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Can Sports Survive in the Sunshine State?

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-A full Tampa Stadium, a rare site in this photo circa the late 1970s or early 80s.
Courtesy: Stadiums Of NFL

The Teams

When Major League Baseball expanded into the Sunshine State in the 1990s, it stood in line behind a wealth of other sports doing the same thing. Over the period between 1988 and 1998, the four professional sports leagues placed seven expansion teams in the state of Florida. Those teams were not mutually exclusive to the Tampa Bay area and South Florida either. Before 1988, Florida had two sports teams, only one of which you could call a definitive success, and on top of that, both were football teams. The Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, to that point, were the only professional sports teams in the state. The Dolphins had had a historically successful history to that point along with wide support. On top of that, they were playing in the NFL's newest stadium. The Dolphins, to that point, were a great success, and remain the most solid pro sports franchise in the state.

The Buccaneers, on the other hand, had already racked up many seasons of futility, and this would continue for the next decade. They played in, arguably, the NFL's worst stadium in front of some of the NFL'smallest crowds. Up to that point, Florida was clearly a football state. And it still is, for the most part. The Miami Hurricanes, Florida GHators, and Florida State Seminoles football teams all draw a much larger following than any of the state's professional teams.

But going into the 1990s, the professional sports leagues woke up to the fact that one of the nation's largest and fastest growing states should not have just two sports teams. And that opened the floodgates. Over the next decade, the Miami Heat (1988), Orlando Magic (1989), Tampa Bay Lightning (1992), Florida Marlins (1993), Florida Panthers (1993), Jacksonville Jaguars (1995), and Devil Rays (1998) flowed into the state. For the most part, those teams have not done economically well. The Heat only draw well when they play well, and even then, you can find tickets rather easily. The Magic have been a complete failure, likely because it is f------ Orlando, where not only is the city made up of transplants, but also tourists who have better things to do than watch that sorry franchise. Throw in the fact that it is a small market with a much smaller population than the big two in the state, and it was bound to fail.

The Lightning have been a surprising success. Like any bottom-feeder, they had their low attended years, but for a team that has made the playoffs three times in 13 years. Once held up as a prime example of the failure of hockey's 'Sun Belt' expieriment, the Lightning won the 2004 Stanley Cup, have sold out 23 straight games at the St. Pete Times Forum, and hold most NHL single game attendance records from their days at the Thunderdome.

The Panthers, on the other hand, can be held up as an example of hockey's failed 'Sun Belt' expieriment. The only time even mediocre fan support was achieved was in the 1995-96 Eastern Conference Championship season. Even a new arena could not spur attendance.

Another South Florida expansion team, the Florida Marlins, are in the worst situation of them all. South Florida has never really supported the Marlins, and the only games with a history of selling out are playoff affairs. Though the firesales have not helped, the ineptness of the South Florida market to get that team out of a football stadium and support a two time World Champion would be laughable if it wasn't so sad. The Marlins are currently exploring relocation, and could be the first team to move out of a US city since 1971.

The Jacksonville Jaguars were a surprise choice for an NFL expansion team in 1995. Faced against competition from much bigger cities, the Jacksonville expansion group lead by Wayne Weaver was able to corrall a team into a renovated Gator Bowl. The Jags, playing in one of the NFL's smallest markets, have always been on the 'possible relocation' list, and the only thing that has kept TV games from being blacked out is corporate interests buying Gator Bowl seats in bulk.

The final, and biggest question mark, is of course the Devil Rays. The only Florida pro sports team never to have any level of success finished last in the major leagues in attendance last year, and would have in several years previous to that had the Montreal Expos not existed. This team, like many others in Florida, has been plauged by incompetant management and failure, though on a much larger scale. Everything from the franchise's founding was done wrong, and fan support suffered because of it. So is this team going to draw fans at any point, or should there be a marathon race between the two Florida teams to Las Vegas?

The Markets

Orlando and Jacksonville have proven to be spectacular failures on the pro sports level. Each has been given the tools needed to draw fans, and both have not. Now I don't have a MBA from Harvard or anything, but it seems to me this is because we are talking about Jacksonville and Orlando. One city is too small and too full of transplants, the other is too small and too full of residents who don't care and tourists with better things to do. So let's cut the shrimp out of the dinner and move to the main course.

All Florida cities, no matter where they are or how large they are, are going to have a problem with transplants. You know, the people who only live here part time, 'snowbirds', or grandma and grampa who lived in New York for 40 years and came down to Florida to retire. There is a reason St. Petersburg is commonly known as 'God's Waiting Room'. However untrue this may be (St. Petersburg's average age is about 38), loyalty will always be a problem.

The Tampa Bay market is a very interesting case study for sports markets. In an area full of transplants and snow birds, is there enough people to support the team? I hate to say it, but this area is one of the more fair-weather markets in the country. But at least it supports teams at some time. The projection that northern hockey-loving transplants would show up at Florida arenas to see the sport on ice and carry the team's revenue stream was waaaaaaaay off base.

But I offer you food for thought. The Buccaneers, undoubtably our area's biggest success story in terms of fan support, are in the midst of their 30th season in the area. The Devil Rays and Lightning, meanwhile, are even younger than myself. Could it be that the Buccaneers, even when another susteained period of losing begins, will retain that fan support from a genration of Bucs fans? Think about this. Most fans who have supported the Bucs for their entire life are now entering their late 30s. That means that a lot of people under the age of 40 who have lived in Tampa Bay for a long period of time have been exposed to the Bucs. Now, if these people are Bucs fans, and are memebers of the first generation of Bucs fans emotionally connected to the team, could they still support the Bucs after the winning is over? It will be interesting to see what happens when and if the Bucs start losing in the near future, hopefully not.

The Lightning and Devil Rays, meanwhile, are much younger, and thus do not have a wide fan base of people who have followed them for their entire life. Furthermore, those who have are not people with lots of disposable entertainment income. So the people buying tickets are, for the most part, residents with other allegiances coming to support their team when it comers to town, or people who figure they should go out to the ballpark once in awhile. And the Lightning have proven that winning draws even non-fans.

So that is my view on the Tampa Bay market. For now, I believe it is a fair weather area, but will get better as the teams settle in overnight. The South Florida market, however, is a much bigger question, and I will tackle that in the second part of this series.

Part One of Three