ORLANDO — Over the past few years, the Tampa Bay Rays haven't been afraid to use creative methods to extend their team brand and fan base to different regions of Florida.
That objective was the main factor in the Rays' latest partnership: acquiring a minority ownership interest in the Florida franchise of the upstart United Football League, a new four-team outdoor league scheduled to debut in October.
The Florida Tuskers will be based in Orlando and will hold their inaugural season this October and November, playing a six-game schedule. They will play two home games at Orlando's Citrus Bowl, and their Oct. 30 matchup with the Las Vegas Locomotives at Tropicana Field.
Michael Kalt, the Rays senior vice president for development and business affairs, said the UFL approached the Rays about six months ago. Kalt said the Rays see owning a piece of the franchise as a tremendous opportunity, citing the "overwhelming demand" for more football across the country.
Although many other outdoor football leagues have failed, Kalt says the Rays believe the UFL is sustainable. "If we didn't think it was money well spent, we wouldn't be doing it," he said.
Kalt said the amount of the Rays' investment, believed to be less than $2 million, "will not have an impact on our baseball operations" or payroll. And he was quick to eliminate any concerns that this move could be linked to the Rays potentially moving to Orlando, or anywhere else, if a new stadium isn't built.
"We play baseball in Tampa Bay," Kalt said. "We see opportunities all over Florida — the same thing as bringing spring training to Port Charlotte — and it's about trying to really develop a regional base of the sports fan across Central Florida, the west coast, and down toward Fort Myers."
Under the league structure, the UFL owns at least 50 percent of all franchises but invites investors. UFL commissioner Michael Huyghue acknowledged the Rays partnership is unique, with one baseball team owning a football franchise. But other baseball teams have tried similar crossovers.
"Cross-ownership is allowed and we currently have it with three teams (White Sox/Bulls, Tigers/Red Wings, Rangers/Stars) with professional sports and the Fenway Group, and Moorad (Padres) with auto racing," Major League Baseball spokesman Pat Courtney said. "We don't foresee any issues and will work with the Rays on anything that arises."
Since the football team will be part-owned by the Rays (rather than principal owner Stu Sternberg individually), Major League Baseball would likely monitor the situation to make sure there isn't any commingling of funds, Courtney said.
Huyghue, a former executive with the NFL's Lions and Jaguars, said it's also a strategic alliance, with the Rays offering the league an organization that has experience building a franchise and a Tampa Bay market the UFL can tap into.
The league, whose plan is to provide football for markets considered "underserved" by the NFL, will have teams in Florida (with games in Orlando and St. Petersburg), Las Vegas (with a game in Los Angeles), northern California (San Francisco/Sacramento) and New York (with a game in Hartford, Conn.).
All four teams will be coached by well-known former NFL coaches: Jim Haslett (New Orleans Saints) in Orlando, Jim Fassel (New York Giants) in Las Vegas, Dennis Green (Minnesota Vikings, Arizona Cardinals) in California and Ted Cottrell (longtime defensive assistant) in New York.
The game at Tropicana Field falls on the Bucs bye weekend and is a World Series off day.
Kalt said the Tuskers will play more games at Tropicana Field in the coming seasons as the league expands, probably half their home slate. Huyghue said the league plans to expand to a 12-game schedule next season, meaning it's possible there could be as many as three Tuskers games at the Trop in 2010.
Said Kalt: "We have the Trop sitting empty 200 days a year, and it's an opportunity to bring more events into the Trop, and provide more quality, family-friendly, affordable entertainment to the Tampa Bay area."
With this being the UFL's first season, Kalt said the league will have its hand in a lot of the marketing side of the Tuskers. But he said the Rays could be more aggressive in looking at potential cross-promotion between the teams in the future.
Kalt said the Rays will have no input on player decisions.
Haslett said about 45 players have committed to play for the Tuskers, and Jay Gruden will be the offensive coordinator. Huyghue said the average player salary will be $6,000 a week, with an option for one "wild card" player (typically a quarterback) allowed to get paid more. Former Buc Michael Pittman has signed to play, and there will be an open tryout at the Citrus Bowl Aug. 22.
Huyghue said the league has had discussions with former Atlanta Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, who was recently released after serving a prison term for his role in a dogfighting ring. Huyghue said if the opportunity presents itself, the league will pursue Vick, and that if Vick plays for the UFL, it would be for the Tuskers.
The first game for the Tuskers is Oct. 10 at the Citrus Bowl against New York.
Times staff writers Marc Topkin and Gary Shelton contributed to this report. Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.