Legends On Deck

The Case for Moving the Rays to Orlando

Last July, I wrote an article advocating for a ballpark proposal in Ybor City (Tampa) for the Tampa Bay Rays.  The plan would have kept the Rays in the Tampa area; moving them 25 miles east into Hillsborough County and 80 miles west of Orlando.  While this proposal to move the Rays to Ybor City is apparently dead, there is continued discussion of other stadium sites in either Pinellas or Hillsborough County.  

What the Rays truly need is a third option, that keeps them in Central Florida, but expands their market possibilities.  This means including Orlando (Orange County) as a possible home.  While the Tampa media market may be slightly larger, Orlando offers a number of advantages that Tampa does not.  Orlando is among the fastest growing cities in the country; seeing the fifth largest increase in population of any city in the US in 2018. Orlando is also the most visited travel destination in the US, with more than 75 million visitors in 2018.  Both these statistics matter for several reasons.

The highest proportion of people from one state moving to Florida in recent years come from New York.  People from states like New Jersey, Connecticut, Massachusetts and Maine are all high on the list of those moving to the Sunshine State.  Why does this matter?  The Rays play in the AL East.

Spend some time in and around Orlando talking to people and asking them where they are from.  Check out the team apparel you see and the stickers on cars. You will find a disproportionate amount of New York and Boston fans living in the Orlando area.  It is staggering.  The Yankees and Red Sox play 8-9 road games per season against the Rays (16-18 games). Throw in the Orioles and Blue Jays (you’ll find their fans too) and that’s 32-34 games each season against AL East rivals.  

Additionally, the largest contingency of people outside the 50 states moving into the Orlando area are from Puerto Ricans.  If there’s anywhere in the US where baseball is the dominant sport, it’s Puerto Rico. Combine these demographic movements with the endless amount of tourists and Orlando suddenly looks like a more interesting market for MLB.

Orlando is also a city which has proven to hold a steady fan base for current professional sports teams. The Orlando Magic (NBA) averaged 17,561 fan per game in 2018-2019, finally reaching the playoffs after a seven season drought.  This places them just behind the Houston Rockets (America’s 4th Largest market) and the Milwaukee Bucks; both teams who have enjoyed more success in recent years.  The Orlando City Soccer Club (MLS) averaged 23,866 fans per game in 2018, placing them 6th among MLS franchises.  Thus far in 2019, MLS ranks 5th in attendance, averaging 22,943 per game.  

Orlando has built a sports culture around these two franchises with the Amway Center and Orlando City Stadium in close proximity to Camping World Stadium.  Camping World hosts several major college football games and recently the NFL Pro Bowl.  The land is seemingly available for a modestly sized retractable roof baseball stadium right in the heart of the Orlando sports district. This also offers more baseball opportunities beyond the MLB season — think major college games, World Baseball Classic and annual high school and college championships.   

While there are articles that often circulate and talk radio discusses the potential for an NFL franchise in Orlando.  But, with three Florida markets currently with professional football teams, Orlando would make little sense.  For Central Floridians, they could have their NFL and NHL in Tampa (and Jacksonville), while their NBA, MLS and MLB teams are in Orlando.  Additionally, Orlando’s geographical location opens up more opportunities to bring in fans from the east coast (Daytona and Melbourne) while maintaining their Tampa area fan base.     

The Rays averaged 14,258 fans per game in 2018, while finishing the season with 90-72 record.  They currently lead the AL East and many predict they will be a playoff team in 2019.  If Orlando is willing to support teams with little proven success, surely the city could support a winner. Central Florida continues to produce some of the best baseball talent anywhere in the country, but the love of baseball at the youth level has yet to truly translate to strong support for a professional team.  

The Orlando Rays once existed as a Double A franchise in the Southern League, from 1997-2003.  Sixteen years later, the growth of the Orlando area and the potential to support another professional franchise has drastically increased.  Perhaps, The City Beautiful offers MLB the magic it needs to thrive in the Sunshine State.

**Picture from Wikipedia

Brian Koss

Brian has been a contributing writer to Legends on Deck since April 2017. He’s a diehard Detroit Tigers fan, who grew up playing and following baseball in the suburbs of Detroit. He covers the Tigers and their farm system for LOD and also likes writing about the general state of baseball. Brian and his family reside in the suburbs of Orlando, where he enjoys coaching Little League and passing on his love of the game to the next generation.
Brian Koss
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