The chairman of Discovery Communications Inc. announced yesterday that he will donate $6 million to the Maryland SoccerPlex to stave off a revolt by six Montgomery County soccer organizations -- representing about 20,000 youth players -- that have threatened to pull their games from the Boyds facility because of high fees.
John Hendricks and his wife, Maureen, said their gift will be used to build five fields, create a scholarship program for disadvantaged youths and subsidize clubs that want to continue using the SoccerPlex.
Part of the Hendrickses' donation includes money to create a soccer league, the Soccer Association of Montgomery County.
"With such an interest in soccer in this county, we thought this is one avenue we wanted to use to give back to the community," John Hendricks said.
The gift represents a dramatic response to the six organizations embroiled in a dispute with the Maryland Soccer Foundation. Hendricks helped form the foundation in 1997 so it could build the SoccerPlex, a shrine to the area's obsession with the sport, featuring 19 fields of bluegrass turf, a 3,200-seat stadium and an indoor multipurpose field.
But by 2002, the facility was running a $750,000 deficit, forcing officials to concede that their business plan was flawed.
In August, the six soccer clubs threatened to stop playing at the SoccerPlex when fees grew to $300 per game. The organizations -- Montgomery Soccer Inc., Bethesda Soccer Club, Damascus Soccer Club, Potomac Soccer Association, Seneca Soccer Association and Washington International Soccer League -- boycotted the first two weeks of the fall season.
In addition to the cost, the clubs are angry that the foundation's board voted in June to oust its eight soccer organization representatives.
After county leaders intervened this summer, the protesting organizations agreed to finish out the fall season while officials tried to work out a deal between the groups and the foundation, which manages the facility.
County Council members Steven A. Silverman (D-At Large) and Michael Knapp (D-Upcounty) even suggested that two retired Circuit Court judges be brought in to mediate.
The six organizations declined mediation, saying they first want a public airing of the foundation's finances and management structure.
"That's the first critical step," Leon Reed, president of Montgomery Soccer Inc., wrote to Planning Board Chairman Derick Berlage on Oct. 19.
Hendricks said that although he and his wife had planned to donate millions to the foundation, Reed's letter persuaded him to do more.
At least one organization, however, was critical of Hendricks's plan yesterday, suggesting that his real intent is to control soccer in the county through the new league.
"I guess what strikes me here is that the Maryland Soccer Foundation has come 180 degrees away from its original purpose: to create soccer fields for existing soccer clubs," said Richard Heilman, president of the Seneca Soccer Association. "They are not there to build soccer fields anymore; they are here to take over soccer in Montgomery County."
Trish Heffelfinger, executive director of the soccer foundation, said she hopes the organizations "will all come back and play."
The Hendrickses' donation -- made up of a $3 million personal contribution and $3 million from their charitable foundation -- will be paid over 10 years.
Besides new fields, the money will create a fund that soccer clubs with cash balances of $250,000 or less can access to reduce the per-game cost of using the SoccerPlex to $250.
The subsidy will lower the average cost per player for a season at the SoccerPlex to $11.30, a savings of $2.50.
The subsidy is intended to keep the six clubs playing at the SoccerPlex this spring, although as of yesterday, none had signed up for the coming season, Heffelfinger said.
The new league created by the donation will play at the SoccerPlex no matter what, Hendricks said.
"If there are teams and players that want to play at the SoccerPlex, they will have an open path to get there," he said. "There are lots of parents that want their children to play at a nice, safe facility."
In 2000, Hendricks and a group of investors formed the Women's Soccer Association, an effort to save professional women's soccer in the United States. The league folded in 2003 after a lack of corporate sponsorship resulted in a $20 million shortfall.
Hendricks said he hopes his donation, $2.5 million of which will be used for operating expenses, ends what has been a tumultuous start for the SoccerPlex, which opened in 2000 after Hendricks and other Montgomery soccer parents raised $15 million from a variety of sources, including government-backed bonds.
The county agreed to lease land in South Germantown Recreational Park for $1 a year. The state and county contributed $8 million for roads, parking lots and utilities.