By Charles Boehm – WASHINGTON, DC (Apr 28, 2022) US Soccer Players – One of auto racing’s spiritual homes is the site for what the marketing materials humbly proclaim as “the greatest soccer event of all time.” That would be the Daytona Soccer Fest, set for July 4th weekend at Daytona International Speedway. There’s no surprise that it’s the racing venue’s first soccer-centric occasion, packed with enough attractions to seemingly offer something to just about anyone in Florida and beyond.
Day 1 features a match between current Colombian champions Deportivo Cali and their crosstown rivals America de Cali, a concert from reggaeton artist Rauw Alejandro, and an open tournament held by the World Freestyle Football Association. Day 2 offers a “legends game” starring retired greats like David Trezeguet, Javier Mascherano, Juan Sebastian Veron, and Claudio Pizarro, followed by a performance from Chance the Rapper and an NWSL league match between Racing Louisville and local side Orlando Pride.
Organizers will build a temporary grass pitch, which they promise will be international quality, in the infield. It’ll sit right next to the finish line, in front of the center of Daytona’s massive grandstand, which has a total capacity of well over 100,000 spectators. Surrounding the pitch will be additional seating and a kaleidoscope of other activities. From thrill rides to food trucks to fireworks to a fishing tournament on Lake Lloyd, the 29-acre, fish-stocked lake in the infield inside Daytona’s enormous 2.5-mile-long racetrack, the list is impressive.
“It’s sometimes a little bit risky to do things outside the box and of course we have a soccer pitch that needs to be sanctioned by US Soccer,” John Reynal, CEO of OnSide Entertainment, one of Soccer Fest’s co-promoters, said in a press conference held at the track this week. “This will be built five days, seven days before the event and we’ll get sanctioned. But we have the best builders in the country, perhaps the world, constructing the soccer pitch, and they’re 100% sure it’s going to be perfect and amazing. The background and the scenery, it will be seen in over 150 countries, and it’ll put Daytona International Speedway as the world’s center of soccer.”
Having the National Women’s Soccer League play a regular-season game, rather than an exhibition match, adds authenticity. That’s something the organizers made clear.
“To the best of our knowledge, it’s the first time ever in history, the history of soccer, that a professional league match – for the points – is played in a non-traditional venue, following the lead that many years ago the NHL did with the NHL (Winter) Classic and that Major League Baseball did with the Field of Dreams. Now soccer has its field of magic,” said Reynal. He added that the concept, which was originally scheduled for last year but postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic, has been years in the making.
The presence of Pride and Orlando City owner and chairman Mark Wilf at the press conference underlined the clubs’ degree of commitment. Like most other soccer leagues on these shores, NWSL can use all the exposure it can get. Pride head coach Amanda Cromwell revealed that the sheer scope and uniqueness of the event has piqued her squad’s interest.
“I came to the (Daytona) 500 once and it was an amazing race. It’s hard even to explain, just the sounds, the sights, the excitement, so having a soccer match here in the infield and looking at the drawings and schematics of the pitch and with the stands, with the iconic racetrack, is amazing,” said Cromwell. “I know the players are really excited for the match, but also Chance the Rapper. They’re already asking, ‘are we gonna be able to watch any of this concert?'”
While concerts at racing venues aren’t out of the ordinary, it’s extending the reach for venues that may only host a few major races a year. In 2016, a college football game at Bristol Motor Speedway drew over 150k. It’s a reminder that the biggest sports venues in this country are racetracks. Daytona, which underwent a $400 million renovation several years ago, is a big stage for any sport.
“In addition to cars going around the track here with the Rolex [24 At Daytona] and with NASCAR’s regular-season finale here in August, this place is busy 300-plus days a year,” Daytona International Speedway president Frank Kelleher said. “We’re getting ready for a four-day music festival. We have a Vietnam veterans festival coming up Memorial Day weekend. So we have a wide array of fans that come in from all over the globe to this property.”
The involvement of OnSite and Torneos, Soccer Fest’s other well-connected promoter, shows there are plenty of international entities eager to market to US fans. “It is part of our regional expansion strategy. The US market, it’s a very large market, very important market,” said Torneos CEO Ignacio Galarza. “Soccer is a sport that is growing very nicely.”
Should this event prove successful, it’s an additional model that other parts of the country won’t ignore. That could dramatically widen the possibilities for soccer as a headline event in new areas of the United States. Given the growth we’ve already seen, “why not?” might just be well worth asking.
More from Charles Boehm:
- The 2022 US Open Cup moves on to the round of 32/strong>
- “Culture,” “ethos” carries Seattle Sounders to the CCL final, and the doorstep of history
- Finally: USMNT navigate Octagonal path back to World Cup
- Beginnings, endings, and perseverance for USMNT at Azteca
Logo courtesy of Concacaf