson Soccer Academy (TSA). He doesn't dispute White's assertion; instead, he touts its appeal.
"Kids from our academy play in tournaments all over the West, and every town our size has multiple soccer facilities. I was in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, and they have three really nice multi-field facilities all within a few miles of each other. If you go to Phoenix, they have magnificent facilities—perfect grass, multiple fields. If we had something like that, it would not only be great for our kids; it would be good for the community. A big soccer tournament pumps money into the community. People stay in hotels and eat at restaurants."
Cosgrove says he realizes that it's probably going to have to be an either-or situation at Rillito. "For it to be viable, we'd have to have at least 18 fields. That takes up a lot of room."
When asked if the land to the south and east of the grandstands could be used for soccer fields, Pat White replies, "No way. We need that land for parking. There's no way we can get several thousand people to come to the track if there's no place to park."
White and others have looked into getting a historic designation for the track in hopes of keeping it where it is: "This is a special place, and once it's gone, it's gone forever."
But Cosgrove says more soccer fields are needed to keep up with the demand. Right now, his TSA teams rent two fields for practice and pay the county for the use. According to Rafael Payan of the Pima County parks department, the TSA pays the princely sum of $5 an hour for each field to help cover the cost of the lighting. However, says Payan, in March, it will be going up to $7.50 an hour.
More on that later.
Ted Schmidt is a local attorney and a member of the TSA board. He's been pushing for the county to convert the property into an all-soccer facility for quite some time.
"Soccer is booming in Tucson," he says. "More and more youth teams are created every year. We simply need more and better fields. Many of the fields we have now are in terrible shape. If you pull into the parking lot at Ochoa Park (west of Holy Hope Cemetery near Prince and Oracle roads) during soccer practice, you'll see this giant cloud of dust being kicked up by kids having to practice on fields that are part grass, part dirt and part rocks."
Schmidt is also upset with the fields already in place at Rillito. "You know, the University of Arizona holds its Spring Fling there every year, and the fields get torn up. By the time it's done, those fields are almost unusable. Fortunately, by that time, we're pretty much done with that part of our schedule, so they have some time to regrow some grass."
Like Cosgrove, Schmidt marvels at the facilities he has seen elsewhere. "You go up to Phoenix, and they have these incredible fields: perfect grass, everything in top shape. They do things right up there. There's no reason why we can't do the same."
While he's gung-ho over the plan for a soccer complex, he understands that not everybody is on board. "I was circulating a petition, and one of our law partners, Burt Kinerk, said, 'I can't sign that; I won't sign that.' He had worked at the track as a kid. There are a lot of people here who have a real emotional connection to the race track."
Nevertheless, Schmidt thinks Tucson is years behind everybody else when it comes to providing what he calls "adequate" facilities. "If we had a good soccer showplace, we could hold tournaments and attract teams from all over California, Arizona and the rest of the Southwest. It's great for the economy. And people have to face it: Rillito is a great location for such a facility. There's lots of land.
"Plus, a racetrack would be better near the fairgrounds. You have the County Fair down there; there are lots of animals. Obviously, you can't put soccer fields down there."
When asked if soccer and horse racing can coexist at Rillito, he answers, unequivocally, "No. What it comes down to is a question of kids versus gamblers. That's a no-brainer."
Clouding the issue for many people is the apparent two-class system of youth soccer in Pima County. On the south and west sides of Tucson, where there are large Hispanic populations, there are youth soccer leagues, but they are most likely to be run by the YMCA/YWCA or a government parks department.
Up in the foothills, youth soccer is big business, with high-priced travel teams, fancy gear and well-paid coaches. (Soccer clubs also take on European affectations, often making obvious references to professional teams in Europe.)
Club sports have come under increasing fire in recent years (and I have opened some of that fire) as they tighten their grip on the college-recruiting process and sell dreams to kids and parents alike. At the same time, people continue to join these clubs in increasing numbers. College coaches, happy to attend meat-market club tournaments rather than having to actually participate in the traditional recruiting process, love the clubs and add momentum to the spiraling effect.
Clubs tell kids that the only way to get a college scholarship is by playing club sports, and many parents see the high fees paid to the clubs as an investment that will pay off if their kid gets a scholarship. It's so bad in Phoenix that many kids are no longer playing for their high schools and instead play (and pay for) club sports year round.
Obviously, most kids don't get scholarships, but that doesn't keep them and their parents from dreaming.
Even in the NCAA, there is a disconnect. Many colleges (including the UA) list their players' club-team affiliations along with their high schools. At the same time, the NCAA is looking into banning its coaches from attending the large club tournaments in basketball, volleyball and soccer, citing an increasingly unhealthy relationship between club and college coaches, as well as mounting pressure for kids to go the club route.
For his part, Cosgrove says that his academy is simply offering a service, one for which many people are willing to pay.
The service must be satisfactory, because business is good.
One person who hopes that the proposed Rillito soccer complex never gets built is former Pima County Supervisor Ed Moore, who launched his political career in the '80s with a public campaign to save the racetrack. Moore has long proposed that a parcel of land owned by the county near the Arthur Pack Regional Park off Thornydale Road be converted into a soccer complex.
"I'm not against a soccer complex. I think a city the size of Tucson probably needs more than one. But we don't need it at Rillito," he says. "The Arthur Pack site has 136 acres. That's enough room for a couple dozen fields and lots of parking. Plus, it's closer to restaurants and hotels than Rillito. On top of that, there's already a hookup for effluent that can be used to water the fields. In any situation involving grass fields in the desert, water is always, by far, the biggest maintenance expense."
Moore, never one to dance around an issue, feels that the Rillito site is desirable for one reason. "It's near the foothills," he explains, "making it convenient for one group of people. Those people live up in the foothills, and they've got money, and they've got clout."
Moore is not fan of the current setup involving the clubs' use of county facilities. "It got so bad up in Phoenix that Maricopa County now insists that money-making organizations pay full-price to use the soccer fields. That can run from $50 per hour and up as opposed to the $5 that clubs pay here. Nonprofit organizations pay the small fee, but the clubs have to pay full freight. That's the way it should be. These people are making money off of their business, and the taxpayer is subsidizing their enterprise as well? That's not right."
While Moore would prefer to see the county preserve the racetrack, he feels that the track's demise probably a fait accompli. "Once those first few soccer fields went in, they got their foot in the door. It's doubtful that the county will go back on its plan."
Those who would want to preserve the racetrack find themselves in an odd situation. The absence of any private funding doomed the move to Marana, but it also keeps the current track in its less-than-desirable condition. No one is going to pour private capital into a facility that will likely be torn down as soon as the economy turns around and the county comes up with the money to follow through on its plan, which is still technically in place, but stuck in limbo.
Schmidt and Supervisor Day think that the horse people should start planning on making the move to the fairgrounds, but Pat White has other ideas.
"We're still here," she says, "and we want to stay. That won't change unless it's forced on us."
Given the current political and economic climates, that change may not come any time soon. Angry voters recently turned down modest budget overrides for some local school districts, and the prospects for passage of a bond issue to build a racetrack at the fairgrounds while tearing down one already in existence seems unlikely. And so the current mixed-use situation will remain in effect for the time being. The possibility exists that the soccer people will grow tired of waiting for their showcase facility to be built and start looking elsewhere, perhaps even using private capital to build one.
In the meantime—certainly for the next few weeks, and possibly for the next few years—Rillito will remain a hodgepodge venue, featuring the unlikeliest of pairings.
Kids and gamblers and horses ... oh my!