Orlando developer and congressional candidate Armando Gutierrez apparently has big ambitions, and it goes beyond becoming a congressman. Gutierrez is putting a group of investors together with the hopes of bringing a Major League Baseball franchise to Orlando. These plans are in the baby stages as evidenced by their scant website. As a baseball fan, this is welcome news. However, at the surface, many obstacles appear in the way.
First, one wonders how big a hit MLB in Orlando will actually be. Gutierrez says, "Orlando is one of the biggest media markets without a team, I thought this would be a great opportunity." Maybe true, but Florida has many transplanted Yankees, Mets, and Red Sox fans. They come here for the weather and keep their allegiances with their hometown teams. Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg has even earned the dubious nickname "Fenway South." The Tampa Bay Rays and Florida Marlins, despite recent on the field successes, ranked in the bottom ten in 2009 attendance, and this was an improvement over earlier in the decade. Some will cite stadium location outside major city centers and stadium atmosphere, but attendance problems go beyond baseball down here. Besides college football, we Floridians are fickle about our sports teams. The Jaguars had an embarrassing seven blackouts in 2009, the Magic weren't drawing well until they put a winner together, and next time you see a Miami Heat home game on TV, look out for all those empty seats, despite having a top 3 talent, Dwayne Wade. Pro hockey is worse.
Second, I applaud Gutierrez for pledging to lure baseball without tax dollars. Far too often around the country, municipal and/or state taxpayers are left paying the tab for a new stadium, either to lure a team or because the incumbent team threatens to move. The public pays for a stadium, and the owner picks up all the profits from ticket sales, concessions, parking, and even stadium naming rights. This is welfare for the rich at its worst. Bravo to Gutierrez for keeping strapped taxpayers in mind.
However, if history in the sports business is any indicator, it is unlikely that a group of private investors will shell out the cash for a required baseball stadium. Because of our humid summer climate, it will likely be an air-conditioned stadium with a retractable roof, costing at least $600 million. The Seattle Mariners had $517 million Safeco Field built with tax dollars built in 1999. The Mariners are owned by Nintendo. Micky Arison, owner of the Heat, plays in the publicly financed American Airlines Arena. Arison is CEO of Carnival Cruises. Arthur Blank, owner and founder of Home Depot, says that his Atlanta Falcons aren't making enough money in the 17 year old Georgia Dome and wants a taxpayer bailout as well. If bring MLB to Orlando comes with this type of nonsense, it is a bad deal for the city and they should get out. If Guiterrez can get it done in the private sector, I'll be the first to congratulate him and I'll even attend a few games. Joe Robbie did it in Miami, so it's not unprecedented, just rare.
Then there is the issue with the Rays and Orlando's close proximity. MLB in Orlando would likely require the Rays to relocate from St. Pete. Many obstacles stand in the way of a move, most notably their lease with Tropicana Field.
As a baseball fan and a believer in free enterprise, I am rooting for Gutierrez. It's about time that the professional sports business is shown how to run business without public subsidies, like it did before the 1960's. But judging past behavior from MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and others, I just think this is too good to be true.