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“It’s like having a Summer Olympics” | Orlando prepares for the arrival of NBA and MLS 

The ESPN Wide World of Sports complex in Orlando, Florida, where the NBA and MLS will be based this summer (Credit: Getty Images)

  • Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex to stage both major leagues this summer
  • City leaders hoping major publicity will rejuvenate tourism industry hit by Covid-19
  • Tournaments will help bolster Orlando’s portfolio in bidding for major sporting events 

The city of Orlando, Florida, is looking to leverage its position as the effective epicenter of professional sports in the United States this summer to rejuvenate its tourism industry in the immediate term and secure major sporting events in the long term.

In the coming weeks, both the National Basketball Association and Major League Soccer are scheduled to base themselves at the Walt Disney Company’s ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex for extended periods as the organizations look to salvage their seasons in the wake of the global Covid-19 pandemic.

MLS has already announced it will stage the “MLS is Back Tournament”, a World Cup-style tournament featuring all 26 teams, which is set to begin on July 8 and finish on August 11. Teams are due to arrive in Orlando from June 24 for ‘preseason training’.

The NBA, meanwhile, is planning to finish its postponed 2019-20 season at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, with a 22-team event that is due to begin on July 30 and finish by October 13. It is unclear exactly when teams will arrive in Orlando, while a number of logistical issues still need to be resolved for the project to be finalized.

Both events will be held without spectators due to the ongoing health crisis.

The 220-acre ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, which opened in 1997, is uniquely suited as a venue. The state-of-the-art facility has 17 lighted soccer fields and three multisport arenas that can be configured into 20 basketball courts. This will allow NBA and MLS teams plenty of space to compete and practice at the same time.

A 2,500-square-foot broadcast center on site with eight editing bays will enable top-quality broadcasts for Disney’s ABC and ESPN channels and feeds other league broadcast partners. Disney is a major domestic broadcast partner of both the NBA and MLS.

The decision for the NBA and MLS to base themselves in Florida directly follows Governor Ron DeSantis’s announcement in May that the state would be open to all professional sports teams in the US who want to resume action amid the coronavirus crisis, though the state has also seen a marked surge upward in the number of Covid-19 cases in recent days.

Still, Florida’s aggressive courting of sports events and entities has already led to three fight cards by the Ultimate Fighting Championship in Jacksonville, a Nascar weekend of races at Homestead-Miami Speedway (with limited fans) and two charity golf events in south Florida: the “TaylorMade Driving Relief” and “The Match” sequel.

Meanwhile, the Women’s National Basketball Association is finalizing plans to play a reduced season at IMG Academy in Bradenton this summer.

Disney’s ESPN World Wide of Sports has previously held the Jr. NBA Global Championships (Credit: Getty Images)

The immense local, national, and international publicity that Orlando is expected to generate over a four-month period will provide city leaders an incredible opportunity to showcase the area’s attractions and, in turn, revitalize its usually-booming tourism industry, which has been devastated by the ongoing health crisis since mid-March.

Orlando – which has 450 hotels in the tourism district, with a total of more than 125,000 rooms – had 75 million visitors in 2018, continuing its position as the most-visited destination in the US. Numerous resorts have been closed in the past three months, with 100,000 Disney employees furloughed.

“If we don’t get people back to work quickly, it’s all over. Orlando is suffering. Orlando is struggling. The hospitality industry is in deep depression,” an Orlando hotelier told US vice president Mike Pence in May.

The city’s Universal Studios, Islands of Adventure, and SeaWorld Orlando have already had soft reopenings. Meanwhile, Walt Disney World will begin a phased reopening next month, with Magic Kingdom and Animal Kingdom set to open on July 11, and Epcot and Hollywood Studios to follow on July 15.

Persuading tourists to come to these theme parks will inevitably be tricky because of the fears of the coronavirus crisis, as well as mandatory 14-day quarantine periods for travelers to Florida from certain states, including New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

However, if the NBA and MLS can successfully stage extended tournaments at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, it is likely to at least encourage potential tourists to visit Orlando in the coming months.

“The media value associated with the exposure of hosting the two leagues over the course of the next few months, in our estimation, exceeds the value of a Summer Olympics,” Jason Siegel, president and chief executive of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission (GO Sports), tells SportBusiness.

“That combination of television audience, exposure generated on multiple channels international and the US, not to mention the popularity and social media following of these truly international superstars is a tremendous opportunity for our community, not only to welcome the athletes here for a period of time but also to enhance what is already a wonderful reputation that Orlando has,” he says.

One of the soccer fields at the Disney complex (Credit: Getty Images)

2026 Fifa World Cup boost expected

Despite not having a National Football League, Major League Baseball, or National Hockey League team, Orlando has punched above its weight in regards to landing major sporting events in the past decade.

The city hosted NBA All-Star Weekend in 2012 and the MLS equivalent in 2019. It also held WrestleMania 33 in 2017, as well as the World Wrestling Entertainment showpiece event behind closed doors in April after it was moved from Raymond James Stadium in Tampa due to the coronavirus crisis.

“That was not how we wanted to win it,” notes Siegel. “When we hosted WrestleMania in 2017, the economic impact was $181m. It was massive…165,000 fans in attendance for the five days worth of events. We were proud to do what we needed to have the event hosted in Orlando but we hope that our fourth time hosting WrestleMania will be in the not too distant future.”

The coronavirus crisis had a significant effect on the Orlando sports community, however. In total, 28 events facilitated by GO Sports were scheduled between March 1-June 30. Of those, just six were completed – including the SheBelieves Cup and Arnold Palmer Invitational – while two events were partially completed, seven were postponed and 13 called off.

Going forward, GO Sports has committed to hosting 12 new events, submitted 84 bids for future events and identified 48 events to bid for. Among the events being pursued are a series of National Collegiate Athletic Association championships between 2022 and 2026, including basketball, tennis, golf and beach volleyball.

Meanwhile, Orlando is one of 17 cities in the US looking to stage games for the 2026 Fifa World Cup, which is being co-hosted by the US, Mexico and Canada. It is believed 10 US cities will be chosen by world governing body Fifa, with a decision expected to be made in the next two years.

Siegel believes that the significant publicity boost that Orlando will gain by hosting the NBA and MLS this summer will significantly help GO Sports’ cause in landing these events.

“As a sports commission our primary mission is to drive economic impact and to market our destination,” he says. “It’s an incredibly competitive environment, there are many cities out there that are bidding from anything from NCAA championships to amateur events to esports events. We are excited to be able to add another jewel – two jewels – to our portfolio that is already quite robust.

“The excitement that is generated from hosting these events is certainly going to provide a lift locally and you can feel that sense of pride.”

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