One of my favorite memories from my college days at the University of Alabama was a little restaurant in Tuscaloosa called Dreamland Barbecue. Ask anyone who ever went to U of A or even lived within 50 miles of the town what Dreamland means and their mouths start watering. It is hands down the best barbecue in the world. I'd love to have some Dreamland ribs right now, but I can't. You see, Dreamland only has three locations nationwide: Tuscaloosa, Birmingham, and Atlanta. So why can't Dreamland close one of the stores for a day, move the entire staff to a smaller store here in Tampa for a few days, then go back to where they came from in the hopes of me flying to Alabama for another serving? Why not? Because it's a stupid business idea. Now subsitute Dreamland Barbecue with the Rays and you'll see why I'm not crazy about the idea of baseball in Orlando.
I know what some of you are thinking. CALM DOWN MATT! IT'S ONLY THREE GAMES! And yes, I know, it's not even a done deal. In fact, this is probably part of the NDRO's research for public opinion. Throw it out there and see if it sticks. Remember the outcry over the "Florida" Rays? It all started with a couple of newspaper stories, and you haven't heard much about that idea since then. Well if you want an opinion on the possibility of the Rays playing more games in Orlando, then you'll get one.
First, I have to fully credit the NDRO with the restructuring of the organization to make the Rays more appealing to all of central Florida. With the relocation of the A-ball team to Vero Beach this season, and spring training moving to Port Charlotte in 2009, by the end of the decade you will have a virtual "Bermuda Triangle" for baseball fans to keep in touch with the Rays in the minor leagues, spring training, and the regular season. I'm just not so sure moving a few games out to Orlando is the answer to VASTLY improving regional support for the team.
Sure, there are examples from the past: the Celtics in Hartford, the Packers in Milwaukee, even my beloved Crimson Tide in Birmingham. You'll notice two things about the examples I've brought up though. First, NONE of these teams do these regular season exhibitions any more. For one thing, it was too much of a hassle for diehards from the home city to travel somewhere else for a game. It was also too much of a hassle for the teams, having to set up hotels, tickets, and pay the rent of another building for a night. Second, these examples listed also have something the Rays do not have: TRADITION. If the Yankees decided today to play a game in Oklahoma City, you better believe people will come from all around to see the pinstripes. The Rays? Not so much.
Marketing gurus will say taking the team to Orlando will help create personal bonds with those locals and maybe they'll follow the team more. Well... maybe. Considering Texas is such a light draw to begin with at the Trop, do you REALLY think the residents of Orlando will storm the gates of the Disney Complex to watch two ho-hum teams in the middle of a muggy May night? I'm guessing no, simply because most Orlando residents are Braves fans or Astros fans because both teams have played there for a while. Plus you don't have to look at the Orlando sports scene too long to see that it's not much of a sports town to begin with. Outside of the Magic, who are struggling to keep their fan base, most every other professional sport has failed. Maybe you get a few people to convert, but honestly now until the team starts winning will you have fans in Orlando spending a lot of time and money trucking out to the Trop for a losing team?
That gets to my final point: the improvement of the team. The reason why I seek out Dreamland when I'm in Alabama or Atlanta is because it's so damn good. I am not looking for a McRib when I'm in town. Likewise, if the Rays continue to preach about the future while delivering 65-70 win teams in the present you just won't have the demand from far away to attend a game. I would suggest improving the product now so when it is good the people will come to YOU and not the other way around.
Look through the history of sports and you will find the nomadic teams such as the Kansas City-Omaha Kings, the ABA Floridians, even the somewhat San Juan Expos didn't survive that way. You will also see Stuart Sternberg's beloved Brooklyn Dodgers once played a few "exhibition" games in Jersey City, New Jersey, in 1956 and 1957-- before finding a better deal in Los Angeles. I'm all for pulling in fans from anywhere, but it starts HERE with the TAMPA BAY Devil Rays.
Go out of your way to improve the team sooner than later, and the fans from everywhere will go out of their way to come here and see the team.
* By the way, I applaud the Rays on the signing of Hee Sop Choi. Bumped out of L.A. by Nomar and then in Boston by Kevin Youkilis, I think Choi may be a pleasant surprise at first like he was in L.A. in '05.