NORTH TONAWANDA – As an athletic trainer for the Buffalo Stallions in the 1980s and the Buffalo Blizzard in the 1990s, Joe Robinson made a career out of fixing up soccer players.
Since gaining majority ownership of Sportsplex last month, Robinson has set out to rejuvenate Niagara County’s largest indoor soccer facility.
Sportsplex was once a jewel of both North Tonawanda and the Western New York soccer community. At its peak, the 100,000-square-foot complex on Ridge Road attracted more than 100,000 people a year to its full-size soccer field and six indoor tennis courts.
In recent years, Sportsplex had fallen into disrepair. Roof leaks created hazards throughout the building. Potholes made the parking lot even more treacherous. Paint chipped off the walls. Lights stopped working, and, for two months last winter, so did the heat.
Sportsplex’s reputation in the local soccer community also began to deteriorate.
“Whenever people would talk about it, it would be in a negative light,” said Justin Sims, a Lewiston native who grew up playing at Sportsplex, returned as an intern in 2008 and has recently been named director of the soccer program.
In addition, annual revenue fell from as high as $1.4 million in 1998 to less than $500,000 last year, according to general manager Barbara Morse.
Robinson had been a minority investor in Sportsplex since 1993, along with principal owner Jim May, a former professional soccer player and general manger of the Blizzard, and former soccer executives Michael Geraci and John Bellanti.
When employee morale bottomed out, Morse approached Robinson at his Greater Buffalo Physical Therapy office in Amherst and urged him to step in and save Sportsplex.
“We were really in disarray,” Morse said. “We were done working for Jim May. I don’t think [Sportsplex] would have kept going if Joe didn’t get involved.”
Robinson sued May in 2012 and was awarded majority ownership of Sportsplex last month by Williamsville Village Justice Timothy J. Walker.
May had stopped showing up at Sportsplex in March, Morse said, and employees reached into their own pockets to maintain operations during the slow summer season.
Robinson reimbursed his employees upon taking ownership, and began investing in Sportsplex’s revival.
In the last month, Sportsplex renovated its locker rooms and restrooms, repaved the parking lot, began repairing the roof, painted the walls, refurbished the tennis courts, fluffed and sanitized the turf soccer field, and reopened a snack bar that had been closed for several years.
Sims was hired full-time to rebuild Sportsplex’s damaged brand in the local soccer community and promote new programs. Sims also added indoor football leagues.
“We’ve gotten nothing but positive remarks,” Sims said. “Mostly, ‘It’s about time.’ ”
Robinson has additional plans to build an outdoor field with lights, add indoor and outdoor volleyball courts, and expand the snack bar. He also will bring a satellite office for his physical therapy practice to the building, which will also offer sports performance training.
“There are endless opportunities,” Robinson said. “It’s just sensing what the community wants and what they would like to see Sportsplex be.”
Tom Garigen, director of coaching for the Empire Revolution soccer club that is now training at Sportsplex, grew up in nearby Pendleton and started playing the game at Sportsplex.
“They called us ‘Sportsplex rats,’ ” said Garigen, now 38. “I don’t remember anything other than coming here when I was young.”
A former soccer program director at Sportsplex, Garigen has seen the complex at its best and its worst. He is happy to have his Empire Revolution program utilizing Sportsplex, along with the Epic Center in Amherst, and Sahlen’s Sports Park in Elma.
“You certainly see the physical improvements are great, and the relationship is great right now,” Garigen said. “It’s certainly much closer to what it was than it has been over the last few years.”
“I want to turn Sportsplex back into what it was 15 to 20 years ago,” Robinson said. “A huge community center offering many different venues for many different sports but also reaching out to the community, as well as the school district, to do dual programs.
“Having worked in professional soccer for 20 years, you grow to love soccer and you want to see soccer flourish – and this is the perfect place to do it.”