On January 2, 2019, the new Great Park Ice facility opened in Irvine, California, with a series of public skates that provided a preview of what city tourism officials say will significantly improve the sports hosting capabilities of this already thriving Southern California destination.
About two weeks later, on the weekend of January 18-21, Great Park Ice and the adjacent FivePoint Arena hosted the inaugural MLK Classic for 10U, 12U and 14U youth hockey teams.
“This is a game changer for us, in terms of bringing in games and tournaments we’ve never had before,” Dave Lucey, director of sports sales for Destination Irvine, says about the new ice facility. “There are quite a few things we want to do in that space.”
As the final major component of the epic 194-acre Orange County Great Park Sports Complex, the $104 million, 280,000-square-foot rink complex will host an official grand opening in March. As part of the NHL’s Anaheim Ducks RINKS network, the facility (under construction since February 2017) houses three NHL-size ice sheets that each boast seating for as many as 600 spectators, plus the FivePoint Arena, an Olympic-size rink that holds up to 2,500 people.
The facility also includes a sports bar, party rooms, classrooms and outdoor public spaces and amenities.
The Ducks practice on their home ice at the nearby Honda Center, but the team also will use the new Great Park facility when the Honda Center is hosting other events.
A variety of ice sports and recreational activities will be hosted at the new venue, including youth and adult hockey programs, regional and national hockey competitions, and figure skating, speed skating, sled hockey and curling instruction, practice sessions and tournaments.
In April, for example, the new ice complex will welcome the USA Hockey Girls Tier I National Championships, hosted by the Anaheim Junior Ducks.
Lucey and his staff currently are in discussions with management officials at Great Park Ice and the FivePoint Arena regarding the breadth and depth of ice events that the new venue can attract.
The Great Park Sports Complex, owned by the City of Irvine, is more than twice the size of Disneyland and part of 688 acres on a portion of the site that once housed the former Marine Corps Air Station El Toro, which was decommissioned in 1999. Orange County voters approved the Great Park project in 2002, with the goal of making the area an arts and sports recreational hub.
The first major phase of the complex opened in summer 2017, providing opportunities to host high-profile, large-scale events in tennis, soccer, rugby, lacrosse, cricket, beach volleyball and even quidditch.
Then, last fall, seven grass baseball fields and five grass softball fields debuted at The Great Park Sports Complex. Each diamond offers bleacher seating, and a championship baseball stadium boasts seating for 1,000 fans, while the championship softball stadium seats 300 fans.
All told, the elaborate complex offers opportunities to host a variety of field sports, tennis events, volleyball and basketball tournaments, baseball and softball games and ice competitions.
“In a short period of time, we’ve already seen a pretty heavy economic impact, with a wide variety of groups bringing events here,” Lucey says.
Celebrating 40 Years
Destination Irvine is an arm of the Greater Irvine Chamber of Commerce, which celebrates its 40th anniversary in 2019. Over the years — dating back to at least 1984, when the city hosted the swimming competition during the Los Angeles Summer Olympic Games — Destination Irvine has helped establish this city of nearly 300,000 residents as a prime venue for everything from USA Swimming Junior Nationals and the USA Water Polo National Junior Olympics to the World Cup of Softball and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Men’s Soccer National Championships (in both 2018 and 2019).
The city is well-equipped to handle such high-profile events. With 21 hotels ranging from full-service to extended-stay (and a grand total of more than 4,700 sleeping rooms), the city is easy to reach and navigate, and Irvine averages more than 280 sunny days each year. High temperatures range from mid-60 degrees to mid-80 degrees Fahrenheit, and the annual high temperature is 72.7 degrees Fahrenheit.
With its central location 45 miles south of Los Angeles and 90 miles north of San Diego, Irvine is only seven miles from the Pacific Ocean, which is a big draw for many sports participants and their families who turn youth sports trips into vacations.
Additionally, Irvine has been hailed as “America’s Safest Big City” by the FBI every year since 2005.
“We’re going after a lot of new business,” Lucey says. “And we’re also seeing a lot of returning groups that bring events to Irvine year after year.”
Among those new events is the SoCal All-American Games, which brought some of the best youth baseball players from around the country to the Orange County Great Park Sports Complex in January.
“Would that event have been here without the new facilities? I don’t know,” Lucey says, adding that a site visit by officials from tournament sponsor Baseball Youth helped convince them that the new baseball fields were the place they wanted to host the tournament.
Those fields also resolved a long local dilemma involving a shortage of ballfields for non-local events, according to Lucey.
Soccer is another sport with a long history in the Irvine area. The L.A. Galaxy, Los Angeles’ Major League Soccer team, was the first organization to make a long-term commitment to the Great Park’s 2,500-seat soccer stadium by creating the LA Galaxy Cup for U11 to U19 boys’ teams. That inaugural event took place in spring 2018.
Additionally, Irvine is home to the Orange County Soccer Club, Orange County’s only professional soccer team and an official affiliate partner of the Galaxy. Orange County SC is a part of the United Soccer League, the fastest-growing Division II professional soccer league in the world. The team plays its home games at the Orange County Great Park’s Championship Soccer Stadium. Nestled right in the heart of the Great Park, the venue can hold more than 5,000 fans for Orange County SC matches.
“One of the great things about the Great Park is that [it is bringing] more weekend events to Irvine,” Lucey says. “The original soccer fields have been there for years. The space has been constantly and consistently expanded over time, but now we really have some momentum. This is going to be the centerpiece for a lot of youth tournaments for years to come.”
2019 Will Be a Big Year
All that said, the Orange County Great Park Sports Complex is far from the only game in Irvine. The recent completion of the park’s baseball and softball venues brings the total number of athletic fields in the city to more than 80, and nearly 30 other facilities are available to host a variety of events.
Additionally, as a master-planned community, the city requires five acres of parkland for every 1,000 residents — resulting in miles of jogging trails and off-street bicycle paths.
With the Great Park Sports Complex’s ice and baseball/softball facilities entering their first full year of operation in 2019, Lucey and his team are looking forward to advancing the city’s sports tourism destination appeal even further.
“This will be an exciting year for us,” he says. SDM