How Orlando Became a Sports Destination

“Play ball!” Those two simple words, shouted nearly 100 years ago from behind home plate at Tinker Field in 1923, denoted the start of the first professional baseball game in Orlando. Hosted by the Cincinnati Reds, it was the beginning of Orlando’s road to becoming a major sports destination.

Since that fateful spring day, the City Beautiful has been called home to a multitude of professional sports teams — some of which you may have forgotten like the Orlando Fantasy of the women’s Lingerie Football League — and classic events that continue to draw sports lovers to town year after year.

“I think there are multiple reasons why Orlando has played such a large role in sports over the years, including the strong community we have here and the infrastructure and venues we have available for events and teams,” Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer says.

Orlando Magic CEO Alex Martins agrees that Orlando is an energized sports town, welcoming and supporting not only basketball but all professional sports, from lacrosse (2010 Orlando Titans) to women’s basketball (Orlando Miracle 1999-2002).

“I think it is strong, vibrant and on the rise,” Martins says. “As I’ve said many times, sports teams are a great rallying point and really bring a community together.” 

While Tinker Field, the former spring training home to the Cincinnati Reds, Brooklyn Dodgers, Washington Senators and Minnesota Twins, has disappeared from the landscape, it was baseball that opened the sports door for Orlando.

A Great Football Town

Orlando’s love of sports is evident in its resiliency, especially when it comes to football. Long-time residents and natives remember with passion past gridiron squads battling at the former Citrus Bowl, many of which were one and done. The Florida Blazers of the World Football League played in the only WFL Championship game (1974) and the 1985 Orlando Renegades of the USFL also lasted but one season. The Orlando Thunder of the World League of American Football played here for two years (1991-1992), losing the World Bowl its second year. Remember the Orlando Rage of the XFL in 2001? They had the league’s best record. The Orlando Predators of the Arena Football League were by far the longest tenured football team in Orlando, playing indoors from 1991-2016.

That brings us to Orlando’s newest professional football team, which launches next year as part of the Alliance of American Football (AAF). At press time, there were three franchises (Orlando, Atlanta and Memphis) in the league. It will debut with eight teams. Our yet-to-be named team will join the Orlando Magic, Orlando City and Orlando Pride as the four professional teams in town, not to mention our popular semi-professional hockey club, the Solar Bears.

Tom Veit, head of business operations for AAF, says Orlando was chosen because of its proven love of football.

“Orlando has always been a great football city and has supported other leagues very well,” he says, adding that signing the “old ball coach” to lead the team is a wonderful move.

“Coach [Steve] Spurrier is so excited to be coaching this team,” Veit says of the former Florida Gator legend. “He wants to bring a football championship to Orlando.”

Dyer adds, “We are always excited about opportunities to expand our sports offerings and providing yet another team for us to get behind and support.”

Hoops and the Pitch

The Orlando Magic, the most successful franchise in Orlando’s history, has played in two arenas and brought the city classic memories in the past 29 years. The Magic have won five division championships, with seven 50-plus win seasons, and captured the Eastern Conference title in 1995 and 2009. Moreover, they graciously give back to the community.

“When the DeVos family purchased the Magic in September of 1991, family head, Rich DeVos stated that the real owners of this NBA franchise would be the Central Florida community and the family would simply be the team’s caretaker,” Martins says.

When the city was granted its first NBA team, the Magic took the city by storm, similar to how fans welcomed Orlando City, pre-MLS and today. Raucous fans fill city’s self-named stadium each and every match. Orlando Pride joined the National Women’s Soccer League in 2016, reaching the semi-finals last year.

Grand Hosts

Orlando’s undying support of sports includes special events. At year-end, the city hosts three collegiate bowl games: Citrus Bowl, Cure Bowl and Camping World Bowl. In January, the Pro Bowl played to a sold out Camping World Stadium.

But Orlando doesn’t just host football games. Fans cheered on 1994 FIFA World Cup matches, and the city has thrown its hat into the ring to host 2026 FIFA World Cup matches. The new USTA National Campus, which welcomed the Special Olympics in May, plays host to approximately 300 collegiate tennis matches.

The City Beautiful is home to myriad wrestling fanatics, packing the Amway Center last year for WrestleMania 33. The WWE Performance Center, the official pro wrestling school of WWE, is also located in Orlando.

Golf enthusiasts look forward to the annual Arnold Palmer Invitational and basketball fans pack Amway Arena for the NBA All-Star Game and NCAA’s March Madness when those contests come to town.

“There’s no question that Orlando is a great city for sports fans and for residents who like to stay active,” Dyer says. “There are so many opportunities to attend events and participate in activities.”


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Written by Kevin Fritz

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