Sideline Scene: Orlando underrated as sports town

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  • | 10:52 a.m. August 20, 2015
SIDELINE SCENE: Next coach at UCF must recruit better locally
SIDELINE SCENE: Next coach at UCF must recruit better locally
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As part of the Greater Orlando area, West Orange’s fortunes are more or less tied to The City Beautiful’s so far as being a “sports town” goes.

Fortunately, that’s not a bad thing.

Orlando and the Central Florida region may not look like much of a sports mecca on the surface. Until this year, the region had just one professional franchise in a high-profile league (the NBA’s Orlando Magic), and the resident collegiate program, UCF, is a mid-major.

The area’s newest professional team is the Orlando City Soccer Club, which, while wildly popular here, is part of a Major League Soccer organization that has yet to be embraced as mainstream within American sports culture.

There are cities, even here in Florida, with three or more professional sports franchises — including a coveted NFL team. 

But I’m here to tell you that, in its unique way, Greater Orlando is a one-of-a-kind sports town. 

And it rocks.

The thought dawned on me, believe it or not, from a news story in our publication a few weeks back. My colleague, Zak Kerr, did a story on an assisted-living facility named Inspired Living that is coming to Ocoee and will be the first of a $1.1 billion, 33-facility pipeline in partnership with Piper Jaffray and the NFLAA.

The groundbreaking ceremony was attended by several famous NFL alumni, including Ron “Jaws” Jaworski. What’s interesting is that every other city that a facility will be launched in is an NFL city, with Ocoee being the exception because of its high density of NFL alumni.

And therein lies the first reason Central Florida is so intriguing as a sports area: So many professional athletes retire here. And it’s not just cool because you could be sitting a few tables over from a guy you used to watch on television at dinner at Chili’s. 

These athletes’ children are raised in our community, and many are really good — see Dr. Phillips alum Shane Larkin, son of Barry Larkin, now in the NBA, among others.

Some of these athletes, such as Olympia alum and former Jacksonville Jaguar Mike Lockley, open up personal training or athletic training businesses to help aspiring athletes.

Then, of course, there’s Disney. 

Say what you will about the Mouse, but Disney’s ESPN Wide World of Sports complex is a magnet for high-profile sporting events. There’s the Pop Warner Super Bowl, professional soccer tournaments, Atlanta Braves spring training, college basketball tournaments and national club sports tournaments in about every sport you can think of.

Orlando also is home to one of the NBA’s two summer leagues, meaning if you hang around the right fancy restaurants in the weeks following the NBA Draft, there’s a good chance you spy Larry Bird having dinner. Don’t stare, though — that’s rude.

Central Florida’s high-school sports scene isn’t just one of the best in the state. It’s also one of the best in the country. I’ve always wished high-school sports had more casual fans that would attend games, and they’re certainly deserving here locally when so many players are bound for high-level Division I competition in college in just a year or so.

The Magic stink now, but we don’t have to think too far to 2009 when the team made the NBA Finals and all of Central Florida was buzzing with energy. We caught a glimpse of that energy again ahead of the Orlando City home opener in Major League Soccer — a game that packed the newly renovated Citrus Bowl to the brim with purple.

Orlando has seen plenty of fledgling minor-league franchises come and go but has been fortunate to see two — hockey’s Orlando Solar Bears of the ECHL and the Arena Football League’s Orlando Predators — have some staying power and cultivate loyal, large fan bases. 

UCF put together a BCS bowl season two years ago and, even when the Knights aren’t busting into the top-25 rankings, the schedule is worth checking to see whether a South Carolina, Miami or BYU is coming to town to play at “the Bouncehouse.”

Heck, even Orlando’s Pro-Am Basketball League is good for a viral video or two on a slow sports news day.

I’m probably forgetting stuff, just as I almost forget to mention that the Dr. Phillips area hosts high-profile golf tournaments such as The Arnold Palmer Classic at Bay Hill.

I’d love it if O-Town had a professional baseball or football team. Those things probably will never happen, though. 

But the point of all this is that’s OK. As sports fans are concerned, we’ve got a great — if not entirely unique — thing going on here locally. We’re underrated, and that’s not a bad place to be.


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