Orlando Needs MLS, not MLB

Jeff LeadbeaterContributor IFebruary 28, 2010

I tweeted this last night while I was at the second night of the Pro Soccer Classic at Disney: Orlando needs MLS soccer, not MLB.

I honestly believe that is the case.

A few months ago, I posted about Armando Gutierrez and his attempt to bring Major League Baseball to Orlando. But thinking more deeply on the idea, I’ve come to the conclusion that MLB in Orlando just will not work.

The reason: Tampa Bay.

Tampa Bay relies on Orlando to help get more attendance for the Rays. Orlando would need to rely on Tampa Bay even more. The problem is, that just isn’t possible.

If we stole the Rays, who have made no secret of their desire for a new stadium, away from Tampa Bay, it would undoubtedly alienate the market. Back in 1991, they boycotted Blockbuster Video when CEO and then-Marlins owner H. Wayne Huizenga vetoed the already-agreed-upon move of the San Francisco Giants to St. Petersburg.

Don’t think for one moment they won’t act in anger against the Rays and Orlando if the Rays moved here.

And if we moved a different team, like the Oakland Athletics, to Orlando, we still would not have the support of Tampa Bay. Only then, the Rays will lose the necessary support of Orlando, and both teams would suffer economically.

We need to support the Rays in Tampa Bay if we want baseball in Orlando. The only scenario where I see MLB baseball becoming viable in Orlando is if the Rays move out-of-state.

But as foolhardy as MLB may seem in the current conditions, there is another interesting possibility: Major League Soccer.

I have already expressed my opinions and ideas to Mr. Gutierrez, but I wanted to share them here as well. First, quite simply, is cost.

An expansion slot in Major League Soccer—which is currently available for as early as 2012—costs $40 million. That’s far and away less than the cost to get the Rays out of their lease at Tropicana Field. And there are a couple MLS teams that are currently in bad stadium situations.

In addition, a stadium tailor-made for soccer, such as Toyota Park in Chicago, The Home Depot Center in Los Angeles, or even Dick’s Sporting Goods Park in Denver, costs one-third to one-half as much as an MLB-class stadium.

In fact, it may even cost less than the $175 million they have earmarked to (someday) remodel the Citrus Bowl. Toyota Park, a standalone stadium with a capacity of 27,000, only cost $100 million to build in 2006. In Chicago. Dick’s (capacity 18,000) cost $131 million in 2007, but that included the 24-field soccer practice complex built around it. I can’t imagine a similar facility here in Orlando would cost much more, especially considering our real estate market these days.

The market is better suited for soccer than baseball. Orlando can support putting 25,000 people at a soccer match 15-20 times a year a lot better than 35,000 at a baseball game 81+ times a year.

In addition, a soccer-specific stadium will bring far greater economic benefit than an MLB stadium. Especially with the changes at the Citrus Bowl. As you recall, the Citrus Bowl was cut out of the U.S. bid for the 2018/2022 World Cups. This, despite our successes hosting the 1994 World Cup.

We need to face facts: The Citrus Bowl sucks. It is way too old, and the prospects for the overhaul originally planned in 2007 are growing dimmer. Now that they are laying artificial turf, our chances of ever hosting world-class soccer again will be extinguished.

At best, an MLB-class stadium can host a team and maybe the World Baseball Classic every three years—assuming we aren’t looked over in favor of the Marlins’ new ballpark or any of the other baseball shrines erected or remodeled in the last 20 years.

A soccer-specific stadium will not only host 15-20 team games, but a litany of other matches and tournaments: The men’s and women’s national soccer teams in both friendly and World Cup qualifying matches, expositions featuring international teams, continental tournaments, you name it.

With Orlando being a premier foreign tourist destination already, it would become instantly attractive to the big leagues of Europe: the Premier League in England, La Liga in Spain, Serie A in Italy, 1.Bundesliga in Germany and many more.

A soccer-specific stadium can also host a lot more than soccer. A soccer pitch can also accommodate American football. It would never be a replacement for the Citrus Bowl itself, but it just might be able to steal away the Florida Tuskers, who would be better suited for the intimate nature of a soccer-specific stadium.

It could also attract the annual FHSAA state high school football championships. On top of that, the growing (in America, anyway, already popular worldwide) sport of rugby would be put in exhibition at a soccer stadium.

Finally, unlike a baseball team, it would not make it economically prohibitive to also drop an MLS team in Tampa Bay. And any new branch of the War on I-4 is a good thing for both of us.

I think we have an interesting opportunity here, if we are willing to take advantage of it.