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A view of an end zone pylon prior to the Orange Bowl between the Texas A&M Aggies and the North Carolina Tar Heels at Hard Rock Stadium, on Jan. 2, 2021.Jasen Vinlove/Reuters

The man known affectionately around town as Coach Pete smiled broadly as he stood on the giant Orange Bowl logo at the 50-yard line of a new synthetic turf football field in the bright South Florida sunshine. If this wasn’t heaven for a lifelong youth sports coach, dad and booster like him, it was pretty close.

“I still can’t believe it,” he said, looking across the sparkling gridiron. “I’m so proud, so proud.”

But the field wasn’t at Hard Rock Stadium, the 65,000-seat venue for the annual Capital One Orange Bowl game on New Year’s Eve. And Coach Pete, otherwise known as Jerold Smith, wasn’t set to lead either of this year’s combatants, the University of Michigan Wolverines or the University of Georgia Bulldogs, one of which will go to U.S. college football’s national championship.

Coach Pete was standing on Orange Bowl Field at Mitchell Moore Park, in an under-resourced neighbourhood in Pompano Beach, Fla., about 40 kilometres north of Hard Rock. And the beloved community figure, who over the past 22 years has coached thousands of boys and girls aged 4 to 15, including his three sons and a daughter, was eager to have his young charges experience play in such a top-flight facility.

“Our kids are dying to get out on this field,” he said of the new digs, adorned with the famous crown-wearing orange that is the logo of the big Miami bowl game. “You don’t often see a commitment to youth sports like this.”

Projects such as the new field at Mitchell Moore Park are important elements of the big business of U.S. college bowls. Most people never see this side of the system – not the tens of millions of television viewers around the world who tune in to the 40 or so bowl games during the holidays, and not the hundreds of thousands of fans who attend the games in person.

Bowls generate a lot of revenue through corporate sponsorships, television deals and ticket sales. Calculating the benefit is complex, but total U.S. college bowl payouts in 2019-20 have been estimated at close to US$500-million for athletic conferences and teams that made bowl appearances. Some of the take trickles down to the host communities, and to programs such as youth sports.

The Orange Bowl Committee, the organizing authority of the Miami classic and myriad community outreach programs, poured US$1.5-million into the Mitchell Moore Park facility, and has made comparable investments in similar projects in Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Palm Beach County. It also subsidizes equipment such as helmets and jerseys – and insurance – for the more than 15,000 youngsters in its youth football and cheerleading programs, including about 850 in Coach Pete’s community.

Jack Seiler, president and chairman of the committee, said in the past 15 years the Orange Bowl has pumped more than US$33-million into South Florida community projects, including US$6-million in scholarships, as well as funding for youth sports including football, basketball, softball, golf, tennis and sailing.

Canadian athletes have played starring roles. Golfer Emily Zhu of Richmond Hill, Ont., won the prestigious 2021 Junior Orange Bowl Invitational, a tournament previously won by LPGA Tour star Brooke Henderson of Smiths Falls, Ont.

“We are much more than the game itself, and that’s something a lot of people don’t realize,” Mr. Seiler said. “We’re proud of the fact that we are in a position to do what we do. We’re really the stewards of this. The Orange Bowl is owned by the community.”

The Orange Bowl dates back to the mid-1930s and is the second-oldest college bowl game, after the Rose Bowl in California. It began as a way to lure tourists to South Florida, and that remains a pillar of its mission.

But over the years, Mr. Seiler said, it has expanded to support homeless and humanitarian services, teacher training, art fairs, family fitness, disaster relief and education programs such as a leadership academy.

For Coach Pete, a nickname from his youth, sports aren’t simply important for engaging kids; they are often springboards for kids’ future success. He named several local youth league players who have gone on to play professional sports and become role models in the process, including Lamar Jackson, the sensational young quarterback for the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens.

That’s why the new field at Mitchell Moore Park is so much more than just a place for kids to play football.

“We are so appreciative,” he said. “You have no idea the positive influence this will have on their lives.”

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