Orange Beach Sportsplex – SEC Women’s Soccer Tournament
Photos by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey
Stadium Info FANFARE Score: 3.86
Orange Beach Sportsplex 4385 William Silvers Pkwy Orange Beach, AL 36561
Year Opened: 2001
Soccer on the Beach
Each year over 5 million visitors flock to the beaches of South Alabama. The beach towns that make up the Alabama coast bring in over $3 billion in spending per year. One such event that brings in substantial revenue for the area happens every November when the top 10 soccer teams in the SEC meet up in Orange Beach for the annual SEC Soccer Tournament. The tournament is held over nine days, usually a week before Thanksgiving, and brings fans from all over the SEC to the city for an annual November vacation on the beach.
The tournament has been held at the Orange Beach Sportsplex every year since 2003, with the exception of 2004 when Hurricane Ivan caused damage to the facilities and the tournament was held in Auburn. There was much uncertainty whether the tournament would be held or not for the 2020 season – exactly two months before the tournament was scheduled to begin Orange Beach took a direct hit from Hurricane Sally, which caused flooding and damage in the city. Fortunately, the Sportsplex did not receive a lot of damage and the tournament was able to be played after some minor repairs.
SEC first sponsored women’s soccer in 1993 and since that time Florida has taken home the most titles with 12. In the early years of the tournament the location was rotated between the different schools, but since moving to Orange Beach Florida has taken home five titles, while Texas A&M has taken home three. Usually only the top ten teams of the conference are invited, but because of the COVID shortened season the SEC had during 2020, with each team only playing 8 games, all 14 teams were invited to this year’s tournament.
Food & Beverage 2
There is only one concessions stand open and it is just a regular stand that sells the basics. Prices are reasonable with the menu consisting of hamburgers ($5), hot dogs and nachos ($3), bottled Powerade and water ($2), and candy and popcorn ($1). The concessions stand does back up from time to time and only accepts cash. Because you are free to come and go from the venue as you please, I left during halftime at one of the games. I would recommend eating at one of the many seafood restaurants in the area before, during, or after the game.
The Orange Beach Sportsplex opened in 2001 and is currently home to the offices of the Orange Beach Parks and Recreation Department. All the fields are used constantly throughout the year by the city’s youth and rec league sports, with the centerpiece being the 1,500-seat stadium where the SEC Soccer Tournament is played. The entire 40-acre complex consists of a quad of four baseball and four softball fields, a larger baseball stadium, two beach volleyball courts, and several smaller practice fields scattered around the main stadium.
The soccer stadium is located at the front of the complex with the rest of the fields located in the back. The field at the stadium faces north and south with just one metal bleacher style grandstand located on the east side of the pitch, with seating for approximately 1,500. The west side of the pitch is open and includes the teams’ benches, with a basic style scoreboard on the south side of the field. The facility ties in well with the area as well with palm trees scattered throughout and the skyline of the condos off in the distance behind beautiful tall pine trees that surround the complex.
Though the actual sports complex is very pretty and represents the City of Orange Beach quite well, there’s not really anything special about the stadium. The metal grandstand only consists of about 15 rows and is actually smaller than a regular high school football stadium. However, for this one week every November the SEC and the City of Orange Beach go above and beyond to make sure this a top-notch experience, and the atmosphere is really cool. Soccer isn’t the most popular or well-known sport in the SEC, but you wouldn’t know it by coming here. The SEC treats this event with just as much importance as the conference baseball and basketball tournaments. SEC Network provides constant coverage of every game and the conference commissioner usually makes an appearance every year.
The main road coming into the complex is lined from one end of the other with flags of the 14 SEC teams. Outside the stadium there is a pretty large pop-up truck that sells a broad collection of SEC shirts and gear. There’s SEC banners scattered throughout the entire stadium with all the teams’ flags displayed on the top of the grandstand, and on the field itself there is one continuous banner that wraps around the entire playing field. The opposite side of the grandstand features a large videoboard that shows the action as it’s shown on TV. I’m not the biggest soccer fan but I was blown away by the overall experience and the set-up of everything here.
Orange Beach Sportsplex Flags on Display, Photo by Matt Colville, Stadium Journey
The SEC Soccer Tournament could not be located in a better location, with the coast beaches of Alabama bringing in most of the tourism revenue for the entire state. The two cities that make up this section of the coast include Gulf Shores and Orange Beach and they account for about 50 miles of beautiful white sandy beaches, with the beautiful crystal-clear waters being warm enough to swim in practically year-round. There are multiple public beach access points offering everything from crowded beaches to secluded beaches. Numerous high-rise condos line the beach, each offering their own amenities such as private pools, water slides, and lazy rivers. The beautiful waters provide some of the best fishing opportunities in the southeast as well, so if you own your own boat or want to rent one I definitely recommend making a boat ride through all the different waterways to fish or camp out on the islands in the Perdido Pass.
The sports complex is located away from the beach on the north side of the city, and the complex itself is kind of hidden off the main road, Canal Road, right behind the new high school. Just across the street from the high school lies The Wharf at Orange Beach, Orange Beach’s premiere shopping and entertainment destination. The Wharf features tons of restaurants, bars and shops, built into the first floor of some luxury condominiums. The area also features a Ferris wheel, zipline, putt-putt golf, a waterpark, and a 10,000-seat amphitheater that attracts top names and acts each year. Also, the road heading into the Wharf features an elaborate light display every night of the year, and during Christmas time the whole grounds are decorated as well. In addition, on the north side of the city is OWA, which is an amusement park with more shopping and restaurants as well as rides and roller coasters; you pass OWA on the main road heading into Orange Beach.
