Orlando’s Soccer Stadium, A Comparison to El Paso Baseball Stadium Fiasco

Last Friday, August 9, 2013; Orlando business owners’ email boxes received an email from Orlando’s Mayor Buddy Dyer regarding a deal he had worked out with Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs to fund a soccer stadium for Orlando. As a relative new resident to the Orlando area, having arrived about two years ago, I do not fully grasp the full under-current political scene in the city so therefore I know little of the history of stadiums and political gamesmanship in the area. However, the ongoing El Paso baseball stadium debacle and Orlando’s push to land a soccer stadium for an MLS team gives me an opportunity to compare the two.

According to the Orlando Sentinel’s sports blogger, Mike Bianchi; Orlando is the largest television market in the country that “possesses only one major league sports team”, the NBA’s Magic call Orlando home. This argument is similar to the one that the El Paso baseball proponents made, just substitute television market for the largest city in the nation without a major league team.

Bianchi goes on to point out some interesting items that tie in directly with El Paso’s notion that baseball fans will flock to the El Paso baseball stadium. In his newspaper column of August 10, 2013 titled; “Will apathetic Florida sports fans support MLS in Orlando?” he writes that the elephant in the room for the soccer stadium are the fans.

Bianchi points out that fan attendance is dropping. He writes, “the NFL, the king of all sports in our country, is struggling to put fannies in the seats”. He adds that central Florida seems to have a problem with bringing fans to the stadiums. According to him, the Tampa Bay Bucs were “next-to-last in attendance” in 2012 while the “Miami Dolphins were 29th out of the (sic) NFL’s 32 teams”.

Bianchi goes on to write how Major League Baseball is doing even worse in fan attendance. He cites that the Miami Marlins “are dead-last among the league’s 30 teams in average attendance”. Bianchi concludes with reasons about why Orlando would increase fan attendance. However let’s compare how the process has worked for both cities.

In Orlando’s case, rather than building a baseball stadium for a Triple-Team, Orlando’s mayor, Buddy Dyer is looking at the MLS to expand into Orlando by adding another team to the league. According to the media, the stadium project was first revealed about a year ago, similar to El Paso’s baseball stadium. And just like El Paso, there is a “time-stamp” to get the MLS to expand into Orlando. But unlike El Paso, the city has not only been public about the process, but the team ownership has committed to investing over 50% in private monies towards the Orlando project.

And like El Paso, the MLS put in conditions to expanding into Orlando. Among them were that the stadium had to be in an “Urban, downtown location” with a capacity of 18,000 to 25,000 seats with a “roof over the fans” heads.

But unlike El Paso, the soccer stadium proponents rallied the Orange County Tourist Development Council, the governing body tasked with allocating tourism monies and more importantly, the Visit Orlando group. Visit Orlando is a private group comprised of tourism industry leaders who were tasked with producing an economic analysis report on the stadium, a feasibility study, if you like as one of the very first steps in the process.

In other words, major stakeholders in the tourism industry were not only tasked with analyzing the impact the stadium would have on Orlando but they were publicly included in the development process. All of this through a fast-track approach to meet league deadlines.

The tourism board voted unanimously on August 9, 2013 to fund $20 million for the construction of the proposed stadium from tourism funds, after Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs reached a funding agreement. Both the county commissioners and the city council still need to approve the funding plan.

According to Dyer’s email to the business community, the funding that has been approved is “contingent upon the MLS granting a franchise to Orlando”, and of course the approval of both governing bodies. The preliminary deal, as it stands today, is that Orlando city taxpayers will take some of the risk funding the stadium because the city is expected to issue bonds for the construction.

Although the soccer stadium for Orlando is still not a sure thing since two government bodies are yet to vote on it and there is the contingency that the MLS must approve a team for Orlando, much public and apparent transparent work seems to have happened. Not only has the funding mechanism been publicly voted on by an independent overseer of tourism dollars but the process required and engaged two sets of government bodies. Also, in anticipation, the city of Orlando has embarked in purchasing property for the proposed stadium showing that, although on a fast-track the city has embarked in a systematic approach rather than a last-minute dash to ram everything through.

The soccer stadium has been estimated to cost around $85 million. Of that, last week’s vote for $20 million from tourism monies and the $30 million from private funds leaves about $35 million yet to be funded from city and county funds. According to news sources, the funding for the balance is still being worked out.

Besides the $30 million the ownership group has pledged to the soccer stadium directly, they are also paying the estimated $70 million franchise fee for the soccer team. The soccer team owners are investing at least $100 million of their own money into this endeavor. And, unlike their counterparts in El Paso, the team owners in the Orlando MLS soccer team will be responsible for the team’s expenses, including player salaries. The MLS Orlando soccer team owners have pledged about $100 million to bring the team to Orlando while the Orlando area taxpayers are funding about $55 million of the $85 million estimated cost for the stadium.

Now let’s contrast that with the El Paso baseball stadium debacle.

As of today, August 13, 2013 there is no clear understanding of what the economic consequences or benefits to El Paso the baseball field will be because not only does El Paso not have a feasibility study in place nor does the city have a completed budget for construction ready, even though construction has already started, there is ample evidence that the community was kept out of the discussion on purpose. Even worse is that there is a hole in the ground where city hall once stood and the city’s taxpayers are paying rent to house the various departments or have purchased buildings to temporarily house the city services.

About the only thing El Pasoans know at this point is that a baseball stadium is being built for about $61 million with revenue bonds that the taxpayers’ are liable for. For its part, the El Paso ownership group has invested about $20 million to purchase a Triple-A team to play in the tax-funded stadium. It is important to note that the $20 million is an estimate only because the terms of the purchase have yet to be publicized. The citizens of El Paso, on the other hand, gave up their city hall, paid to buy temporary quarters for city hall, pay rental fees for other city departments and are floating the $61 million in bonds for the stadium. And none of this includes the cost to rebuild city hall in the near future.

The El Paso ownership’s contribution to the baseball stadium? Zilch, nada, nothing.

Yes, I know about the supposed $20 million to buy the team but it is important to note that the team is just one aspect of the whole project. The El Paso ownership group has not contributed to the building of the baseball stadium at all.

The Orlando ownership group is not only spending an estimated $70 million to bring the soccer team to Orlando but they are also contributing $30 million towards the $85 million the stadium is estimated to cost.

What is even more important to note is that the Orlando group brought in all of the major stakeholders and sat them down to discuss and developed a consensus to fund the project. So what does the Orlando community think of the proposed soccer stadium?

In preparation for today’s blog post I Googled “Orlando soccer stadium”. After going through the first 5 pages of Google results I only saw the common criticism that comes from public funding of private projects. In their arguments I did not see a single case of complaints about the secretive nature of the process. In fact, I saw very little negative commentary about the proposed Orlando soccer stadium.

Now Google “El Paso baseball stadium” and see where the results lead you to? Even the baseball’s unannounced team name is controversial in the case of El Paso. Could it be that El Paso doesn’t really support the baseball stadium fiasco even though the local daily would want you to believe so? Or, is it even more insidious than that?

It all comes down to transparency. In Orlando, as a relatively new and very small business owner, I am a recipient of the Orlando mayor’s email explaining the soccer project to me. I didn’t even know about it until I received the email. In contrast, in El Paso, long-established business entrepreneurs found out about the baseball stadium via the news media, after it was a done deal. The Orlando deal includes ownership contributions while the El Paso ownership group pontificates about how lucky El Paso is to have them.

Interesting how transparency gives you two different outcomes to similar project.