Is Orlando the future for the Rays?

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TAMPA, Fla. – Retired Orlando Magic executive Pat Williams says Orlando is the natural future home for the Tampa Bay Rays.

And he’s made that pitch to team executives in recent months.

Rays co-presidents Matt Silverman and Brian Auld have met with Williams “several times” since Rays owner Stu Sternberg announced his split-season concept between Tampa Bay and Montreal. The last meeting with Auld was just before Christmas, Williams told the Tampa Bay Times this week.

“We have a good relationship,” Williams said. He and Auld had discussed the possibility of Orlando being part of a split-season scenario after the team’s use agreement expires in St. Petersburg in 2027, he said. However, Williams says, he’s not interested in sharing a team.

The Rays declined to comment.

Orlando, Williams says, is the logical full-time home for the Rays. That’s a big change from November when Williams first unveiled the Orlando Dreamers proposal. At that time, he was vague about whether the team would pursue an expansion franchise or an existing team.

Now, Williams is confident that Orlando can lure the Rays to a brand new ballpark ready for the first pitch of the 2028 season.

Williams has fleshed out his vision for a $1.2 billion dollar state-of-the-art domed ballpark built with the help of tourist tax revenue. He’s confident that his booming metro area will outpace Tampa Bay in population and clout within a dozen years. And, he argues, Orlando is uniquely poised to introduce America’s pastime to tens of millions of foreign tourists who come for Mickey but might stick around a day longer for baseball.

Baseball can be a thriving business in a fast-growing region heavy with deep-pocket corporate sponsors like Disney and Universal, he says.

“We feel that the Rays need not look to Montreal, need not look to a split season – 41 here and 41 somewhere else,” Williams told the Times this week. “This is their perfect new home.”

Orlando passed St. Petersburg to become the state’s fourth-largest city five years ago. (Tampa is third.) It’s the fastest-growing metro area in Florida and fifth fastest in the nation. Orlando is currently the 18th largest TV market, several notches down from Tampa Bay’s 11th ranking, but it’s just a matter of time before Orlando passes Tampa Bay, Williams said.

Unlike Pinellas, which is largely built out, and with more room to grow than Hillsborough, the Orlando area is “growing in all four directions,” Williams said.

St. Petersburg simply isn’t big enough to support a major league team, he said.

“It’s a tiny little market. They’ve tried everything they can for the last 20 years to make it work. It’s not a great tourist town. It is what it is,” Williams said.

St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman chuckled when he heard Williams’ characterization of his city. He noted that Major League Baseball is planning to expand by two teams in the coming years.

“He’s going to do what he’s going to do to pursue a team. That’s great,” Kriseman said Tuesday. “He can certainly toss his hat in the ring with all the other communities, and all the power to him.”

Tampa Mayor Jane Castor, who recently said she’s open to the idea of splitting a season with Montreal, declined comment through a spokeswoman.

Kriseman said the Rays hadn’t told him they had discussions with Orlando, but said the news didn’t surprise him.

Williams also said the Tampa Bay area is too fragmented by geography and politics to make up for St. Petersburg’s weaknesses.

Tampa Bay isn’t a unified market like Minneapolis-St. Paul, he said, adding a more apt comparison might be Oakland and San Francisco.

“I don’t get the sense that Tampa and St. Pete are kissing cousins. I get the sense they’re more like hissing cousins,” Williams said.

Tampa wouldn’t really be losing the Rays, Williams insisted. He contended that a drive east on Interstate 4 is more convenient for Hillsborough fans than a jaunt over the bridges “unless you have a helicopter.”

“We would not be taking away Tampa’s baseball team at all,” he said. “We’d just be moving them a little to the east.”

Although he hasn’t spoken to the Rays owner, Williams said he doesn’t believe Sternberg wants to sell the team and thinks he would retain ownership if the franchise moved to Orlando.

Orlando does have some clear advantages. Orange County collects about triple the tourist bed taxes each year than the combined totals of Pinellas and Hillsborough. A move east likely wouldn’t nullify a reportedly lucrative new television contract that the Rays just inked, since the Rays currently broadcast statewide. And there are those big potential corporate sponsors.

There’s also a lot of ifs. Williams hasn’t talked to Disney yet, but points out that the global giant is a major sponsor of the Magic, which currently sports the Disney logo on players’ jerseys.

The land hasn’t been assembled and neither the city nor county have made any commitments to a team.

All in due time, Williams said.

“There’s no need to yet. Until the Rays say to some city, ‘We want you,’ then it begins. Then the political people rise up and we will hear from them,” he said

But in the six weeks since unveiling the drive to get a team at an Orlando sports pub, Williams says, 11,302 people as of Monday have signed up to be potential season ticket holders.

“We’ve had a very, very strong reaction to Orlando becoming a Major League Baseball city,” he said.


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