Pat Williams pushing to bring MLB to Orlando

Former Magic Vice President Pat Williams, who is leading a push to bring baseball to Orlando, unveils the logo for the proposed team.

Right now there is no owner.  There is also no stadium, nor plans on the drawing board to build one. There isn’t really even a firm commitment that baseball is even going to add teams in the future. Even if there were, there is no indication that Orlando and Central Florida would be in consideration as a possible location.

Even with all that stacked against him, it doesn’t keep Pat Williams from dreaming that Major League Baseball will one day be played in Orlando.

Williams, the recent Florida Sports Hall of Fame inductee who was credited with bringing the NBA to Orlando, announced plans on Wednesday to pursue a major league baseball team to the area. In a nod to futuristic thinking of Walt Disney, John Young and Arnold Palmer,  Williams said the team would be named the Orlando Dreamers.

In making the announcement, Williams said that there had to be a progression in the process and the first step was to determine whether Central Florida actually wanted professional baseball.

 “We need to find out how badly Orlando wants this,” Williams said. “And we have created a web site to find out. In the next couple of weeks, we are asking everyone to go to www.orlandodreamers.com, where you will be asked two questions.  First, “Do you believe Orlando is ready for Major League Baseball?” And if you do, “Would you be interested in purchasing a season ticket plan?”

The answer to both questions is a resounding yes. Less than 24 hours later, Williams announced that more than 14,000 people had already visited the web site and said Orlando wanted baseball and almost 7000 of those said they would be interested in season tickets.

Williams admits he is employing the same strategy he used to draw the NBA to the Orlando in the late 1980s.  “We had no team, no arena and no guarantee of anything back then,” Williams said. “But when the NBA saw that we had a staggering commitment of 14,000 season tickets from fans who had nothing to go on but the dream of professional basketball, it opened their eyes.  Without that faith and commitment there would be no Orlando Magic.”

The talk of expansion started last year, when Major League Baseball Commission Rob Manfred said he could envision expansion to 32 teams to create four, four-team divisions in both the American and National League. In mentioning the possible expansion, Manfred named Montreal, Vancouver, Portland, Las Vegas, Nashville and Charlotte as possible expansion candidates.

“When I heard that list it really got my blood boiling,” Williams said. “We are one of the fastest growing metro areas in the United States with 2000 people moving to this area monthly. We have 75 million tourists visiting this area annually, and we are the largest television market in the country without Major League Baseball.  With all due respect to those other cities, we all need to be yelling, why not us?”

There are two current major league teams in Florida, but both Miami and Tampa Bay are among the bottom of the MLB in attendance. Williams said that Orlando would be different.

“This market is special, it always has been. Back in the late 1980s we were a small market when we were awarded an NBA team, and that worked out pretty well.  We are at least 30 percent bigger now.”

Williams added that Orlando could not only support a third major league franchise but would welcome it.

“I believe our long-time residents would embrace this as their team. It’s projected by 2023, 80 million people a year will visit Central Florida. If we could get just two percent of those tourists to come to just one game, that’s almost 1.6 million if my math is right. The benchmark for a successful MLB team in terms of attendance is two million a year. That’s a realistic number that could be reached in Orlando.”

Still, it is estimated that baseball would ask an expansion entry fee of around  $2 billion and a conservative estimate to build a 40,000-seat stadium is hovering at around $1.5-$2 billion.

Finding an owner with the resources to put a franchise in this market will be difficult.  Then finding the money to build a stadium will be even more difficult. But even with no owner or stadium plan in place, Williams is optimistic.  

“We are really early in the process,” Williams said. “Our first step is to determine whether this is something Orlando wants and would support and that’s the purpose of today.  Once we know for sure, then we move forward with the next steps.”

Williams was not limiting the efforts to just trying to land an expansion team. It is well known that current Tampa Bay owner Stuart Sternberg has been frustrated with the stadium situation in St. Petersburg and has floated the thought of relocation or even playing half a season in Tampa and half a season in Montreal.

“There are two ways to get a professional sports franchise,” Williams noted. “Expansion and relocation.  The goal is to bring Major League Baseball to Orlando and from that standpoint, everything remains on the table. Tampa Bay has eight years left on its lease and is exploring the possibility of relocating.”

Although Williams did not come out and say Orlando should go after Rays, the timetable of doing so would line up pretty good with that idea, and would possibly be an easier “get” than landing an expansion team because an owner would already be in place.

When discussing a timetable for a Major League team to play in Orlando, Williams noted that, “It would take a year to locate, purchase and draw designs for a new stadium. Add two to three years for construction.  Understand that nothing ever goes to plan, so tack on another year. Now you are five years out.  This is something that would not happen overnight.”

The announcement Williams made was short on details, but extremely long on vision.  Bringing a Major League Baseball franchise to Orlando is a longshot at best.  But for Williams and the baseball believers, that’s what dreams are for.