ORLANDO, Fla. – Dreaming big is what Disney is all about.
Organizers of the Walt Disney World Pro Soccer Classic, which kicks off here on Thursday, have a grand vision of transforming the tournament into one of the most important soccer events of the calendar year.
Early discussions will take place this weekend between MLS league officials and representatives from the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex about future preseason plans and how more – if not all MLS teams – could potentially participate.
Also among the topics of conversation will be the idea of organizing the largest international combine anywhere in the world in which youth players under 23 can showcase themselves for MLS coaches and scouts.
“I’d love to see us build a property in conjunction with MLS and this preseason opportunity,” said Patrick Dicks, senior sports manager for Disney Sports. “It would be a way to find those 18- to 23-year-old players from the US and around the world who want to be seen by MLS clubs.”
These big ideas are nothing new for Dicks, who has successfully created numerous other soccer events at the complex, including transforming it into the event headquarters for the 1998 MLS All-Star Game, which resulted in hours of soccer programming on ABC and ESPN.
It was under Dicks’ watch that all 12 MLS teams participated in a preseason event at the same complex in 1998.
Soccer and TV could once again prove to be the catalyst for transforming the MLS preseason into a national destination event here in Orlando. The four matches in the 2011 Disney Pro Soccer Classic will be streamed live on MLSsoccer.com and ESPN3.com.
“Last year we had this fantastic opportunity to rebrand our facility with ESPN and we now have 47 cameras all over the fields and a production center,” Dicks said. “It’s a great opportunity to generate content on ESPN3 and other platforms. My vision is to get more eyeballs on preseason by having the teams come down to a world-class facility.”
After working with MLS and its clubs back in 1998, Dicks shifted his focus to youth soccer and the creation of two of the most high-profile events in the youth ranks.
The annual Disney Cup competition today features more than 200 major youth clubs from the US and the rest of the world every summer. The Disney Showcase, held in December, has arguably become the top recruiting tournament for the elite college-bound players with more than 1,000 college coaches in attendance.
Now Dicks, whose father is former Chelsea player and ex-Bristol City manager Alan Dicks, wants to make the same kind of splash on the professional level with MLS.
Soccer is already the No. 1 sport at the complex when it comes real estate, and there are plans to expand the number of soccer fields there from 13 to 17.
Even though NFL prospects are currently training there ahead of the draft and baseball’s Atlanta Braves will arrive this weekend to prepare for spring training, soccer has become a dominant force in the potpourri of sports hosted by the venue.
“You go out there at any one time and you’ll see so many levels of athletes,” Dicks said. “The eight-year-old kid kicking the ball around on one field. And then on the other field you have MLS MVP David Ferreira sticking the ball into the top corner. It’s really a special place to be.”