Column: Economic hit from youth sports restrictions grows as California teams head to Arizona

The annual Surf Cup has moved to Phoenix for 2020.
The Surf Cup soccer tournament, usually held in Del Mar, has been moved to Phoenix for 2020 as California continues to prohibit youth sports competitions.
(Courtesy photo)

Yuma is booming with baseball events, and Surf Cup soccer tournament moves to Phoenix


The Yuma Fall Classic is a youth baseball tournament held earlier this month in the desert city just across the California-Arizona border. There were 51 teams entered in six divisions.

Two were from Yuma.

Forty-nine were from California. Teams from San Diego met in the finals of both the 11- and 12-year-old divisions, part of a new, bizarre, parallel reality as the state’s Department of Public Health reportedly prepares to announce an updated youth sports guidance that may or may not lift the prohibition on games.

And that’s the Yuma Fall Classic, not to be confused with the Yuma Summer Sizzle, Yuma Halloween Bash, Yuma Winter Classic, Yuma Christmas Classic or Yuma New Year’s Showdown.

And those are tournaments run by Triple Crown Baseball. Another company, National Championship Sports, has the Think Pink Fall Classic, plus its own Halloween Bash, the Turkey Trot Warm-up, the Turkey Trot Classic, the Winter Wood Bat Classic and the Winter Nationals — all in Yuma, all before the end of the year.

The Think Pink Classic last weekend had 126 teams. The Halloween Bash this weekend already has 131 registered — 124 from California.

“We chose Yuma because it would be close for San Diego and California teams,” says Luis Tovar, a longtime Yuma resident and Southwest region director for National Championship Sports. “It just took off. It’s been blowing up.

“I’ll put it to you this way. I went online because I was trying to get an additional room for one of our umpires. The only thing I found was our Motel 6 in Yuma, which is usually about $50 per night. It was $200. That tells you what the demand is. … The economy here is booming right now.”

California remaining one of only a handful of states prohibiting youth sports games (or even contact in practice) has been a source of growing frustration, simmering over with rallies across the state this month that drew hundreds of children carrying signs beckoning “Let us play” and “We matter.”

Lurking beneath the surface, however, is the economic impact from what nationally is a $19 billion industry. People see kids playing on a field. What they don’t see are all the hidden dollars surrounding it — the gas or rental car to get there, the hotel room, the morning Starbucks run for parents, the Jamba Juice run for kids between games, the team dinner at a local pizza parlor, the theme park entry on off days, parking, referees, concessions, the merchandise tent.

Much of it comes from massive summer tournaments that bring youth athletes — and their families — to San Diego from across the country and, in some cases, the world. The biggest of those is Surf Cup, the annual soccer extravaganza held over two weekends on 40-plus fields in Del Mar and Oceanside.

Organizers tentatively rescheduled Surf Cup from July to Labor Day and then to October. Then they gave up and announced it will be played on the last weekend of December and first weekend of January … in Phoenix and Scottsdale, Ariz.

Other sports have relocated events from California to Utah and Idaho, states that, like Arizona, have more relaxed coronavirus restrictions for youth sports.

“You’re talking about a lot of money that’s moving out of the state,” says Brian Enge, CEO of Surf Cup Sports. “I think the biggest issue for anybody who runs events is, with no information from our political leaders and no information from our governor, we have to assume the worst. Nothing has changed since June. There’s nothing about youth sports activities on any of those silly color charts — purple, red, whatever. None of those things tells us when we can open up an event.

“They’ve basically given us two choices: Go out of business or go out of state.”

According to an economic impact report commissioned by Surf Cup Sports, the 35-plus events it hosts annually at the Del Mar and Oceanside field complexes account for just under 500,000 attendees between parents and children, 155,000 hotel room-nights and $120 million in spending and taxes, which nearly rivals the famed Comic-Con convention in economic impact.

They hosted two events in January. That’s it for 2020.

The same goes for dozens of baseball, softball, volleyball, basketball and water polo tournaments scheduled for San Diego this year. All of them have canceled or moved out of state.

That includes National Championship Sports’ youth baseball World Series in mid-July, with 90 percent of the 150 teams from out of the area and a minimum six-night hotel stay.

That includes County Cup, a water polo tournament across two weekends in May hosted by San Diego Shores, one of the nation’s top clubs that has churned out college players for 28 years. That, and a coronavirus-related limit on pool capacities (that doubles or triples rental expenses for practices), compelled Shores to launch a GoFundMe page “to help bridge” a $150,000 shortfall.

Enge, who has a MBA from Harvard Business School, estimates the total economic hit in San Diego County from the shutdown of youth sports at between $300 million and $500 million.

“I don’t think people in San Diego understand how much youth sports events drives revenues to small businesses and tax income for the city and county,” Enge says. “I think they completely miss that, which is why we’re not getting the attention of the politicians.”

Their argument is simple: Most outdoor youth sports do not transmit the virus.

The most comprehensive national study, conducted by the University of Wisconsin’s School of Medicine and Public Health, examined 90,000 soccer players from 34 states across 10 weeks. It found one documented case of transmission during soccer.

“Of course, we’re part of society, we’re part of the community, and we have to take our (financial) lumps with everybody else,” Enge says. “But we feel the entire youth sports community is being unfairly held down with no science or data that says outdoor sports are unsafe. They’re holding us back and holding our feet to the floor without allowing us to move, whereas comparable activities like going to the beach or going to school or going out to restaurants and bars is somehow allowed.

“Where’s the science that says outdoor sports is a problem?”

The most immediate impact has been to sports facilities that can’t gain rental income. A city of San Diego spokesperson said rec centers have collected approximately $2.7 million less than expected since March, or about 57 percent of normal. School districts that rent their fields and gyms in the evenings and weekends have taken similar hits.

The Sportsplex USA sites in Poway and Santee, which host baseball, softball and soccer games, have been shut down since March. That’s meant a $1 million operating loss and 75 furloughed employees at each complex, according to General Manager Eddie Vandiver.

“It’s a shame that a) we can’t do anything, b) there’s no road map when we can and c) we can’t get a response from anyone,” Vandiver says. “That’s our frustration. We haven’t been able to get any answers. We’re not really getting a lot of attention thrown our way.”

That could change as soon as Tuesday, when the California Department of Public Health is expected to issue an updated youth sports guidance. The current protocol, issued Aug. 3, allows only physically-distanced practices in groups of 14 or less.

Meanwhile in Yuma, a room at the SpringHill Suites on Saturday night is going for $369 plus tax. Enge says 80 percent of San Diego Surf players have already been to Arizona at least once this summer or fall, and “the No. 1 conversation we’re having within our club” is how often parents are willing to make the drive.

Tovar, the regional director from National Championship Sports, has baseball tournaments booked every other weekend through the end of the year. He also quietly reserved the fields from January through July in case California doesn’t budge on its game prohibition.

“We just haven’t put them up on our website yet,” Tovar says. “But we’re ready to go.”

The downside for San Diego teams: Driving 2½ hours to play someone from down the street.

“I get that,” Tovar says. “But then you look at the bracket, and seven out of the eight teams are from San Diego. There’s only so much we can do. We tell them, ‘Just be happy we’re able to play baseball right now.’ ”

— Mark Ziegler is a sports reporter and columnist for The San Diego Union-Tribune