What do the Tampa Bay ThunderDawgs, St. Pete Parrots, Lakeland Loggerheads, Gulf Coast Swords, Tampa Bay Strong Dogs, Tampa Bay Sharks, Florida Tuskers, Orlando Rage, Florida Seals, Orlando Thunder, Florida Blazers and Orlando Renegades have in common? They are just a few of the names on an every growing list of tried and failed minor league franchises that have come and gone with such regularity it seems like the entire Interstate 4 strip from Tampa Bay to Orlando is on a high fiber diet.
It is safe to say that Florida, as a whole, is a burial ground for the dreamers and the want-to-get-rich-quick entrepreneurs of the sports world, those who think they can make a buck selling their wares where top-flight professional teams are firmly entrenched in their respective communities.
However, there is about a 100 mile stretch from the Gulf of Mexico to the House of the Mouse that is especially prone to organizations leaving ticket holders and creditors holding an empty bag. They either fold into oblivion or pack up in the dead of night and disappear from the Sunshine State. The Baltimore Colts’ Robert Irsay has nothing on these guys because they have perfected the art of magic, vanishing into thin air.
Others like the Strong Dogs, Sharks and Swords simply failed to get off the ground.
At this time the Orlando Kings, an American Basketball League (ABA) team that is allegedly in operation, is having issues getting anyone to play them. It is not because they are so good but because the league is so morally bankrupt they don’t force teams to travel to a scheduled date. Fans who bought tickets and advertisers who paid for banners and stopped action promos get nothing back for their investments.
The Kings are likely going to be the latest to get crowned as having a very short shelf life.
The ThunderDawgs, Strong Dogs, Sharks, Orlando Orangemen, The Floridians (St. Petersburg version) and a bunch of others all had ties to the ABA, old and new, which around these parts is the kiss of death. The original version of the ABA merged with the NBA in 1976 but the re-launch of the league about a decade ago is simply a shell of what was a top-flight renegade league. There have been more teams with ABA affiliations in Tampa Bay and Orlando than any other area in recent memory.
Now, you simply reserve a market for $20,000, get a keys to success handbook and are then left to your own devices. League owner Joe Newman judges qualification to enter is so-called league and operate a professional franchise via phone. As long as your check clears you own a team. It is more a Ponzi scheme than a professional organization, the word professional is used very loosely in this case.
The ABAprofesses to be the fastest growing league in the world. Unfortunately, there is no such thing as full disclosure as Newman fails to let people know the success rate in his league is abysmal and they lose as many as they add.
Some teams have played an entire season, others make it through two. One, the Parrots, lasted just six games before they vanished and landed on Tobacco Road in North Carolina.
The process is ritualistic.
There is always the obligatory press conference. The mayor comes out and praises the owners for bringing the franchise to their fair city and how it will reap the rewards of tax dollars flooding in. They will drop the ceremonial first puck, flip the first coin or throw up the first ball. They will meet the media shortly after and say how proud they are even when reality stares them in the face because only 38 people actually came out for the debut of their newest resource.
Then they are gone. Poof. Business goes on as if it was a dream sequence right out of the television series Dallas and politician wait for another day in front of the cameras fully aware the next one will have as much a chance to succeed as one of Ralph Cramden’s hair-brained schemes on the Honeymooners.
So why can’t minor league teams survive?
Today the economy contributed to the Sharks’s woes. The Strong Dogs also had problems securing enough revenue to start up and that was when things were going relatively well. The Swords simply bit off more than they could chew as they had the temerity to try and build an arena on top of adding a team in a recognized league, the ECHL.
Leagues fold causing teams to do the same. Teams are put together on a shoestring budget with little or no funds to advertise.
A case in point was the ThunderDawgs whose owner had additional teams in the league. He waited to see which one would become profitable without spending any additional money and either find a sucker to buy the others or just fold them. When the plug was pulled, few in the region even knew there was a pro basketball team here.
And of course, incompetence plays a huge role.
Unless a team has an affiliation with an established league, like the Florida State League and Major League Baseball, the chances of success are limited. You look at the Tampa Bay Rays who advertise religiously yet in the middle of a pennant race the final week of the 2010 season there were more empty seats than those with people in them. They did pack Tropicana Field in the playoffs though.
The Tampa Bay Storm and Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League have been around for years but the success of individual teams could not stop the bankruptcy of the league and after a year off, the AFL returned with an entirely different business model. There were lean years, granted, although there was patience and money spent on promotion.
One team that may break the mold for failed minor league franchises is FC Tampa Bay. The team formerly known as the Rowdies, a member of the re-born North American Soccer League, is entering its second season in April and just signed a two-year deal to play in St. Petersburg’s Al Lang Field after playing their inaugural season in Tampa.
The organization, like the league, was put together with care giving it a better than average chance for longevity. They are part of 8-team, United States Soccer Federation Division II sanctioned NASL and do not need to fill a 65,000 seat stadium like their predecessors, the original Rowdies or Tampa Bay Mutiny of Major League Soccer. Ten percent of that number will be just fine, than you very much.
The new NASL is a rung below MLS.
FC Tampa Bay could be a model for future second rung attempts from Tampa Bay to Orlando if they also heed the failures of teams past. Only time will tell if that will happens.