City on the sidelines

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Twenty years ago, Central Florida had the potential to become one of the sports hubs of the South, blessed by a burgeoning market when expansion was the rage among pro leagues.

Sports marketers considered the region a land of opportunity.

Then reality unfolded.

The National Football League went to Jacksonville instead. Baseball moved into Miami and St. Petersburg. The National Hockey League settled on Tampa and South Florida. The college-football Bowl Championship Series also bypassed Central Florida.

Orlando landed an expansion team with the National Basketball Association in 1987, but the long-term future of the Magic here now hinges on whether the team gets a new or renovated arena.

While the Super Bowl -- one of the most celebrated sporting events in the world -- was played Feb. 6 in nearby Jacksonville, Orlando continued to wrestle with its sporting future, trying to decide what to do with out-of-date, aging facilities that have dimmed its appeal.

The dreams of becoming a four-sport city such as Atlanta, a three-sport city such as Seattle or even a two-sport city such as Cincinnati have all but disappeared, say the experts.

"Orlando used to be viewed as a real hub for growth in sports, but that perception has changed dramatically," said Mark Ganis, president of SportsCorp Ltd., a sports-consulting company in Chicago. "You just don't hear people talk about Orlando as a relocation destination or a strong sports market anymore. Those windows of opportunity don't stay open indefinitely."

Central Florida still has many attractions.

In a corner

It has grown into the 20th-largest television market in America, according to Nielsen Media Research, with 1.3 million TV homes. There are an estimated 2.5 million people in the six-county area -- Orange, Seminole, Osceola, Volusia, Lake and Brevard -- that makes up the television market, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau statistics.

The region's population is exploding. Construction cranes dot the sky of downtown Orlando. And the arts and culture scene is flourishing. Yet sports in Orlando lag behind those in other similar-sized cities. Smaller television markets such as St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Milwaukee have teams in three of the four big-league sports (NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball, NHL). Other comparable markets, such as Indianapolis and Kansas City, Mo., have two.

But critics who question the value of public subsidies for professional sports-team owners say Orlando has thrived with just one team and would likely survive the loss of the Magic.

Former Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards said losing the Magic wouldn't be overly traumatic for most Central Floridians, particularly if the team abandoned Orlando for a city that offered a bigger subsidy.

"I believe that if the Magic were to leave, the citizens would soon move on to fill the void. There's so much to do in this community," said Edwards, who left office in November after eight years as a commissioner. "There's not a great amount of public support for public subsidies."

And some observers point to thriving cities such as Columbus, Ohio; Austin, Texas; and Las Vegas as proof that professional sports teams are not a prerequisite to becoming a destination city. Out of those three cities only Columbus has a professional team: the NHL's Blue Jackets, who took the ice five years ago at a new arena.

If the Magic do not get a new or refurbished arena and move and move to another city, Orlando would be the nation's largest market without a major-league sports franchise. "As a sports town, Orlando has been phenomenal to this organization. The fan base, the sponsorship support, have all been good," said Bob Vander Weide, Magic president and chief executive officer. "But something [with the current arena] needs to be done for the long term in this marketplace."

John Saboor, executive director of the Central Florida Sports Commission, knows the value of having a professional team, but he's not blind to the reality that some residents don't consider the Magic central to the region's success.

"Would it be the end of the world [if the Magic left]? No, it would not be," Saboor said. "But is the retention absolutely critical to the success of our community, and how people perceive it? Yes it is."

Margot Knight, president and CEO of United Arts of Central Florida, agrees, to a point. She says the Magic's exit would create a stigma for the region.

"When you lose something that made you feel like you had arrived as a truly international city, there's a psychological scar on the city," she said.

But Knight said the push for a renovated or new arena needs to happen in the context of what the region needs to thrive in the next 20 to 25 years.

"We tend to create these false divisions -- sports vs. the arts comes to mind -- and it's all about growth in the region," she said. "And our experience is that sports and the arts both attract people who go out."

Central Florida already has a wide array of sporting events, but they aren't inmajor team sports. Speedweeks and its flagship race, the Daytona 500, are among the biggest events in American motorsports. The Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League have risen to surprising popularity.

Even though Orlando lost the Minnesota Twins 20 years ago when the city refused to upgrade Tinker Field, spring training flourishes today at Disney World with the Atlanta Braves and in Kissimmee with the Houston Astros.

There are two PGA Tour events annually. The Capital One Bowl game on New Year's Day has grown into one of the finest non-BCS games in America, according to most college-football administrators. There has been at least one championship event played in an NCAA sport in Central Florida every year since 1977. Disney's Wide World of Sports complex attracts some of the finest amateur events in the country.

