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State soccer tourney bringing thousands to Bulloch
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Local tourism promoters and hospitality businesses hope that the Georgia Soccer State Cup Final Four, expected to bring nearly 2,500 people to Statesboro the last weekend in May, is a foretaste of more late-spring and summer sports events in the future.

The seasonal timing helped sell the idea of bidding for the youth soccer championship in the community, as Statesboro Convention and Visitors Bureau President Darin Van Tassell and Executive Director Heidi Jeffers explained in an interview.

"We all know we're a classic college town and summers slow down," Van Tassell said, "and maybe this is an angle where the CVB can help on the sports tourism side."

With Georgia Southern University between busy semesters and other schools on vacation as well, sports facilities sit unused. Motels and restaurants experience a lull. The streets are noticeably less busy.

But Statesboro is "a sports-crazy place," Van Tassell said. "It's one of the things we're really good at and like going to. We can fill some events in the summer. ..."

"... And become a sports destination, even more so than we already are," Jeffers said, picking up where he left off.

The Georgia Soccer State Cup features boys and girls teams in seven age brackets, from under-13 through under-19. So, 56 top teams will be coming to Statesboro for the semifinal and championship games May 30 and 31. Elite teams confident of advancing have made reservations, but the teams won't really know whether they will play here until the opening rounds are completed in Columbus next weekend.

Teams that win here will advance to a U.S. Youth Soccer regional tournament. Last year, two Georgia State Cup winning teams won at nationals.

"So it's huge," Van Tassell said.

The soccer fields at Mill Creek Regional Park and The Clubhouse were also part of Statesboro's bid for the tournament. But because Georgia Soccer wanted to keep it compact, all of the games will be held at Georgia Southern's soccer fields near the Recreation Activity Center, plus the university's main soccer stadium, which hosted the collegiate Sun Belt Conference men's tournament in November.

The Georgia State Cup Weekend should be worth a little more than $1 million in business sales in Statesboro, according to Jeffers' preliminary projection.

The SCVB hopes to see all of Statesboro's 1,200 or so hotel and motel rooms filled.

Jeffers' projection includes other spending, such as restaurant meals, shopping and fuel.

Hotels filling up

Two Statesboro hotels contacted Monday were well on their way to filling up for the Friday night before and the Saturday night between the semifinals and finals.

"We're about 90 percent full for that weekend," said Jack Forstrom, general manager of the Holiday Inn, which has 93 rooms.

"We've had some teams that are already making plans to come that are on the elite level, but there are teams that aren't going to know until Memorial Day whether they're coming or not," he said.

SpringHill Suites was between 90 and 100 percent booked for those two nights, said its general manager, Sean Hargraves, who expects the remainder of the 113 rooms to be booked as soon as teams know their standings this weekend.

May 29-31 is also a high school graduation weekend, but that has never created as much of a rise in room bookings as the soccer event has, Hargraves said.

Motels offered preset rates as part of the community's bid to host the event.

University's role

In addition to providing the soccer fields, Georgia Southern is making Freedom's Landing, the university-owned apartment complex next to Paulson Stadium, available as housing for players, coaches, their families and their guests. It becomes a sort of "Olympic village" for the event, Van Tassell remarked.

The use of the 216 available apartments will not be free. Georgia Southern is charging Georgia Soccer travelers $140 per night for a four-bedroom and $105 for a three-bedroom suite, with a two-night requirement.

"The revenue will go to the Georgia Southern housing department to cover the costs," said Jan Bond, GSU associate vice president for marketing and communications.

Freedom's Landing is not seen as competition by the two hotel managers interviewed. Hargraves said it should help Statesboro by preventing overflow visitors from resorting to Savannah for lodging.

"The dollars will be spent here in town, and everybody benefits from it, and we'll still be able to sell out, and I think that's a big part of them being able to host this type of event here in town," he said.

The university's part in the bid also included field rental and dining charges.

The GSU Multimedia Development Center will be providing live Internet streaming of the games for Georgia Soccer. The center's director, Art Berger, said the staff will maintain the same production quality learned in streaming video of Eagles sports events to ESPN3.

"We're going to take that same type of production level and apply it to this soccer tournament," he said. "That's going to be huge for these guys because they're going to be able to put this on their website and attract a lot of viewership,"

Going for more

Statesboro will need help from hotels and motels in surrounding communities if local promoters put together a successful bid to host the round-robin portion of the Georgia Soccer State Cup in 2016. The Convention and Visitors Bureau; the university; the Statesboro-Bulloch County Parks and Recreation Department, which operates Mill Creek Regional Park; and The Clubhouse, which is owned by Van Tassell, all are expected to be part of that effort.

This year, that portion is being held at Columbus, as it has been for more than a decade. It draws more than 250 teams.

Columbus also hosted the Final Four segment through 2012. It was held at Peachtree City in 2013 and Fayetteville in 2014.

Georgia Soccer has not sent out a request for proposals for the 2016 round-robin yet, Sharron Safriet, the organization's marketing and events director, said Monday. The venue will be announced in July or August, she said.

Al Hackle may be reached at (912) 489-9458.

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