Soccer team fuels a dad’s dream
Within a 100-acre site of former quarry land in San Antonio, Gordon Hartman has placed an expansion soccer franchise in a new stadium that’s a league leader in attendance; he’s built a youth soccer complex with 13 FIFA-sized fields; and he’s developed an amusement park that’s billed as the world’s first such facility fully accessible to people with special needs.
And he’s done it all to honor his daughter, Morgan, 20, who was born with physical and cognitive challenges, and to assist other families with children with special needs.
Hartman’s team is the San Antonio Scorpions of the North American Soccer League. All net proceeds from the franchise and from the STAR Soccer Complex go to Hartman’s foundation, Soccer for a Cause. That charity, in turn, funds the special needs park, Morgan’s Wonderland.
|Gordon Hartman (at left with wife Maggie and daughter Morgan) built Morgan’s Wonderland, an amusement park designed to be fully accessible for people with special needs.
“We knew we had to add something besides a park that was engineered for special needs,” he said. “We wanted it to be part of something bigger, so we’d get the flow of people coming to and from the site.”
He started thinking about soccer, though he never played the sport and he admits to having had little knowledge of the game four years ago. But he saw an opportunity.
“I drove to all the soccer fields in and around San Antonio and thought, ‘We could do better than this. We’re a large city, and people aren’t putting enough thought into soccer,’” he said. “It seemed like a missed market.”
The STAR Soccer Complex opened in 2011. And he wasn’t done yet. He purchased the Scorpions as an expansion franchise for $2 million a year later.
“Having pro soccer at the site brought everything together for us,” said Hartman, 49. “It brought a brand and excitement. The Scorpions would bring awareness to special needs, and the sports franchise would, in effect, be our endowment.”
They’ve done well in their own right. For the second consecutive season, the Scorpions are leading the NASL in attendance this year, averaging crowds of more than 8,000 fans a game. After playing one year at the adjacent Heroes Stadium, a San Antonio public high school football stadium, the Scorpions moved into the new Toyota Field — which sits on the same footprint as the STAR complex and Morgan’s Wonderland — at the start of the NASL spring season in April.
Hartman would not disclose terms of Toyota’s naming-rights deal other than to say it’s a multiyear agreement. In a separate deal signed in April 2012, Toyota became presenting sponsor of Morgan’s Wonderland.
“When we first heard about Morgan’s Wonderland, we thought it was something we should take a look at,” said Michael Rouse, vice president of philanthropy, diversity and community affairs for Toyota Motor Sales. “People with disabilities are often overlooked, and inclusion is important to Toyota.”
Rouse noted Toyota’s Sienna being a wheelchair-accessible van that comes straight from the manufacturer as opposed to needing conversion. He additionally noted San Antonio’s large Hispanic population and the local support of soccer. “So it made sense to support the soccer stadium, too,” Rouse said of the Scorpions’ new venue. “These are not the kind of deals where we’re going to drop in and drop out.”
|Toyota put its name on the Scorpions’ stadium and sponsors Morgan’s Wonderland.
“The team and the soccer park have become essential generators of activity, inclusion, awareness and an economic flow of funds to Morgan’s Wonderland, and we will see that happen this year,” Hartman said. “We are going from a deficit to a positive funding of Morgan’s Wonderland through soccer.”
NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson visited the site at the beginning of the season.
“It’s remarkable, both the vision and the execution,” Peterson said. “Gordon has built a competitive team, a first-class organization and a stadium with all of the amenities for a great fan experience.”
People with special needs receive free admission to Morgan’s Wonderland, which has welcomed more than 500,000 visitors in its first three years.
And Hartman said he has heard from other communities around the world with interest in Morgan’s Wonderland. Over time, he will consider branching out.
“I did this because I felt like something was missing and I thought that maybe there were opportunities, not just for Morgan, but for the millions of folks around the world with special needs,” Hartman said. “We’re blessed because we can help Morgan. Most people are not as fortunate.”
Although Toyota Field has been built to Major League Soccer specifications — with 12,000 seats and the ability to expand to a capacity of 18,000 — Hartman said reaching the first tier of soccer in the U.S. is not his immediate goal.
“I’ve spoken with [MLS Commissioner] Don Garber a few times, but the time is not right to get any deeper in discussions,” Hartman said. “I’m confident that San Antonio is a great market for pro soccer, but with everything we have going on here, let’s walk before we even think of running.”