Yet Orlando now is boxed into a corner by a combination of missed opportunities, the lack of vigorous sports leadership in the public and private sectors, and outdated facilities, according to most sports consultants and marketing experts interviewed by the Orlando Sentinel.

"A town is only as good as its reputation, as good as the perception in the marketplace," said Bill Sutton, associate department head of the University of Central Florida sports-management school. "There is a great perception of Orlando as a tourist destination. But as a sports destination, there's a lot of work that needs to be done."

The money game

Although Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Richard Crotty -- the area's two most powerful public leaders -- say big-time sports should be part of a vibrant community, they have struggled to go beyond rhetoric and have been unable to find common ground.

Their support is vital to big-time sports in Central Florida because they are the keys to any publicly financed sports facilities.

"Orlando could have a future in big-league sports, but it would have to grow into it," Crotty said. "There is just so much else to do here. It [sports] is just one of many interests. We could be a sports town like St. Louis is a sports town, but not like Green Bay is a sports town."

Dyer thinks a new arena and a major renovation of the Florida Citrus Bowl would further invigorate his downtown-development plans, but he lacks the funding sources to do it alone.

"My view of the world is that Orlando ought to be a world-class community," Dyer said. "And we ought to have the type of amenities that our citizens want."

Dyer also bristles at the criticism from those who say Orlando would do just fine without professional teams. A cosmopolitan city, he said, must have vibrant attractions such as museums, parks, theater -- and professional sports.

"You have to come up with unique experiences that bring people to Orlando," he said.

But any discussion about new or renovated sports facilities inevitably turns to how to fund them and the biggest prize -- the lucrative tourist tax -- which Crotty controls. That 5 percent tax levied on hotel and motel guests in Orange County generates about $115 million annually, but tourism-industry interests, especially hoteliers, have opposed using the tax for sports facilities.

The majority of the resort-tax money is used for debt repayment -- exceeding $70 million annually -- on the Orange County Convention Center. The bulk of the excess raised goes to the Convention &Visitors Bureau, which uses it to promote tourism.

Because Crotty and the commissioners have some flexibility on where it can be used, sports enthusiasts aren't the only ones lining up to share in the wealth. For example, others would like the money used for a performing-arts center.

In the past, small amounts have been given to the Orlando Area Sports Commission and the Florida Citrus Sports Association, which promotes the Florida Classic and two bowl games played at the Citrus Bowl. Money also was used for past renovations at the Citrus Bowl.

Bill Peeper, president of the Orlando/Orange County Convention & Visitors Bureau, declined to be interviewed for this story.

The least painful way of paying for a new or renovated sports facility would be by adding another penny to the resort tax, said Jim Hewitt, the Orlando banker/businessman who originally started the effort to land the NBA expansion team. But the tourism community has rejected his plan.

"It's not that complex to get it done, to get a new facility," said Hewitt, a Magic season-ticket holder. "It's a lot simpler than getting the team in the first place or trying to get another team if this one leaves. Let's be honest, the tourists aren't going to stop coming here because of another penny with the resort tax."

Of the 29 arenas used today by NBA teams, more than half are either owned publicly or by a public/private ownership combination.

"This is all about leadership, and getting it done, bringing people together and making it happen," said Sutton, of the UCF sports-management school. "Orlando has some wonderful assets, but they don't seem well-coordinated. The cohesiveness is lacking. I see a real silo mentality here -- everyone worried about their own interests."

With public money tight, funding both a football stadium and a new downtown arena would be difficult.

The Magic and the Predators think they have waited long enough. But the Florida Citrus Sports Association, and college-football fans, think their time is long overdue for a new facility.

Unlike the modern football stadiums in the state, the Citrus Bowl doesn't have any club seats and only 30 renovated luxury suites. By comparison, Raymond James Stadium in Tampa has almost 200 luxury suites and 12,000 club seats, making it a much more profitable venue for the host, and a more enjoyable experience for the guests.

"We have an aging, antiquated facility, and we need to fix it," said Tom Mickle, executive director of Florida Citrus Sports. "We need a leader to step forward and get everybody focused on that."

TD Waterhouse Centre, home for the Magic since the team's first season in 1989-90, is the oldest building in the NBA for which a major renovation has not been undertaken or planned.

By next season, when the Bobcats move into their new arena in Charlotte, the Magic will be the only NBA team in the league without midlevel or club seats to sell and generate additional revenue.

The Magic are missing $15 million to $20 million annually in potential revenue because they don't have the high-priced seating that comes with all newer arenas, said Bill Dorsey, executive director of the Association of Luxury Suite Directors in Cincinnati.

