How to Get MLB in Orlando
Last week, Pat Williams (co-founder of the Orlando Magic) announced his intentions to help bring Orlando an MLB franchise. His press conference drew plenty of attention and critics, from both sports media and social media. The question critics return to is, how can professional baseball work in Orlando when it has big issues in other Florida cities?
This question deserves consideration and analysis. Both Florida franchises, Tampa Bay and Miami, finished 29 and 30 in attendance in the 2019 season. Granted the Marlins franchise has been in rebuild mode, but the Rays were Postseason contenders. In fact, they took the AL Champion Houston Astros to five games in the ALDS. Postseason attendance for the Rays was much better, drawing over 30,000 fans for both games. Regular season games drew an average of just under 15,000.
At least part of the Rays attendance problem has to do with playing home games at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. Both the quality of the facility and the location play a factor. MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has expressed that finding a stadium solution for the Rays is one of the top priorities for MLB. It would have to be solved before potential expansion. The Rays have expanded their ballpark search over the last couple years to include both Pinellas and Hillsbough counties. The idea has been to find a location that is more central to fans in the Tampa Bay area. There’s been a proposal for a Ybor City site that still seems to have some life left in it.
Back in May, I wrote a piece suggesting the Rays should explore moving the team down I-4 to Orlando. Many of the same arguments in this article were reinforced by Pat Williams pitch for the Orlando Dreamers. Orlando is the most visited tourist destination in America, one of the fastest growing metro areas and has shown strong support for current pro sports teams. Here are several scenarios to consider.
- The Rays move to Orlando. This is arguably the most viable option for attracting an MLB franchise. The Rays could maintain their fan base in the Tampa Bay area, while looking to Orlando for a new ballpark. The Rays play in the AL Central, which is attractive to Yankees and Red Sox fans. Many of whom who have relocated to the Orlando area are from the Northeast. Orlando may actually be a much better market for MLB in terms of location, fan bases and attendance than Tampa Bay.
- The Marlins move to Orlando. Attendance in Miami ranks at the bottom of the league. A more competitive team might increase the number of fans in the seats. But with a newer stadium, they are less likely to leave. Much like the Rays, the number of Phillies, Mets and Braves fans in the Orlando area could help drive attendance. It would also keep the franchise in Florida.
- Orlando is awarded an expansion franchise. In this scenario, the Rays would likely have to move (perhaps to Montreal) or see some major success from a new stadium in the Tampa Bay area. Florida (and Orlando) is very likely to continue to grow in population over the next decade. Florida cities will remain attractive markets. However, proven success of baseball in the current Florida cities would have to come first.
- Orlando becomes Spring Training home to the Rays and/or Marlins (and offers destination games). The Orlando area has recently lost the Astros and Braves Spring Training to brand new facilities in Palm Beach and Northport. This leaves Lakeland as the only Spring Training facility in Central Florida (50 miles west of Orlando). Currently, the Rays host Spring Training in Port Charlotte and the Marlins in Jupiter. The opportunity to expand the team’s fan bases presents itself in Orlando. This might mean one of the teams move into the Disney Wide World of Sports facility or an entirely new baseball complex built to lure both teams. Imagine a state of the art baseball stadium and practice facility located in Orange County, in close proximity to all the area attractions. This would be an desirable location for destination regular season games. A stadium built to hold 13,000-15,000 fans would put it in line with some of the larger Triple A stadiums. In this case, the Rays and Marlins could book a regular season game or series in Orlando.
- Orlando becomes an MiLB city. Finally, the proposal for bringing Spring Training to Orlando would fit nicely with bringing in a Triple A franchise as well. In many ways, having the Triple A city close to the MLB franchise is preferable for teams making roster changes. Currently, the Rays affiliate being in Durham (NC) and Marlins in Witchita (KS) presents some geographical challenges. By bringing a Triple A affiliate to Orlando, the city would put itself in line with other cities like Charlotte, Nashville and Las Vegas who are on the short list for MLB expansion.
As stated on the front page of the Orlando Dreamers website, “it starts with a dream.” The important part about Pat Williams movement to bring MLB to Orlando is that it gets the conversation moving in that direction. What is most important is that sports fans in the Orlando area do not get hung up on a name or logo, but get behind some kind of investment by MLB in the Orlando market. Keep the conversation going!
**Picture from floridapolitics.com**