Florida is poised for a major investment in sports facilities.
ORLANDO CITY’S STADIUM
Orlando City Soccer has taken the traditional professional sports team playbook and torn it to shreds.
Rather than publicly funding the team’s new stadium, as originally planned, the Lions reversed field and in late May announced they would build the soccer-only stadium solely with private financing. Not only that, the team is purchasing the land on which the stadium will be built from the City of Orlando and will pony up about $3 million for storm water retention work at the site.
Team officials touted the move as a major investment in Orlando and acknowledged it was driven by two factors not anticipated when Orlando SC was granted a Major League Soccer franchise: delays in expected state funding and stronger fan support than Lions officials anticipated.
The latter issue is a great problem for any team to have. The Lions are averaging 37,000 fans in the Orlando Citrus Bowl and, even allowing for the novelty of the team to war off, a 19,500-seat stadium (as originally envisioned) no longer seems adequate. The re-imagined venue will seat as many as 28,000 and likely will exceed the original cost estimate of $115 million.
The Florida Legislature, meanwhile, is looking as if it may punt the whole issue of stadium financing.
First, the Joint Legislative Budget Commission decided early this year not to exercise its authority to divvy up $7 million in sales tax revenue for stadium construction or upgrades and passed the issue to the Legislature. Lawmakers then adjourned their regular session without agreeing to a budget, leaving stadium financing in limbo.
The Orlando soccer stadium ironically was rated as the top project by the Legislature’s Office of Economic and Demographic Research, followed in order by upgrades to Jacksonville’s EverBank Field ($1 million annually for 30 years), SunLife Stadium ($3 million for 30 years and Daytona Motor Speedway $3 million for 30 years). As the Legislature begins its special session (see Legislative), it is unclear whether the funding will survive budget negotiations.
Downtown stadiums have been credited with revitalizing neighborhoods. Stadiums built in suburbs seem to have a lesser economic impact on their immediate neighborhoods but may have community wide economic benefit if they host a major event like a Super Bowl. A lack of stadium upgrades has been cited as a reason the state has not hosted the big game since 2010.
For now, the clock is winding down, and the outcome very much in doubt.
GRAPEFRUIT VS. CACTUS
Spring training is the longest-running economic development engine in Florida sports and 2015 didn’t disappoint. According to the office of Gov. Rick Scott, spring training attendance at games in the Sunshine State’s Grapefruit League reached almost 1.6 million fans. Once again, Arizona’s Cactus League drew more fans — almost 1.9 million — and once again, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
As we noted in an earlier blog, all but one of Arizona’s spring training stadium seats more than 10,000 fans while most Florida stadiums retain the smaller, more intimate setting traditionally associated with spring training. Additionally, five Cactus League stadiums host two teams, while there are currently only two Grapefruit League stadiums sharing teams. The multi-team arrangement can skew the numbers as fans of both teams will attend in roughly equal numbers, regardless of the official home team.
Bottom line: Florida 2015 spring training games once again were played in stadiums filled to almost 90 percent capacity while Arizona games on average were played to less than 70 percent capacity. There’s no question that spring training’s hottest ticket continues to be Florida — spring training’s true home.
AS THE RAYS TURN
St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman says the Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) he negotiated with the Tampa Bay Rays provides a viable future for Major League Baseball in the area. Others on the City Council believe it lets the Rays leave Tropicana Field too cheaply and actually might make it easier for them to leave Tampa Bay altogether. Waiting in the wings is a city that lost its Major League franchise for the exact same reasons the Rays’ future in St. Petersburg remains in doubt.
Got all that?
A late May City Council “workshop” on the Rays’ future did little to clarify the situation. The Rays are contractually bound to Tropicana Field through 2027 but are having a difficult time drawing fans to the stadium, routinely finishing last in MLB attendance. All of which led Forbes to determine the team is the least valuable in baseball.
Some City Council members have signaled they might support the MOU if the price tag for the Rays leaving Tropicana Field is increased beyond the current $2 million for each year they leave early. Council member Steve Kornell suggested $55 million, citing the $45 million Seattle extracted from the NBA Supersonics to break their lease in 2008 and move to Oklahoma City (Kriseman contends that’s a false analogy because the MOU only permits the Rays to look for a new home in Pinellas County or neighboring Hillsborough County, not leave the area entirely.)
Meanwhile, Montreal is being less than subtle in indicating the Rays would be welcome there — ironic considering that city lost the Expos to Washington after the 2004 season because it could not deliver an alternative to Olympic Stadium. As was the case with the Rays, the Expos fielded competitive teams in the 1990s and finished above .500 as late as 2003, yet crowds in the Expos’ last few seasons in Montreal make attendance at Tropicana Field look positively robust. The Expos averaged only 9,300 fans per game the last season there while the Rays drew almost 18,000 per game in 2014.