"You are working under a substantial disadvantage in Orlando because of facilities," said David Cope, director of business development for Gilco Sports and Entertainment Marketing in Washington, D.C., which works closely now with the Washington Nationals of Major League Baseball. "Orlando is what it is. Maybe sports just aren't a priority there. That's not a knock. It's just a choice people make."

Leadership is critical

The lack of cohesion and the lack of facilities are what cost Orlando the chance to become an NFL or Major League Baseball city long ago, say those close to the two sports.

Before the NFL expanded into Jacksonville 10 years ago, the league looked briefly toward Orlando, but found no serious effort to build a new stadium or dramatically improve the existing one.

"Back then, I would have thought that Orlando would be higher on the NFL's list than Jacksonville. You have a lot going there," said Rusty Newton, a Jacksonville banker who helped land the expansion team for North Florida. "But you really need to have the right kind of leadership in both the public and private sectors to make it happen. It worked for us."

It wasn't until voters in Hillsborough County rejected a plea for a new stadium in Tampa that Osceola County stepped forward with a plan to lure the Bucs to Central Florida. But when a second referendum narrowly passed in 1996 to keep the Bucs, it ended any talk of the NFL in Central Florida.

The Bucs last season sold about 1,700 season tickets in the Orlando area. Former Bucs owner Hugh Culverhouse encouraged Orlando to seek an NFL team long before Jacksonville landed the franchise, thinking it would create a tremendous rivalry, but no strong effort emerged.

"You can't rule anything out, but I just don't see Orlando in the NFL mix anymore," said Wayne Weaver, owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars. "With three teams in the state now, it's highly unlikely that the league would put another one there. And I would never consider moving."

Efforts to land Major League Baseball expansion teams for Central Florida failed in 1991 and 1995. Rich DeVos, who later bought the Magic, first tried to land a National League team, but baseball opted for Miami instead.

Norton Herrick, a Boca Raton developer, tried and lost his bid to bring baseball to Central Florida the second time when St. Petersburg won the American League franchise that became the Devil Rays.

"If Orlando had built the stadium it just talked about once, Central Florida would have a baseball team today," said Clark Griffith, a Minneapolis attorney and son of former Twins owner Calvin Griffith, who still works closely with Major League Baseball. "I've always liked Orlando, but the city never quite got its act together."

What next?

A major renovation of the Citrus Bowl would prevent the downward slide of the Capital One Bowl, whose status is being threatened by more-modern facilities and the amenities they can provide in other cities, according to commissioners from the Big Ten and Southeastern conferences.

UCF officials may have hurt the push for a major stadium renovation by announcing their own tentative plan to build an on-campus football facility. Having played the previous 30 years at the Citrus Bowl, they had been lobbying the city for major upgrades. But those efforts have stopped now.

Yet Florida Citrus Sports still thinks it needs a better stadium to improve on the newer Champs Sports Bowl game, which is played in late December, said Mickle, the executive director. It also would enable Orlando to bid on the Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference championship football games.

It would help secure a long-term commitment from the Florida Classic, the annual football game between Florida A&M University and Bethune-Cookman College. Its stay here is being threatened by Jacksonville, whose leaders are working to lure the schools away with incentives that include modern facilities.

A new arena would ensure a long-term commitment by the Magic, who are finding it increasingly difficult to compete for the best free agents without the benefit of moneymaking amenities in newer arenas that almost all the other teams now have.

A new arena with lower and midlevel suites would attract the corporate support the Magic lack. It would allow the city also to attract bigger NCAA Tournament games, college-conference tournaments, the NBA All-Star Game, a Women's Final Four and other events, according to Saboor of the Sports Commission.

Crotty and Dyer are asking the Magic to look again at renovation possibilities, something the team didn't like five years ago. The Magic still think they need a new building.

Talks have begun again with the city, county and officials from the Magic and Florida Citrus Sports. In the past, those talks produced very little in terms of major sports facilities in Central Florida. The baseball stadium never was built. Citrus Bowl and arena improvements were minor.

While the public officials and sports executives work toward an arena solution to keep the Magic, some fans continue to hope the city draws more professional teams.

"For a city our size, we should have more than one major sports team," said Kirk Stephens of Orlando, a longtime fan of professional sports. "I think over the years, we probably dropped the ball a few times when opportunities were out there. It's why we better do everything we can to keep the team we do have now."

Mark Schlueb and Jason Garcia of the Sentinel staff contributed to this report. Tim Povtak can be reached at tpovtak@orlandosentinel.com or 407-420-5328.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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