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Naples Daily News (Florida)


Officials from the United Soccer League, a nationwide men's professional league, visited Fort Myers last week as a potential expansion city for a lower-tier division it is launching in 2019.

USL Division III will be a lower division to the USL, which itself is formally classified by the United States Soccer Federation as a Division 2 league beneath Major League Soccer, America's top league.

USL officials met with potential expansion owners and with staff from Lee County Sports Development. They toured seven existing venues in the county and visited "some vacant land" for possible development options, said Steven Short, vice president of USL Division III.

"We've been in discussions with several groups in Fort Myers for months now," Short said of potential owners, which he declined to name citing confidentiality agreements with a league slated to debut in March 2019.

"We believe that Fort Myers is on a great track to that point."

USL officials have examined more than 50 markets since announcing expansion plans in April 2017. Fort Myers is the 24th city visited by staff in the Southeast, Northeast and Midwest. South Georgia and Tucson have been announced as the league's first two franchises.

"I think our site visit shows our dedication in making Fort Myers a professional soccer town," Short said. "Each city we visited has different components that certainly make those exciting."

USL officials visited City of Palms Park in downtown Fort Myers, Century Link Sports Complex, JetBlue Park, FGCU, Kelly Road Soccer Complex, Buckingham Community Park and the Sherman Soccer Complex in Gateway, Short said.

Discussions included conversion options for the baseball stadiums as well as expansion options that could serve sports tourism efforts in the county, such as for youth and adult tournaments, Short said.

"Some may be more conducive than others," said Short, pointing to what he called the county's strength with youth and adult baseball and softball tournaments and leagues but room to add soccer, which he said has some overlapping demographics.

"I think it completely complements what's already in place. What we provide is an option for professional soccer to reach new fans. There's plenty of room for it."

Short and Jeff Mielke, executive director of Lee County Sports Development, said there were no discussions with county staff about any financing needs for a facility in Lee County.

"Lee County Sports Development and Lee County Parks & Recreation always have an open ear for sports facility development conversations," Mielke said. "Discussions with USL are very preliminary. It's the county's understanding that the onus of building a facility would lie with the potential owner."

The Tampa Bay Rowdies of the USL reported average attendance of about 6,000 fans per game for each of the past three seasons at St. Petersburg's Al Lang Stadium, which has capacity for about 7,500.

Orlando City Soccer Club, which began play in MLS in 2015 as the successor to the team from the same name and ownership in the USL, averaged near capacity crowds of about 25,000 in 2017.

With professional soccer a drive of at least two hours from Fort Myers, though, USL officials believe Southwest Florida can support a team.

"I'd go to games. I absolutely would love to see it work out," said Naples' Jeff Butzke, owner of the former Southwest Florida Adrenaline, a member of the USL's amateur Premier Development League for four seasons before folding in 2017.

"I hope people say this is important for the community. But who knows."

Butzke said the Adrenaline drew almost no fans for almost four seasons, played from May to July.

He blames himself partly for being inexperienced running a team, in which he estimates he invested nearly $250,000 over four seasons, including a $50,000 expansion fee to the USL for the franchise.

But he also said weather was a problem and is concerned about the time frame for USL DIII, which aims to have teams play 24-28 games over 24 weeks from March to September.

"I hope they get it," Butzke said. "I hope they have somebody who's willing to fund it. There's a lot of time and effort that has to go into it."

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March 7, 2018


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