In mid-September a surprise proposal was unveiled that would move the Braves' Spring Training to a new stadium in St. Petersburg, FL. The proposal created some immediate uncomfortableness for the St. Pete City Council, as well as MLB and the Rays, according to Charlie Frago of the Tampa Bay Times.
The Atlanta Braves' current lease to play Spring Training at Disney's ESPN Wide World of Sports complex ends in 2017, a place they have been playing since 1998. The complex is 220 acres in size, and includes four professional baseball fields and one practice infield, with batting tunnels, pitching mounds, hitting tunnels (not sure what the difference is), master pitching machines, and ten bullpens. It also of course includes Champion Stadium, which seats 9,500 people, including the left field seating berm.
What does this have to do with the Rays?
The Rays' have been very vocal in their desire to look for a new stadium, specifically with permission to look in Hillsborough County. We all know that Tropicana Field's iron-clad
lease "use agreement" will not expire until 2027, but even though the Rays can't move their MLB team, does not mean they can't take opportunities to improve their foothold on Central Florida elsewhere.
In regard to stadium negotiations and improving their standing within the state, moving the Rays' Spring Training facility from Port Charlotte (population 54,342) to the Orlando metro area (population 2,134,411) would be the perfect opportunity.
Tourism. Orlando was the most visited destination in the country in 2014, according to Visit Orlando, with an astounding 62 million people coming through. According to the Orlando Sentinel, 51 million visitors came to Walt Disney World.
Even with those mind boggling numbers, the Atlanta Braves "only" brought in 127,131 total fans in 2015, with an average of 7,063 over 18 games, according to Ball Park Digest. The Rays' were toward the bottom at 80,406 total fans with a 5,360 average over 15 games, although better than the Marlins and Astros.
Port Charlotte is a lovely city, but Orlando is a much more attractive destination, and gives the Tampa Bay Rays the backing and support of the largest entertainment company in the world.
Orlando has also developed a light rail system, SunRail, which is already running full time from Volusia county all the way through downtown Orlando. It has just received a $94 million grant from the Federal Transit Authority to complete phase II. The latest phase would extend the SunRail from downtown Orlando to Osceola County, and is estimated to open in 2019.
This light rail system isn't prominent in either Charlotte or Pinellas County, and could bring more fans from all over the Orlando area to spring training games without dealing with the headache that is Interstate 4.
Rob Fold -- Getty Images
Wait, hasn't this been done before?
Well, kind of.
Once upon a time, from 2000 to 2003, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays' AA affiliate -- the Orlando Rays -- played at Champion Stadium at Walt Disney World. After the 2003 season, they terminated their 10-year lease with Disney and moved to Montgomery to become what we know now as the Montgomery Biscuits.
Before playing at Champions Stadium, the Orlando Rays played at Tinker Field, where in the year 2000 brought in 61,960 people. According to the Southern League's website, the move to Walt Disney World helped the Rays, because in 2001, the Rays' attendance jumped to 89,435 in 2001, followed by 139,489 in 2002, and 150,051 in 2003.
Even though attendance was rising from year to year, the Orlando Rays were still last in attendance in the Southern League, and moved to Montgomery for the 2004 season. The Orlando Rays had seen an improvement in attendance from 2001 to 2002, but still felt like they had to move to be consistent with the rest of the league, and in 2004 after moving to Montgomery and becoming the Biscuits, they lead the league in attendance with 322,946.
In terms of improving attendance, and therefore gate revenues for the Double-A club, the move was a success. That does not mean, however, that the Rays should abandon the benefits of having a presence in Orlando.
Improve the Rays Stadium Goal
Moving the Spring Training for the Rays play to Orlando instead of Port Charlotte is something that could help the end goal for the Rays' stadium woes.
Orlando is not only a more active and desirable destination for a minor league stadium, but it is also closer where the Rays want their MLB stadium location to be in Hillsborough County. ESPN Wide World of Sports is only an hour drive from Tampa, compared to about an hour and a half to Port Charlotte from a theoretical MLB stadium.
By having the Spring Training location in Orlando, the Rays could also be building a grassroots program that would pay off in the future. Depending on the timeline of these events happening, if the Rays are able to build a stadium and move to Hillsborough County, they would already have a better local presence and familiarity with fans in the Orlando area, doubling down on advertising and existence in the Central Florida market.
A similar grassroots program has proven successful in Orlando with the Orlando City Soccer Club.
The OCSC Lions started as a team in the USL Pro league (the third tier division within American soccer) in 2010, and played their games at both the Citrus Bowl Stadium and ESPN's Wide World of Sports. Five years after establishing in Orlando, the OCSC Lions played their first game as a MLS franchise, sold 14,000 season tickets, and announced plans for a 100% privately funded, state of the art MLS stadium in Orlando.
Even with a brand new franchise, Orlando shows that a grassroots program works extremely well, and the same concept can be beneficial for the Rays. If the franchise intends to stay in Florida, a strong presence in Orlando beyond Tampa and St. Petersburg can only benefit the team's negotiating power.
It was a surprise when the Braves stadium interest group sprung the announcement of new spring training plans onto both the MLB and the Rays, with neither one seeing it coming. MLB's response confirmed as much, and doubled-down on the priority of working out the Rays' stadium situation first. Perhaps the discussions can coincide.
The Rays should take advantage of this opportunity given by the Braves for a greater presence, and prepare for future success, within the Orlando market.