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Beating the recession by playing indoors

Bigger, feature-rich facilities are banking on draw of youth sports

Plexiglass boards provide a clear view of a girls' soccer match at Teamworks in Acton; the company also has an indoor facility in Northborough. Plexiglass boards provide a clear view of a girls' soccer match at Teamworks in Acton; the company also has an indoor facility in Northborough. (Evan Richman/Globe Staff)
By Calvin Hennick
Globe Correspondent / December 4, 2008
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When belts tighten, youth sports boom.

So say developers of indoor sports facilities, which continue to pop up - with larger and larger footprints - around the region, in spite of a growing economic crisis that has caused other builders to put the brakes on their projects.

A 135,000-square-foot facility is set to open this month in Marlborough, and developers of two complexes proposed for Bellingham and Millis that would be even larger say they're not shelving their plans.

"It's relatively recession-proof," said Tom Teager, owner of Fore Kicks II, which was awaiting its occupancy permit in Marlborough early this week.

"We have not experienced a downturn during poor economic times," said Teager, who also owns Fore Kicks in Norfolk, where the average cost for a child to sign up for a 10-week league is under $100. "Recreation is a relatively inexpensive way and a very healthy way for kids to occupy themselves."

The new facilities won't be without competition. As winter beckons, business steps up at established indoor complexes in Acton and Northborough. Athletes can also choose from the Newton Indoor Sports Center, the FieldHouse in Sudbury, the Mass. Premier Courts basketball complex in Foxborough, the John Smith Sports center in Milford, indoor baseball facilities in Waltham and Watertown, and numerous hockey rinks.

"People cut back on luxury trips and going to a fancy restaurant, but as far as youth sports, it's something people want to do for as long as possible," said Ted Doyle, chief operating officer of the BCL Premier Sports facility planned for Bellingham. "I think we're pretty low on the totem pole as far as making cuts."

Edwin Foster, a partner in Xcel Indoor Sports, the complex planned for Millis, agreed. "The parents will spend money on their kids and their pets and cut back on everything else," he said.

Developers say a number of factors make them confident in spite of the economy. When families cut back on vacations, they say, they're likely to keep their children busy during school breaks with activities like indoor soccer camps. More children and teens are playing sports like soccer and lacrosse - which used to be confined to either a fall or spring season - year-round. At the same time, more adults are joining recreational leagues.

"You've got this confluence of factors that is leading to tons of demand, and that is what we're trying to fill," Doyle said, adding that the planned Bellingham facility already has at least preliminary commitments for 150 percent of its field rental time.

A prominent sports economist backs the idea that, even in tough times, indoor sports complexes are likely to flourish.

"I agree with the premise that these things are more or less recession-proof," said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College, adding that his own children play soccer year-round at an indoor facility in Northampton. "I think there's an increasing recognition that in the wintertime, kids like to have recreation besides skiing."

Teager said about 300 people per hour, including children and parents, come through the doors of the Norfolk Fore Kicks during the peak winter season. In Marlborough, he expects that number to increase to about 400 or 500 people per hour. Renting a field can cost between $75 and $200 per hour, depending on field size and the length of the rental contract, Teager said.

While the newer centers are trending toward large, state-of-the-art buildings, older facilities are also benefiting from youth sports in weathering a stagnant economy.

"Our revenues are up again this year," said Tom McLaughlin, co-owner of Teamworks Centers, which operates indoor sports centers in Acton, Northborough, and several other locations across the state. The Acton and Northborough facilities were started in the 1990s and are less than half the size of the new Fore Kicks II in Marlborough.

McLaughlin said the Northborough and Acton centers average between 700,000 and 800,000 visits per year (many of those are the same people playing numerous games). Depending on team size, he said, it usually costs children between $65 and $80 to play an eight-game season at the centers. Fields can be rented for $140 to $180 per hour, he said.

The newer facilities have out-of-bounds lines to replicate outdoor play, while the Teamworks centers mostly contain fields surrounded by boards, in the style of a hockey rink. McLaughlin said he does not think lined fields are necessarily the "wave of the future," adding that larger fields could be more difficult to rent out. "I think it's two different products."

The Bellingham developers, on the other hand, are banking on the idea that teams will pay extra for an updated product. The facility is slated to include two 120-by-70-yard fields - large enough for a professional soccer match - plus three basketball courts, a training center, a restaurant, and lounges with wireless Internet and televisions. "It's going to have amenities that are more associated with a hotel than a sports facility," said Doyle.

In addition to premium space, parents and children are attracted to facilities that host elite teams and leagues, said Foster, the partner at the planned Millis facility. He said a premier lacrosse league at the Xcel center will be a major draw. "It's not enough to just open it, build it, and they will come," he said. "You have to create something that is of value to them. That includes building leagues and teams that they will want to play in."

Doyle said the facilities may also host school teams whose districts can't afford to maintain their own facilities. "It's getting more and more expensive to build and maintain this kind of infrastructure," he said. "Six communities can use our fields for much cheaper than they can build and maintain their own fields."

However, Smith College economist Zimbalist said that while it's possible some districts will decide it's cheaper to rent fields, most districts will probably maintain facilities because they need them for physical education classes in addition to sports.

Ground hasn't even been broken for the BCL facility in Bellingham, but Doyle said his company is already planning its next move, with a Bridgewater complex to be the next of five indoor sports centers in Eastern Massachusetts in the coming years. Teamworks is also eyeing sites for new centers in both Massachusetts and Rhode Island.

Doyle said the indoor sports facilities are geographically far enough away from one another to keep them all in business. "The demand is sky-high," Doyle said.

Building these centers is expensive and time-consuming, though. The Fore Kicks II in Marlborough took Teager several years of permitting and construction and cost more than $10 million, he said.

Doyle said the Bellingham facility will cost about $35 million, and McLaughlin said his company's Teamworks centers tend to lose a significant amount of money for their first three years. Is it possible that interest in team sports will wane during the building boom, and warehouse-sized indoor fields of dreams will be left to sit empty?

"Absolutely, I don't believe that," said Doyle. "Sports have been a constant obsession of Americans for 75 years."

Jim Lehan, a selectman in Norfolk, said athletic facilities like Fore Kicks are "wonderful businesses" to have in town. "It's more than just the revenue, it's more the benefits they bring to the community," he said.

Nor does Lehan think that indoor sports are just a passing fad. "I think anything has a risk of being overbuilt," he said. "But as long as there are children, that demand's going to be here."

Growth industry

1996 - Teamworks Acton (originally called Acton Indoor Sports) opens an indoor sports facility with boarded playing fields in a converted factory. 51,000 square feet.

1997 - Teamworks Northborough, another facility with boarded playing fields, opens. 67,000 square feet.

2002 - Fore Kicks opens in Norfolk, with four indoor turf fields with lined boundaries and one boarded field, and two basketball courts. Site also features an outdoor nine-hole lighted par-3 golf course. 85,000 square feet.

2008 - Fore Kicks II in Marlborough opens with the same amenities as the Norfolk facility, plus two more indoor turf fields and two outdoor lighted turf fields. Owner Tom Teager says it's the largest facility of its kind in New England. 135,000 square feet.

Future - Xcel Indoor Sports, planned for Millis, will have four turf fields. Owners hope to break ground in March and open in September.

Future - BCL Premier Sports, planned for Bellingham, will have two 120-by-70-yard indoor turf fields, three basketball courts, a restaurant, conference rooms, and a video arcade. 245,000 square feet.

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