Everybody who comes to the beaches of South Alabama should make a stop at the famed Flora-Bama about 10 minutes away right on the beach on the Florida-Alabama line. This famous watering hole has been serving patrons since 1964 and calls itself the last roadhouse in America. It is the go-to hang out spot for everybody from college students to celebrities to politicians and athletes when they come to the area, and although it might be too touristy for some people everybody should make a stop here at least once. For a spot where the locals hang I recommend visiting Pirates Cove Marina, which is located on the north side of the city and is very similar to Flora-Bama, although with less crowds but the same rustic setting.
Because of its status as a beach community, there are hardly any big corporate restaurants in the area, so you will find a ton of local seafood restaurants as well. Some popular restaurants include the Cobalt, the Gulf, Crab Trap, Doc’s Seafood, Tacky Jacks, and Big Fish. Between the beach and numerous activities, one could spend weeks in Orange Beach and have plenty to do.
The great thing about a tournament of this caliber is it attracts fan bases from all 14 SEC schools. The SEC Tournament is usually stretched out over 9 days, with the first round of games being played on Friday and the Championship Game being played the following Sunday, which ensures that at least two teams and some fans will get a nine-day extended vacation. This is more like a destination tournament, almost on the same level as college basketball’s Battle 4 Atlantis or Maui Invitational. If you watch SEC Network’s soccer coverage the announcers constantly plug the Road to Orange Beach, which is the unofficial nickname of the SEC soccer regular season every year. By moving the tournament to a neutral location in a nice beach town, it ensures that fans are going to travel more so than they would if the tournament was in just another SEC town.
For any given game expect to see fans of both teams in the stands. Obviously that first Friday and the Sunday games are going to attract the most fans as they are played on the weekend. Unfortunately, however, because of the single elimination format of the tournament it’s hard to make plans for making a trip here – you could be here over a week or your team could get knocked out on the first day. On Sunday and Tuesday, there are four games played and they take up the whole day, so expect to see many fans come and go. I’d say at each game expect a couple hundred fans in attendance, with the Sunday games and the Championship game having close to 1,000 fans at the max; it’s hard to get the exact number as many people come and go. Obviously when Alabama and Auburn are playing expect to see more fans than usual as their fan base dominates this area, and I even saw a good number of Crimson Tide and Auburn fans tailgating under a pavilion on the Sportsplex grounds.
The one drawback to coming to this Tournament is just getting to the complex itself. Orange Beach is located about 60 miles southeast of Mobile and about 40 miles west of Pensacola. Unfortunately there is not a major interstate that runs through the town, so your best bet if coming from out of town is to take I-10 about midway between Pensacola and Mobile, then take the Foley Beach Express exit south to Orange Beach for about 45 minutes. Make sure to make a stop at Bucc-ees, the new giant gas station/superstore that just opened last year; it’s about the only thing on the road until you pass the roller coasters at OWA and then get to the toll booth for the bridge that runs into the city. The Wharf and the giant Ferris wheel will be the first thing you see after the bridge; the Sportsplex is right across the street, behind the high school.
You can also ride your bike to the Sportsplex through the Gulf State Park trails. I parked on the beach and rode my bike through the winding trails until I reached the Sportsplex; the trails are well maintained and there are maps everywhere to ensure you don’t get lost. There’s a trailhead that pops out right in the Sportsplex parking lot.
Return on Investment 4
If you are a fan, friend, or family member of any of the school’s participating in this tournament you cannot find a better return on investment than the SEC Soccer Tournament. Getting to come to the beach for just a few days in the middle of November is obviously a plus for anybody, and being that it’s in the Fall you can expect to see prices on condos and restaurants a little less than they would be in the summer.
Tickets are an absolute steal for every game with adult prices being $5 and children’s prices being $2. Also, as the stadium is pretty much open on both ends it’s possible to watch the action on the field and not have to pay for admission. In addition, since the bike trail runs right next to the stadium I also saw many people riding bikes and stopping along the trail to watch some of the games.
One extra point for the number of sporting events that are held in the Gulf Shores-Orange Beach area. Besides the SEC Women’s Soccer Tournament the two towns host a ton of different tournaments throughout the year ranging from youth to college sports. Every May the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship is played right on the beach in Gulf Shores; they bring in temporary bleachers right next to the ocean and the setup and atmosphere is quite cool. In addition, the NAIA Women’s Soccer National Championship is held every year at the Sportsplex, and the complex has also played host to D1 and D2 Men’s and Women’s tournaments, South Alabama soccer matches, and even hosted a semi-pro football team.
Newly opened next door to the Sportsplex in 2020 is Orange Beach High School, and the Makos, the school’s nickname, recently began using the complex for their games, with the football team using the field to the south of the main stadium and the baseball and softball teams using the complex as well. With championship golf courses, beautiful water for fishing, and the countless tournaments, this area of south Alabama is living up to its name as a national sports and recreation hub for sports of all kind.
Another extra point for the location being located inside Gulf State Park. With over 30 miles of different trails, one could spend countless hours bike riding the different trails around the park. Each trail features its own unique features and is named after a particular theme, for instance, if you’re in the mood to bike ride through gorgeous sand dunes you can take the Rosemary Dunes Trail, while if you want the hilly option with a gorgeous view of the entire park then take the Oak Ridge Trail. There are also plenty of cabins for camping and plenty of RV hookups.
Lastly, of course another extra point for the setting itself being right on the beach. Besides some of the
aforementioned college basketball tournaments I cannot think of a more prime location to have a conference tournament. The contract with the tournament and the City expired in 2020 and with the high school taking up residence there was much uncertainty over whether or not the SEC would renew. Fortunately, they came to agreement and have signed a deal promising 10 more years of SEC Soccer on the beach every November.