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Palm Beach County, Florida

30 Jun, 2009

By: William Cooper Jr.
Sports Tourists Find More than Sports in Palm Beach County

Bouncing soccer balls will replace galloping horses at the International Polo Clubin July 2010, when Palm Beach County hosts the American Youth Soccer Organization's (AYSO) National Games.

It's just one prong in a multi-faceted effort to solidify Palm Beach County's reputation as an ideal sports tourism destination. By coupling its ability to hostlarge-scale sporting events with its 47 miles of breathtaking beaches, 170 prestigious golf courses, 12 major shopping destinations and 2,400 restaurants, the county clearly proves there is much to offer sports tourists besides sports.

That could help explain why Palm Beach County was able to beat cities in California and Tennessee for the honor of hosting the estimated 10,000 people who are expected to attend one of youth soccer's most important events. Together, the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, the Village of Wellington and AYSO Section 14, the soccer group's local unit, submitted the winning bid.

The week-long event runs July 4-11, 2010 and is expected to generate nearly $8 million in revenues countywide.

That revenue will come in handy for hoteliers and businesses in the county, especially during a particularly tough economic downturn and the traditionally slowest time of the year for tourism.

"The intent is to give our community visibility and growth," said William Reese, area director of the Area I, AYSOSection 14, which is located in Wellington. "Moms, dads, aunts, uncles, cousins are coming from all over the country to watch these kids play."

Indeed, Palm Beach County provides an idyllic backdrop for the family atmosphere normally found at the AYSO National Games. Participants will be urged to 'arrive early and stay late' under the Sports Commission's Extended Stay program, which offers discounts at restaurants, hotels andattractions for sports tourists who opt to extend their travel plans. Obviously, the commission's goal is to make all sports excursions to Palm Beach County trips to remember.

The list of activities is endless. Families can brave a trip through the jungle at Lion Country Safari, for example, or enjoy a boat ride along the Intracoastal Waterway or view natural habitats at MacArthur Beach State Park. Simply put: A week-long soccer competition can easily double as a vacation in paradise.

This is the first time the AYSO National Games have been held in Florida. The bi-annual event was held previously in Hawaii. AYSO Section 14 began pursuing the chance to host the National Games in December 2008, according toReese, who serves as venue chairman of the 2010 National Games.

He began volunteering with AYSO Section 14 through the coaching ranks in 1987, when his son began playing in the program. Reese's daughter soon followed. Both have since aged out of the program, which includes boys and girls age 10-19.

"Every kid plays and there's no screaming coaches," Reese said. "We're here to have fun and to teach sportsmanship. That's the soul of this program."

One of the keys to winning the bid for the games, according to Gerry Baron, the Sports Commission's executive director, was the local group's ability to show how they could put 30 soccer fields in a single, contiguous location. That's where the International Polo Club stepped into the picture.

Lynn Berling-Manual, chief marketing officer for AYSO, agreed. Once the organization saw the polo grounds, it was easy to make the decision to bring its 10,000 attendees here.

"The International Polo Club is a magnificent facility," said Berling-Manual, who is based in AYSO's Hawthorne, California, office. "If there's one single component that brought us to Palm Beach County, it was the International Polo Club."

Another strong attraction is the county's significant volunteer base, she said, plus the commission's Extended Stay program.

"We want the entire family to have a great opportunity taking advantage of all that the communityhas to offer," Berling-Manuel said. "Many of our families will come in early to take advantage of the vast destinations that Florida has to offer."

In preparation for the National Games, AYSO teams will hold fund-raisers to attend the games – and pay for hotel reservations and planes, trains and buses, she said. When they arrive next summer, they will see a virtual athletic village, with thousands of young soccer players and their fans. Public and private agencies have also teamed-up to help keep things running smoothly – the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office will maintain traffic flow and there will be support from the Village of Wellington.

That world-class attitude will dovetail nicely with the offerings in Palm Beach County – not only a world-class sports destination, but world-class activities. It's clear to see why the Sports Commission's critical understanding of how to pull all things together definitely makes Palm Beach County the ideal location to host any major sporting event.

Indeed, the Sports Commission is no stranger to luring large-scale events to Palm Beach County. As one of the nation's leading sports tourism venues, Palm Beach County is also home to the USA Water Ski National Championships, National Firefighter Games and USA Baseball 16 & Under championships.

According to Baron, the Sports Commission's aim is tomake Palm BeachCounty a world-leader inhosting field game tournaments. Entertaining events such as the AYSO National Games is putting the Sports Commission well on its way to achieving that goal.

"Our desire is to attract every major field game tournament to Palm Beach County," Baron said. "We have the ability to transform our venues to meet the needs of the sports tourist. We go above and beyond when it comes to providing customer service."

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