MLS Preseason Destination Grande Sports World; 3 Years Ago it Was a Desert
“Three years ago this was all a desert,” says Jerry, a Grande Sports World employee who gesticulates by sweeping his hand across the landscape of where the sports complex and its 8 soccer fields now sit firmly planted in the sandy soil of Arizona. Grande Sports World, now a destination for preseason training for MLS and NASL teams, has indeed gone through a metamorphosis of sorts. In fact, even though the facility is only 3 years old, they’ve already changed gears and moved a different direction in that short time. But it’s possible Grande Sports World have now found their mark, servicing professional soccer teams in preseason training, providing a complete facility for coaches training through the NSCAA and U.S. Soccer, and academy hosting with Real Salt Lake and in the near future, possibly Grande Sports World.
Fifty years ago the resort, which included the Francisco Grande Hotel, was built for the spring training camp of the San Francisco Giants. The hotel and golf resort were built in 1961, just a few short years after the team moved from New York. The hotel, which jutted out of the flat Arizona desert, was built with features of a MLB stadium. External staircases wind, reminiscent of the older baseball parks, as well as a cantilevered roof off a top floor building.
Horace Stoneham, who then owned the Giants, built the unique hotel about 5 miles from the town of Casa Grande and about an hour’s drive south of Phoenix. There still are remnants of the preseason baseball camp with items like a baseball bat-shaped pool and a two story observation tower that used to be surrounded by 4 baseball fields. Nowadays the tower sits in front of the 8 soccer fields, 6 of them lit.
The resort received a $10 million renovation in 2003. It still has the golf course which now surrounds the soccer fields on two sides and also has an adjacent building which houses a large ballroom, meeting rooms, restaurant, and a cowboy-themed bar.
Ron Burks, now owner of the hotel and property along with co-owner Michael Saunders, worked out a deal in 2009 with the city of Casa Grande to purchase 40 acres from the city and then re-invested those funds in the new $20 million facility, Grande Sports World complex.
“The two derived a plan of having a multi-sport facility with a 58,000 square foot building,” says General Manager at Grande Sports World, Tim Alia. “The city of Casa Grande actually owns this facility but we manage and operate it and lease it for forty years. So basically it’s ours. It was originally built for the United Football League (UFL) for their inaugural training for the 2009/2010 season.”
However, it was clear that the UFL was struggling and Burks, Saunders and Alia needed to find another direction for the complex and quickly. The answer was soccer. Alia states they felt the sport was growing and under served.
“We asked, what can we do out here at this facility that no one else can do? Because we’re not a 500 room hotel. We’re not a 36 hole golf course. We’re not a million dollar spa. We own 500 acres so we had a lot of land and a lot of resources. The water is already here. The infrastructure like the hotel is already here. Professional soccer here in the U.S. has always had to take a back seat so to speak.”
Alia also credits Greg Vanney who Burkes hired to help with the quick revamp of the Grande Sports World. Vanney assisted them to understand what professional soccer teams were looking for in a facility and helped to bring Real Salt Lake’s Development Academy program to Casa Grande to create the first full time MLS academy.
In 2010 Grande Sports World had four MLS teams train with them. In 2011 they had 14 of the 18 teams stay, train or play games at the facility along with 2 NASL teams. He states the more stable weather is one of the reason that MLS teams were picking Arizona over Florida training locations. That and the fact that teams know they have everything in one place they will need to play and train. “You eat here, you sleep here, you train in the performance center, you train on the fields, you get treated in the training rooms and hot or cold plunge baths. We have goals of all sizes, training mannequins, flags, coolers, sports bottles, so you never have to leave the facility.”
Grande Sports World also has a performance center which is a 10,000 square foot building with a large atrium that features a rubberized floor with specialized weight, cardio, agility, and plyometric equipment. It’s surrounded by locker rooms, four total, each with 72 beautiful large wood lockers, coaches locker rooms and offices and 16 meeting rooms/classrooms with each accommodating up to 30 people. Last year not only did the teams take advantage of those rooms but so did the league. MLS officials flew into Arizona and held classes with players on subjects like gambling and substance abuse.
The sports complex has also been a destination for youth national teams and been a center to conduct coaching courses for the USSF and the NSCAA.
The facility also has 40 dorm rooms which are currently being used for the Real Salt Lake Academy. The boys live at Grande Sports World and go to school in town, says Alia. He states that they hope to expand again in 2013, building another 60 dorm rooms to bring that total to 100 and add their own soccer-specific academy at Grande Sports World.
While 2011 was a high for the facility in regard to pro teams who visited or stayed at the Grande Sports World, the numbers are down this year and closer to the numbers in 2010. Alia says he believes it’s because so many teams are now involved in tournaments in the second half of the preseason training. Grande Sports World is working to partner with the Desert Cup in Tucson, Arizona, a little over an hour southeast from Casa Grande. He states that he would like to see that tournament move to a 6-team event with teams training and staying at Grande Sports World.