Longtime Plant City residents will never forget the decade when the Cincinnati Reds called Plant City home during the spring.
Few, however, will remember the time when the facility hosted a professional soccer franchise.
It seems VisionPro Sports Institute’s time in the Winter Strawberry Capital of the World will be short-lived. After two request for proposals from the city on a sale or long-term lease of the 6,700-seat stadium and adjacent Randy L. Larson Four-Plex, there was only one bidder — Big League Dreams Inc.
After reportedly missing the deadline of the first request, VSI decided not to put in a proposal for the second RFQ. The company began a lease of Plant City Stadium in April, for $10,000 per month, after other options fell through as the inaugural season for VSI Tampa Bay FC, a United Soccer League expansion franchise, quickly approached.
According to Director of Soccer Clay Roberts, a former Plant City High soccer standout, the company had an interest in the property but expressed concern that there wasn’t enough land to support VSI’s plans of a residential soccer academy (which is planned to include 20-plus playing fields).
Before VSI came to Plant City, the company had plans to eventually move into 28,000-seat stadium by 2016, with the ultimate goal of bringing an MLS franchise to Tampa Bay. Plant City Stadium and the Randy L. Larson Four-Plex still were appealing for the company, which strives to promote the game of soccer in Tampa Bay from youth to the pros, but opting not to submit a proposal shows that interest wasn’t high enough.
So, it seems Plant City Stadium will go in the record books as the first home of VSI Tampa Bay FC, even if it was only for a few months. In addition to the USL PRO team, VSI held matches at the stadium for its PDL, Super 20s and W-League (women) teams. Those three teams recently wrapped up their seasons, while the USL PRO team still has three home games remaining, including two this weekend.
Despite being 7-2-2 at Plant City Stadium this season, making them one of the best home teams in the United Soccer League, VSI has failed to attract local support. Fans are speckled about in a mostly empty stadium on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, when VSI holds matches. At its best, VSI pulls in several hundred fans, far below the total of USL PRO team and VSI’s Sunday night opponent, Orlando City, which averages about 8,000 fans each game.
The Tampa Bay Rowdies, a longstanding pro soccer team that competes in the North American Soccer League (which is one tier up from USL PRO and directly beneath MLS), averages about 4,000 fans each game, including a crowd favorite, the Rowdy Rowdies, a die-hard group of fans.
Sure, VSI is an expansion team, but there were no signs that they could ever pull in similar numbers or get the same kind of support of other regional pro teams by staying in Plant City.
In no way does this mean Plant City is not a “soccer town.” In many ways, it very much is. Just go to a local park on a Sunday afternoon, and you’ll see hundreds of soccer fans (sometimes more than at the VSI games) watching adult men’s leagues.
The Plant City Lancers, a local youth organization, has about 200 kids participating each year and that number has been steadily growing, along with the numbers of the PCRPD/Optimist Youth Soccer program.
Soccer was popular among young people and adults before VSI came, and it will continue to be popular after it is gone.
It is hard to say why pro soccer didn’t stick here — or even whether there is a single reason. It could be poor marketing, a tough economy, slow growth or just simply lack of interest.
Whatever it was, it led to a brief timestamp on the history of Plant City Stadium that will make a good trivia question years down the line.