Youth soccer tournament to bring more than 300 teams from across the U.S. to Raleigh as COVID-19 cases rise

RALEIGH (WTVD) -- More than 300 youth soccer teams are scheduled to play at the VisitRaleigh.com Girls Showcase this weekend in Wake County.

The tournament comes as COVID-19 cases continue to climb across the United States. North Carolina reached a new record in daily COVID-19 cases on Thursday and more than 161,00 new cases are reported a day in the U.S.

Another soccer tournament scheduled for this weekend in Greensboro was postponed due to COVID-19.

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"With the health and safety of all participants as our top priority, we believe it is not in the best interest of the teams and families to travel at this time. That fact has become evident through the growing number of teams that have been forced to pull out of the events due to cases within their club, travel restrictions put in place by their local and state officials, or similar reasons," the Greensboro tournament organizers wrote on Nov. 30.

ABC11 has heard concerns about both tournaments over the past week.

The Raleigh tournament, hosted by NCFC Youth, is still scheduled to take place.

"The safety of our players, coaches, families, referees and our community is the number one priority while hosting teams," Bryan Bachelder, the tournament director, in an email to the ABC11 I-Team.

The tournament is an opportunity for high school girls to showcase their talent to college scouts and potentially earn major scholarships. In past years, the showcase has attracted more than 500 teams and 600 college scouts.

"Those seniors, especially, they're going to be making decisions over the next three to four months where they're going to spend the next four years of their lives. So for us, we feel like it's our duty to them make to make sure we're providing an opportunity for them to be seen by college coaches and ultimately be able to identify where they want to spend the next four years," Bachelder said.

This weekend's tournament is expected to host 350 teams and more than 300 different college scouts. Adding up all the players, parents and coaches, the tournament could attract nearly 14,000 people. The three-day event will be spread out between 13 different Wake County venues.

Bachelder said the tournament has safety protocols in place including temperature checks and health screenings for players, parents and coaches. Other safety policies include wearing masks at all times, leaving the complex between games and limiting spectators.

"Teams are playing games at large outdoor venues across our community that have ample space for social distancing, designated spectator/team areas, and sanitation stations among other safety protocols," Bachelder explained.

There will have staff and referees monitoring for any people violating the protocols.

Bachelder said they are also monitoring national data, including a study that found only 1 of 325 cases identified between 13,000 athletes was traced to transmission during soccer.

NCFC Youth has hosted four other major tournaments since August and held more than 30,000 trainings and games. Bachelder said no COVID-19 cases have been linked back to the tournaments.

Still, some are concerned about the impact of bringing in thousands of people from different states one week after Thanksgiving. According to the tournament's website, teams are traveling from as far away as Florida to Illinois to Georgia to compete in the showcase. "

"When we're talking about our restaurants, our hotels, things that people are using when they're coming into town, we feel like the state of North Carolina, city of Raleigh have put in all the measures necessary to where it's safe for those people to enjoy those activities. If our restaurants and hotels are safe for North Carolinians, then they're also safe for Floridians as well," Bachelder said.

The Wake County Department of Health told the ABC11 I-Team it did not know about the upcoming tournament but since learning about it has reached out with guidelines.

Governor Roy Cooper's current executive order does not prohibit youth sports but NCDHHS strongly recommends only playing sports where social distancing is possible.

"I would certainly be concerned about it and we need to make sure people abide by mask gathering limits. People need to be very careful when they are gathering together," Cooper said when asked about the tournament earlier this week.

Soccer is one of the sports that fall in the intermediate-risk category. NCDHHS recommends playing outside and wearing face-covering but it also recommends limiting tournaments where multiple teams convene.

"Our guidance already discourages tournaments," NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said when asked about the tournament. "If folks are playing these kinds of sporting events of intermediate risk, like soccer, they are required to be wearing masks while they are doing it both playing, on the sidelines and by the fans, so masks will be an important component to add an additional layer of protection but like I said our guidelines already discourage those events."

While the tournament is still scheduled, NCFC Youth is offering refunds to teams based in states with travel restrictions.

"For teams that have no travel restrictions in place, we're still working with them to provide significant refunds or full credits to ensure that families are able to make the best decisions for their family without any concern over financial ramifications. Simply put, we're not interested in profiting off of the uncertainty of a pandemic," Bachelder said in an email.

COVID-19 cases connected with sporting events are tracked by NCDHHS under its 'community event' category. As of Monday, 64 COVID-19 cases across the state were linked to community events.

State health officials said this number underrepresents the scope of COVID-19 cases.

"In part, this is due to the fact that many COVID-19 cases are never diagnosed or cannot be linked to a specific setting or specific cluster. Additionally, while congregate living settings, schools, and child care facilities are required to report clusters or outbreaks to their LHDs, other settings are not required to report in the same manner," a spokesperson for NCDHHS wrote in an email.

Bachelder said 30 of NCFC Youth players have contracted COVID-19 but all the cases were traced outside of soccer.

VisitRaleigh and WakeMed, both sponsors for the tournament, said they're not involved in scheduling any events.

NCFC Youth predicts the tournament will generate $6 million in direct visitor spending.
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