With each passing year, it has become increasingly evident that leaders of the US Youth Soccer organization think West Virginia knows how to put together a good soccer tournament. Why else would the state be chosen so often to host two of the soccer group's most prestigious tournaments?
The latest affirmation came last week when another tournament was added to the state's slate: US Youth Soccer announced that its 2020 Eastern Regional Championships will be held June 26-July 2 at Barboursville Soccer Complex in Barboursville and the Shawnee Sports Complex in Dunbar.
That adds to a growing string of US Youth Soccer tournaments held in this region over the last decade, and the frequency has only grown in the last few years - a good sign for the state's hopes to grow its youth sports tourism activity.
The breakthrough that eventually resulted in the most recent announcement came a decade ago, after the West Virginia Soccer Association made a successful pitch to host for the first time the Eastern Regional Championships in Barboursville and the YMCA Kennedy Center on W.Va. 2 north of Huntington in 2009 and 2010. That set off a scramble to build more soccer fields in Barboursville and at the Kennedy Center, but commitment from the state soccer association, Barboursville and the state enabled that to happen. Then organizers and a slew of volunteers helped pull off those tournaments with very few hitches.
US Youth Soccer was pleased enough with those two tournaments that it brought the Eastern Championships back to Barboursville again in 2015 and 2016. In 2017 and 2018, the region was awarded another US Youth Soccer tournament series - the Eastern Presidents Cup.
Now, this year and next, the Barboursville and Shawnee complexes will work in tandem with each other to host both the Eastern Championship Series and the Eastern Presidents Cup tournaments. The hospitality shown by people in this region, as well as the newly augmented soccer facilities at the Shawnee complex in Dunbar, apparently have been convincing factors in bringing those tournaments to this area.
Another key aspect was the willingness for communities in Cabell and Kanawha counties to work together to provide the critical mass of facilities. "Neither Barboursville nor Shawnee are big enough to host these tournaments alone, so we're teaming together to make it happen," said Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango. "The truth is, the more tourism we have, the more everyone benefits."
Those benefits are significant - an estimated $56 million economic impact for the four tournaments planned this year and next. It's easy to see how those dollars can add up from hosting tournaments of this magnitude. About 225 teams participate in each of the Eastern Championship tournaments, while the Eastern Presidents Cup event involves about 112 teams. So at each of the tournaments, thousands of players, coaches, family members and other fans converge on the area, spending money for hotels, food, gas, supplies and shopping. The impact spreads far beyond the immediate Barboursville or Dunbar areas.
Amy Shuler Goodwin, now the mayor of Charleston and a former commissioner of tourism for West Virginia, pointed to the cooperation as an example of how communities across the state should look for opportunities to build the sports tourism business in the Mountain State. "Sports tourism - it's not a trend. It's not a fad. It's not a millennial gimmick or gambit. It's not. It's the fastest growing sector of travel in the world."
It's fortunate that this region has taken the steps to build on those opportunities.