When I think about Florida, baseball is not the first thing that comes to mind. Despite having not one, but two baseball teams, Florida is associated with Disney World, snowbird retirees, and for me, it’s the place where I got badly stung by a jellyfish one time on the beach in Fort Lauderdale. Also, Red Sox spring training.
Despite the Rays playing in the postseason last month, and Miami being the 4th-largest urban area in the nation, Florida baseball teams aren’t exactly relevant. So when Pat Williams, co-founder of the Orlando Magic and former minor league baseball player, announced his plan for the Orlando Dreamers, which would be MLB’s first expansion team since, well, the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays and Arizona Diamondbacks in 1998, most people reacted with disbelief and ridicule. Yes, the proposed team logo looks like something out of a Disney Channel original movie, but I think there’s actually something nice about the sweetly hokey ’90s-look.
The pushback shouldn’t be about putting a team in Orlando, because that’s not ridiculous at all. In many ways, it’s a great idea. There’s just a lot to consider.
For one thing, MLB isn’t doing a good job at marketing to families and children in existing markets. The would-be next generation of baseball fans are being neglected and priced out of the ballparks. Millions of fans already can’t even afford to go a ballgame, and many ballparks look so barren and empty during their games, it may as well be the offseason year-round.
Then there’s the proposed location. People come to Orlando to go to Harry Potter World, Universal Orlando Resort, Gatorland, and of course, Disney World; it’s not a baseball destination, and it would take a lot of well-aimed marketing and time to make it one. Many tourists come from baseball cities, so they’ll likely choose to spend their vacation money on Orlando’s unique attractions instead of a ballgame. And while you could argue that a ballgame would be on the cheaper end of entertainment for the whole family, ballgames don’t last nearly as long as a day at Disney World, which is open for over 12 hours of endless fun every day.
The timing of Orlando’s tourism is also an important factor. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the best times to visit Orlando weather-wise are from October 22nd to April 15th, almost exactly the entire baseball offseason. High temperatures in the summer don’t make for ideal baseball weather, but many teams in less-than-ideal climates have indoor ballparks. Ultimately, Florida is year-round vacation destination; many of the theme parks post some of their highest crowd numbers in June and July, coinciding with the middle of the baseball season.
Williams’ most compelling argument is that even the smallest percentage of Orlando’s annual tourists would be a larger fan attendance than Tampa and Miami combined. Orlando had “75 million tourists last year,” and he assessed that even if only 2% of visitors go to a game, that’s 1.6 million in home attendance. Tampa and Miami also ranked 29th and 30th in attendance a combined 1.9 million.
So maybe it’s not Florida as much as the issues of the current Florida teams. In their 2019 ‘Business of Baseball’ rankings of MLB valuations, Forbes placed the Rays and Marlins at 29th and 30th, the deepest depths of the proverbial ocean. Along with the Oakland A’s, they were the only teams with revenue under $230 million. This year, the Marlins became the first team since the 2004 Montreal Expos to finish the season with a home attendance under 1 million.
It’s a global conundrum, though: MLB attendance in 2019 sunk to its lowest numbers in 16 years, yet plenty of cities are clamoring for baseball teams of their own. Portland, Nashville, Las Vegas, Charlotte, and Montreal are just a few of the cities around North America that would like to be part of MLB’s continued expansion, to say nothing of MLB’s goal to expand into Europe. To give Florida a 3rd team would be ridiculous and unfair to fans around the country whose home states don’t even have one. But it would also be unfair to deprive Florida of the chance to build a truly successful team.
If Orlando – not just Pat Williams, but actual Orlando baseball fans – wants a baseball team, the best thing to do would be to move one of the existing Florida teams to Orlando, perhaps with Williams becoming a part-owner and benefactor. Tampa is only about 85 miles away from Orlando, and with a dilapidated ballpark, they’re the preferred choice. The Rays are a young and talented team; perhaps a new locale and an influx of cash are what they need to finally become truly competitive in the always challenging AL East.
Regardless of whether the Orlando Dreams go from dream to reality, baseball needs to make changes in order to grow in the way that really matters: the fans. It’s not enough anymore to get all “Field of Dreams”-romantic and say, “People will come, Ray.” If it’s Orlando, Montreal, London, or New York, baseball needs to reel us in, and figure out a way to keep us on the line.
Photo: Orlando Dreamers