ORLANDO CITY SOCCER ROARS
Before leaving soccer and economic development behind, it should be noted that several estimates indicate the home opener for the Orlando City Lions had a $4 million economic impact on the city. The match, which drew 62,000 fans to the renovated Orlando Citrus Bowl, had another impact as well: the team is rethinking its attendance goals going forward.
Almost immediately after the game, the club announced it was increasing available seating at future matches to 23,000 (the huge crowd at the opener always was expected to be a one-time phenomenon). Attendance for the second home match, against the Vancouver Whitecaps: 31,072. Looks like the City Beautiful is sitting pretty financially.
BUILD IT LIKE BECKHAM?
OK, maybe all those predictions from 25 years ago about the impact youth soccer would have on America are coming true, because here’s yet another soccer item. Soccer superstar David Beckham continues to struggle with funding and a site for his Miami MLS franchise, scheduled to start play in 2017 (or maybe 2018). Miami-Dade leaders and Beckham still have not agreed on a location — something near Marlins Park now is in the mix — or a financing plan. Funding from the state remains suspect and city leaders are uber-cautious about local funding after the recent Marlins stadium package.
And, in what may or may not be an ominous sign, Major League Soccer moved ahead with granting a new franchise to Minnesota, one that appears more certain to begin play by 2018.
Speaking of Florida teams in strange places, talk of the NFL Jaguars moving to London seems a little more ridiculous with each passing day. Yes, the team will continue playing an annual game in Wembley Stadium, but the city’s credentials as a sports town are getting stronger every day.
Besides the possible upgrades to EverBank Stadium noted earlier, Jacksonville enjoyed significant economic benefit from hosting the first two rounds of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at Veterans Memorial Arena. March Madness lived up to its name in North Florida, as Georgia State upset third-seeded (and trendy Final Four pick) Baylor and mighty North Carolina fended off a strong upset bid by Harvard (yes, THE Harvard). Having the Tar Heels play was an economic boon all by itself, as one fan told the Jacksonville Journal that Carolina fans alone “filled half the arena.”
The Jaguars, meanwhile, are looking to burnish their image as a business opportunity for Jacksonville companies. The team lags behind many of its NFL counterparts among season ticket holders who use their packages as business opportunities, so the team has launched “Jaguars Black,” a B2B program designed to allow corporate season ticket holders to maximize the value of their packages. Customers who participate in the program will receive a “playbook” detailing how to target business prospects for invitations to the game, ways to enhance the experience at the stadium and tips for how to follow up after the event.
Oh, and the Jacksonville Armada FC of the North American Soccer League set a new attendance record for the minor league, when more than 16,000 fans turned out at EverBank Field in April for the team’s first match.
OTHER STADIUM UPDATES
In other sports facility news: United States Tennis Association officials and local leaders broke ground in April on the new $60 million tennis facility — the largest tennis facility in the country —at Lake Nona in Orlando.
Construction also began in April on the $27 million Seminole County sports complex near Orlando Sanford International Airport. The facility will include softball, baseball, football, soccer and lacrosse fields and other facilities to accommodate those attending events there.
The largest ice skating complex in the Southeast is set to open in Pasco County this fall. The $20-million, privately owned facility will be located in Wesley Chapel (north of Tampa) off Interstate 75 and will include four rinks, one of them Olympic-sized and will accommodate all ice sports, from hockey to figure skating.
The Orlando Solar Bears minor league hockey team also announced plans to build a two-rink, 115,000-square-foot facility near Winter Garden. The complex also will include shops and restaurants.
The $400 million “Daytona Rising” upgrade to America’s most famous NASCAR speedway continues apace. The latest change is the demolition of the iconic Sprint Tower.
COATES GOLF CHAMPIONSHIP
Golf remains Florida’s biggest sport from an economic development standpoint because it encompasses both the professional tours and the weekend duffers. So, it’s worth noting that for the first time in more than a decade, the LPGA tour kicked off in the Sunshine State, with the Coates Golf Championship presented by R+L Carriers. Played in January at the Golden Ocala Golf and Equestrian Club and featuring a $1.5 million purse, the $225,000 top prize was captured by South Korea’s Na Yeon Choi.
In other golf news, a third course has been announced at the prestigious Streamsong Resort in Polk County. Joining the acclaimed blue and red courses, is the black course, being designed by Gil Hanse and opening in 2017.
FAREWELL TO A LEGEND
Finally, this feature would not be complete without noting the passing of legendary University of Florida head football coach and athletic director Ray Graves. Graves took over the football team and athletics department in 1960 and served as the Gators’ head coach for a decade. His teams posted a 70-31-4 record (including 4-1 in bowls), and he is best remembered for coaching Heisman Trophy winner (and future UF coach) Steve Spurrier. He stayed on for another decade as AD, and generally is credited with building both an athletic and academic powerhouse in Gainesville. More than 90 percent of his players graduated, and half of them went on to earn advanced degrees.