From Vision to Victory
Plex Indoor Sports
By Elisa Kronish
Columbia, S.C., isn't terribly cold in winter, but it gets chilly and rainy, and it's certainly not conducive for outdoor soccer. As coach of the girls' varsity soccer team at the local Ben Lippen School, physician Mike Harris lamented the unproductive waiting season, so he decided to do something about it. Harris had seen successful indoor soccer facilities during visits with family in Chicago, and he suspected that Columbia soccer enthusiasts would find one equally appealing. Combining his desire for an indoor field with a longtime vision of creating a family-focused recreation facility, Harris aimed to score big with Plex Indoor Sports.
At 86,000 square feet with 40-foot-high ceilings, big is definitely the word for it. Although building an all-season soccer field was the inspiration, Plex offers much more than just indoor soccer.
"What we didn't want to do is what other facilities have done, which is to live and die on soccer," says Steve Scoma, director of development and operations. "We wanted to try a mixture of sports that would lend an even keel."
Besides the two artificial-turf soccer fields that measure 180 feet long by 80 feet wide (which can accommodate indoor soccer, flag football and lacrosse), Plex has a third field used for inline hockey, convertible to four volleyball courts, two basketball courts and another soccer field. It also includes one hard court surface accommodating a full-sized basketball court or two regulation-size volleyball courts; a 7,500-square-foot indoor skatepark; a women's circuit-training fitness center; video arcades; indoor inflatable playland; pro shop; and a 1,200-square-foot full-service café that's run in-house, serving everything from hamburgers to chef salads. Plex is also fully wireless, so students and businesspeople alike can connect online while they're not playing.
Key to the facility's success was a visible and easily accessible location.
"One of the things we learned on visits to other facilities was that the ones that do the best are in normal traffic patterns," Scoma says.
On the verge of purchasing a piece of land, Scoma and Harris were wooed away by a developer with plans for a 300-acre combo complex of retail, residential and office use in northeast Columbia. Being part of this new development would give Plex the constant traffic flow they were looking for, so they signed on. The catch was that Scoma and Harris wanted an entrance off the main artery that abuts the development, but only one entrance was planned. The developer gave Plex its entrance off the main road, and sure enough, people started noticing.
In the first six weeks that Plex was open, it racked up 50,000 visits. The traffic was more than its 6.5 acres of parking could handle.
"The parking lot was four times larger than the county said we needed to provide, 256 spots, but probably two out of the first four weekends we were open, the lot was at capacity, and people were parking on the street," Scoma says. Plex purchased three more acres of land, allowing for 136 overflow parking spots, which are sure to come in handy, as Scoma says projections for 2005 put the number of visits at more than 650,000.
Sponsors also reacted fast.
"We had three major sponsors before we even completed the building," Scoma says. The café is sponsored wholly by Coca-Cola, and the 20-or-so other funders include Time Warner AOL and a major local hospital.
"When you try to sell a vision, it's very difficult, but we used a lot of sound marketing principals, and we hired a consultant," Scoma explains.
With soccer on their minds, the Plex owners originally had planned for three indoor fields, but they decided to install just two after a local inline hockey club approached them with an offer they couldn't refuse.
"They said if we put an inline hockey rink in, instead of one of those turf fields, they would bring their whole organization to our facility," Scoma says. So they did. "It was one of the best decisions we made," he says.
Sporting the latest technology in inline hockey surfaces, the rink has attracted so many tournaments that Plex is now one of the premier inline hockey facilities in the country. In June 2005, Plex will host the 2Hot4Ice National Championships, and the facility actually will cover its two turf fields with a temporary plastic surface laid on top of a plywood sub-floor.
"The flexibility of our facility has made it one of the most unique," Scoma says. In fact, the inline hockey rink gets fitted with a grass surface for soccer tournaments, and it's transformed into four volleyball courts Monday through Thursday to accommodate the South Carolina-Plex Volleyball Club, an elite program that draws athletes from more than 100 miles away. During volleyball tournaments, portable bleachers are rolled onto the courts for moms and dads to cheer in comfort.
Providing spikers an early start is the Viva Volley program, teaching kids ages 7 to 10 with techniques used by Olympic gold medalists and expert players.
"We train our coaches on this method of teaching," says Gylton Da Matta, Ph.D., Plex's executive director of program development.
Plex extends its focus on younger visitors with its Fox Kids program aimed at kids 18 months to 6 years old. Rather than promoting the specialization of any one sport, the activities focus on preparing kids for all kinds of possibilities.
"Our idea is to help kids develop basic motor skills as the root of their success in sports in the future," Da Matta explains. Using hula-hoops, ropes, balls, rubber cords, batons, sticks and other props, as well as singing and dancing, the kids work on movement that is playful and meaningful, Da Matta says.
For the approximately 7,000 home-schooled children in the Columbia area, Plex offers the Homeschool Academy. As a home-school parent himself, Scoma knows how tricky it can be to accumulate high-school physical-education credits.
"Parents have to become creative to fulfill these," Scoma says. Rather than seeing the facility sit empty during the day when school's in session, the Homeschool Academy keeps it busy. "We're really trying to be a facility that has something for every segment," he says.
The facility also reaches out to skateboarding teens. The indoor skatepark attracts them by the throngs with its rhythm section, 6-foot spine, 10-foot vertical walls, challenging hip, and state-of-the-art fun box with two ledges and flat rails.
"The park has been slammed ever since it opened," Scoma says. For beginners, the pro shop rents skateboards.
When the weather improves, Plex is ready for its avid volleyball players with eight new outdoor sand courts.
"We'll have the largest concentration of sand volleyball space in the state outside of Myrtle Beach, Scoma says.
Until then—and whenever it rains—there's plenty for volleyball players, soccer players and everyone else to stay active inside.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Plex Indoor Sports: 803-360-7300
or visit www.plexindoorsports.com