Rays should be in Orlando’s crosshairs if it’s serious about baseball

John Romano | A proposed $1.7 billion stadium in Orlando is not likely to lure an MLB expansion team.
Here is an artist's rendering of a proposed new Major League Baseball domed stadium that Orlando Magic co-founder Pat Williams is trying to get built to lure the Tampa Bay Rays or an expansion franchise to Central Florida.
Here is an artist's rendering of a proposed new Major League Baseball domed stadium that Orlando Magic co-founder Pat Williams is trying to get built to lure the Tampa Bay Rays or an expansion franchise to Central Florida. [ ORLANDO DREAMERS | Orlando Sentinel ]
Published May 12

ST. PETERSBURG — Interesting announcement about a proposed baseball stadium in Orlando. Just not sure whether it was inspired or delusional.

It sounds like the main focus for Pat Williams’ baseball group is an expansion franchise, and that’s just nutty. There are a boatload of reasons why Orlando is not a frontrunner for expansion, but let’s start with the most basic:

Major League Baseball is not putting a third team in Florida.

From a business standpoint, the Marlins and Rays have horribly underachieved. Since 2018, excluding pandemic years, Miami and Tampa Bay have accounted for six of the seven lowest numbers for attendance in a season. Neither team has cracked 1.2 million fans in that span, and that’s with a new stadium in Miami and four consecutive playoff appearances in Tampa Bay.

Does that sound like the kind of track record that will make owners eager to put another team in a tourist-driven, high-retiree, low-corporate-base state?

On the other hand, the Orlando folks also the mentioned the possibility of inviting the Rays to move across the street from Sea World after their lease is up at Tropicana Field in 2028.

Now that’s a little more intriguing. And I wonder if that isn’t Orlando’s true priority with expansion as a convenient cover story. That way, nobody in Tampa Bay gets riled up about their team being poached.

To be clear, the odds of the Rays packing their bags for Orlando are slim. Maybe microscopic. But considering the amount of time owner Stuart Sternberg has spent looking for a new stadium in Tampa Bay — unsuccessfully at this point — the Orlando option can’t simply be dismissed.

If the latest talks with St. Petersburg Mayor Ken Welch and Pinellas County officials do not lead to a stadium deal in the next 12 months or so, it’s not unrealistic to think the Rays will more seriously consider moving out of the market.

Nashville has figured prominently in past rumors. Austin, Charlotte, San Antonio and Montreal come up from time to time. But there are issues with those potential destinations. Namely, nearby MLB franchises might expect to be compensated for giving up television rights in those markets.

That wouldn’t be a problem in Orlando, which is already within Rays territory. Plus, the Rays could still retain a large portion of their fan base in Tampa Bay where most people watch on TV anyway.

If Williams, who helped Orlando secure the Magic in the 1980s, really thinks it’s feasible to get close to $1 billion in tourist tax money to fund a stadium, that could be a pretty appealing offer.

The stadium proposal unveiled in Orlando earlier this week probably isn’t alluring to Sternberg — too many seats, too costly with a $700 million bill for a potential owner — but it wouldn’t be hard for the Rays to blend their current St. Pete stadium plans with the Orlando concept.

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There is no indication the Rays have been engaged in any serious talks in Orlando, but they’re also not going to shoot the idea down. Just as they have continued to talk with people in Hillsborough County, the Rays will want to keep their options (and their leverage) alive in central Florida.

At this point, it’s tempting, and not entirely wrong, to dismiss the Orlando vision as mostly fantasy. After all, Florida’s reputation as a baseball market is pretty well shot. And the Magic may have thrived at times in Orlando, but there’s a difference in being a one-sport town and competing with other franchises.

Yet it’s also important to remember that the last time MLB expanded in 1998, the four finalists were Tampa Bay, Phoenix, Northern Virginia and Orlando. Tampa Bay and Arizona obviously won that round and the Northern Virginia effort was eventually satisfied when the Expos moved to Washington.

That leaves Orlando as the lone finalist without a baseball team today.

So is Orlando truly viable as an MLB site? It’s probably similar to Tampa Bay, and I suppose that’s the point.

It doesn’t make central Florida terribly attractive when compared with the rest of the country in an expansion race, but it could mean Orlando has a slight chance of undercutting Tampa Bay when it comes to enticing the Rays with stadium funds.

If I were an Orlando politician willing to spend an ungodly amount of money on a baseball stadium, that’s the direction I would head. And if I were in the Rays ownership group, I would certainly listen to Orlando’s pitch and make sure the politicians in Tampa and St. Pete hear it, too.

St. Pete is still the favorite, the Trop site is still the most attractive in terms of building a destination spot around the stadium and time/lease is still on Tampa Bay’s side.

If the Orlando presentation helps move the needle, that may not be a bad thing.

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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