Orlando MLS bid more about political gamesmanship

They call it soccer, but the game is really ping-pong.

Political ping-pong.

Major League Soccer and the city of Orlando are in the eHarmony stage, checking out résumés, likes and dislikes, along with financial portfolios.

MLS is smitten with Orlando as the site of an expansion franchise. Orlando is smitten with the interest from MLS.

But consummation is predicated on building a $110 million love nest and securing the money from other partners to cobble together a happy home.

That brings us to a political squeeze play involving Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs — who have danced on this stage before — as well as Orlando City Lions owner Phil Rawlins, would-be-owner of the MLS expansion franchise, and the league itself.

The league is playing soccer hardball. MLS officials say they won't grant a franchise to Orlando without a intimate downtown stadium. Dyer and Rawlins are pushing for the deal involving a stadium on city-owned property. They project a sense of urgency. Jacobs seems ambivalent.

She recently wrote a letter to Rawlins saying she wanted to "fast-track" the project to help figure out the funding for a stadium. It was curious phrasing because in the same letter, she also nixed a plan to discuss the issue at an upcoming meeting of a Tourist Development Council, which recommends how to parcel out hotel taxes for this type of project. She wrote that a discussion would be "premature." Mixed signals, anyone?

"We have a window of opportunity that's going to close at some point," counters Dyer.

Ping-pong. Ping-pong. Who wins?

That's the most pertinent question. The answer is that it should be the good people of Orlando and the surrounding communities.

The stadium needs to benefit more than soccer fans, more than Mr. Rawlins and his partners — who are putting up less than a third of the cost in the deal — and more than the tourists who will drop by downtown Orlando for a soccer fix.

How much of an economic bump will Orlando get from an MLS franchise, and how can the stadium be used outside the scope of 34 regular-season games between March and October? Is the city of Orlando better off leasing the stadium land to Rawlins, especially because the land value in that area will likely grow when the Orlando Magic build a $100 million sports-and-entertainment complex adjacent to the Amway Center?

Why is MLS so insistent on a new stadium when a refurbished Florida Citrus Bowl — also a beneficiary of tourist-tax dollars — would meet FIFA specifications? Wasn't the potential of an MLS presence part of the selling point in the vision for the new and improved Citrus Bowl, which comes with a $200 million price tag?

The league contends that a soccer-specific stadium is essential because it provides a better experience. That's true. But it's also obvious that the MLS, much like other major pro leagues, seems a master of the squeeze play:

Build it or we will leave. Or in this case, never show up.

Let's be clear: I'm all in when it comes to sports helping build the brand of a city. The Orlando Magic certainly have raised the profile of this city. But they remain the only major professional sports franchise in town.

Professional soccer is a rising sports star. It remains the most popular sport in the world and is resonating here in the States, where interest is finally mushrooming from soccer moms and all those kids who play the sport on a recreational level.

But this deal isn't kids' play.

It's big business. Initial stadium costs had the team parceling out $30 million, the city chipping in $25 million, mostly in land value, with another $25 million coming from hotel taxes controlled by Jacobs and the County Commission, and $30 million in state sales taxes. One problem: The Legislature torpedoed the $30 million in state sales taxes.

Dyer has now come up with a Plan B to build the stadium in two phases, with the promise of seeking additional funding from the Legislature again next year.

Give Dyer credit for a greater vision for this city. It's all about building the brand, as noted.

But it's also about practical business sense and making sure the project benefits a bunch of people beyond soccer purists. It's about filling restaurants, bars and the occasional tchotchke shops.

Let the spirited game of political ping-pong continue, and may the winner be the city of Orlando and its neighboring communities.

Read George Diaz's blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/enfuego or e-mail him at gdiaz@tribune.com

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