As I’ve written before, after accepting this job, I thoroughly researched Plant City and its sports scene.
Being the sports historian I like to claim to be, I found out about Plant City Stadium and how it was the former spring training home to the Cincinnati Reds. Even though the Reds left town when I was 10, long before I had heard of Plant City or had aspirations of being a sports writer, I was disappointed I wouldn’t have the chance to cover a professional sports team in the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World.
All that changed last week when the city agreed to pursue a short-term lease with VisionPro Sports Institute Inc. The soccer organization plans to lease the stadium at least through August for its four United Soccer League franchises, including a USL Pro squad.
That’s right: Professional sports is coming back to Plant City.
When I heard the news, my mind began racing. Of course, I Googled the organization and the USL to learn as much as I could. I then began pondering all of great stories and features that could come out of this news.
I was also a little bit thankful, as this will keep me busy this summer — generally a slow sports time — between our coverage of Plant City’s talented Little League All-Star teams.
Then, I began pondering what kind of effect having a pro sports team again would have on this city and how people here would receive the VSI teams.
There’s no denying that soccer has a large presence in Plant City. The Plant City Recreation and Parks Department/Optimist Club Youth Soccer program has a long and successful history, and the Plant City Lancers club organization has seen tremendous growth and success in the last few years.
All six high school soccer programs (boys and girls) have seen recent success and are steadily growing.
Although the current lease is short-term, there is a possibility of VSI making a long-term home in Plant City, which will open up possibilities for other initiatives of the organization, which hopes to add an international residential training academy, with three feeder satellite academies in the Tampa Bay area. Just think about the ramifications of Plant City becoming a part of those plans. Having a world-class soccer academy in our own backyard could mean a boost — both economically and from an athletic standpoint.
With the rate youth-soccer participation is growing in the area, that likely would increase participation numbers and begin to rival the popularity of baseball and football in the area.
Also, with the Hispanic population comprising nearly 30% of the city’s demographics, there is a culture present that likely would take well to a pro soccer franchise. There is also potential for VSI Tampa Bay FC to pull significant numbers from both Tampa and Lakeland, with Plant City’s central location to those heavily populated areas.
Being a huge baseball fan, I would be lying if I said the dream of having an MLB team call Plant City its home during March didn’t still exist. With the city currently seeking a long-term tenant or an outright buyer for the stadium, I suppose that dream is still alive.
But in the meantime, it will be exciting to have a professional sports team call Plant City home, and this time, I will be here to witness it.