February 19, 2011

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Labidou: Patrick Dicks building a soccer legacy at Disney Wide World of Sports

12 Oct, 2010

By Alex Labidou

In almost every high-level soccer match, there are awe-inspiring moments that are worthy of being watched again and again. ESPN’s World Cup coverage proved this by utilizing innovative technology on highlights like Cristiano Ronaldo performing a stepover, extensively replaying such moments of skill from over 30 distinct angles. However, could the same be done for a high school team or a corporate soccer tournament? If so, what would that mean for the development of youth soccer in America?

ESPN/Disney’s Patrick Dicks is determined to find out.

Since his arrival at Disney 14 years ago, Dicks has been very active and influential in developing a strong soccer program at Disney’s World of Sports Complex. A former general manager of the old USISL’s Cocoa Expos, the 54-year old has long-running links to soccer that date back to his childhood. His father played for England’s Chelsea FC during the 1950s and while longevity isn’t common for soccer coaches in Europe, Alan Dicks would follow up his playing days by coaching Bristol City for 14 years.

“I saw my father more in the newspaper than I did at home as he was always around the team,” said Dicks, reflecting on his father’s coaching tenure as part of a recent interview with NationalSoccerWire.com.

Whereas some who are born into a soccer family may rebel against the sport, Dicks embraced it.

“I was lucky in the fact that I grew up in the game and had a natural passion for the game,” said Dicks. “I grew up loving the game.”

Dicks believes that in order for Americans to truly embrace soccer as a sport, there has a be a cultivated passion for the game.

“One of the things for U.S. soccer as we look for the next generation of kids for the World Cup is that passion," he added. "That is critical to success.”

During Dicks’ duration at the World of Sports Complex, located at the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando, Fl. but “rebranded” earlier this year as an ESPN property, he has entertained a diverse range of guests at the facility. From local high schools and national club tournaments to major European clubs like Scottish powerhouse Celtic and Chelsea, last year’s English Premier League champions, Dicks says that the high standard of the fields and equipment are consistently maintained no matter who visits.

“Whenever Disney does something, it does it world-class,” he said.

The recent ESPN rebranding has enabled all sports at the facility to have access to some of the company’s trademarks, including SportsCenter. Over 50 high-definition cameras are used to capture highlights on the 13 full-sized, multi-purpose fields. Once the highlights are edited, they are displayed throughout the complex on 40 HD screens.

Nothing else in North America comes close to providing the almost-surreal experience of allowing all involved to feel part of a grand sporting event.

Access to ESPN has allowed the program to get more famous athletes and coaches involved as well. A gregarious host, Dicks is thrilled about the improvements that ESPN’s branding has brought and believes that the network is very committed to the growth of soccer in this country.

“ESPN has been a outstanding pioneer in helping soccer grow in this country,” said Dicks. “ESPN is bullish on soccer, and you have to believe that when you see the work that it’s done with MLS and the highlight packages for the World Cup. The highlights were very successful and I think one out of every three people in the U.S. watched at least six minutes of the World Cup.”

With the company providing an unprecedented level of attention and access, Dicks says it’s only a matter of time before the sport becomes a significant part of the country’s sport culture.

“The more kids get to see club soccer, the more they will become passionate about it,” said Dicks.

Dicks also has very ambitious plans to involve both of America’s major domestic soccer leagues, MLS and WPS, as a permanent preseason fixture at the facilities. Last season, four teams played preseason games at the complex and were impressed overall with the venue. Dicks wouldn’t confirm rumors that he wants Disney to eventually build a professional stadium in the Orlando area, but says he would be very excited to work with college soccer.

“We are getting college soccer involved with our facilities and I would love to see a stadium being built,” said Dicks. “Is that something that’s going to happen in the next three to five years? Who knows. Let’s hope so and let’s hope to see some high-level soccer.

“I’d also like to see the Premier League take a mid-season break, and I’d like to see those teams take a trip to Orlando. In January, it’s a pretty nice place to be with the sun — it’s not too hot and if we had a stadium we could have some pretty amazing games.”

There’s an old cliché that says that soccer has the power to open borders and change lives. While no one believes that a match between the U.S. and the likes of North Korea or Iran would mend the deep political tensions between the countries, earlier this year Dicks got a firsthand look at soccer’s ability to heal.

Mere weeks after the severe earthquake in Haiti on January 12 that saw the impoverished country lose nearly 250,000 lives, the Haitian under-17 women’s soccer team faced their final slate of U17 World Cup qualifiers with only a faint chance to make the tournament.

Visibly fatigued and distressed, the teenage girls played solely on pride and emotion and lost their last two games, including a 9-0 defeat at the hands of the U.S. Immediately after the final whistle, the American squad embraced Haiti’s weeping goalkeeper in a moving gesture of support and number of American players subsequently made an effort to get the Haitian U17 team involved with Disney’s Youth International Tournament.

“They knew that the Haitian girls were going back to a difficult situation in Haiti,” explained Dicks. ”Once we heard about that, we wanted to get involved.”

Disney was already involved with helping people in devastated Haiti, but Dicks emphasized that he wanted to help the U.S. girls in trying to make a difference.

“We have a tournament, we have an opportunity to bring them in, let’s do it,” said Dicks. “Let’s support them in their mission.”

So the Haitian U17 team was invited to the Disney Cup International tournament this past summer. Their participation lifted the spirits of all involved — and offered proof that youth soccer’s development in the U.S. transcends mere athletics.

About the Author:

Alex is a freelance writer, who in addition to writing for National Soccer Wire, has also been featured on ESPN.com and Goal.com

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