- February 17, 2016
Perhaps it took a community like Lakewood Ranch to understand Major League Football.
The new professional football league opened its headquarters in Lakewood Ranch on July 1 and went about planning for its first season in 2016.
Considering football fans in the United States are used to seeing fledgling leagues (consider the USFL, the WFL and the XFL) squished like a slug on Main Street, the shelf life of MLFB had to be similar to the lifespan of corn.
Even so, area movers and shakers stepped forward to give the MLFB support.
"This community opened themselves to us," said Nick Athan, the MLFB's vice president of communications. "I think they wanted us to be genuine, to be straight up and honest. But they were willing to embrace us, and there was no push back."
No push back came when the MLFB lost a main financial backer and had to postpone the training camp it had planned at Premier Sports Campus at Lakewood Ranch. No push back came when the league had to inform area hotels that all those reserved rooms for 1,000 players, coaches and personnel were now vacant.
The area rolled with a very big punch to MLFB's financial gut.
Lakewood Ranch, itself, had to be considered a long shot 30 years ago. Timberland, ranches, wetlands. Oh, and get this, it wasn't on top of a beach. It didn't seem like the typical recipe for success when it came to building expensive homes.
Now it's one of the top master-planned communities in the United States. It took people with vision to make it happen.
It might take similar vision to see the MLFB bucking significant odds in today's over-stuffed professional sports market.
Can fans accept any football league with the top dog being such a major force. Not For Long.
Undaunted, MLFB Vice-President Frank Murtha isn't afraid of failure, or success.
"We want people to look at the MLFB as its own entity," Murtha said. "We don't look at ourselves as a feeder system. We want to entertain fans with a good product."
Murtha said his league isn't crazy enough to challenge the NFL during the fall and winter. The MLFB is strictly a spring league.
"Inevitably, if we have selected right, there will be players the NFL finds attractive," Murtha said. "Do we expect over the course of time, some type of formal relationship forms with the NFL? That's possible."
It's quite the vision. But some people have to be asking whether six or seven cocktails are involved.
If the MLFB comes through, and it is expected to announce new training dates and its eight-team season schedule any day, perhaps it reaffirms that our community needs to ponder its own future.
Murtha noted that MLFB cities must be big enough to have shown support for football and with no NFL or Major League Baseball team. Sounds a lot like college football towns that already have a stadium in place.
The Manatee-Sarasota County area is predicted to have 1 million people by 2040, so someone with vision might be asking "How about us?"
"I think (the MLFB) would be popular here," Athan said of a team in the Sarasota or Manatee counties area. "But we have had no talks or discussion."
While Lakewood Ranch makes a great headquarters, and Premier sets up nicely as a training camp host, the area doesn't have a stadium, let's say 20,000 seating capacity, to host a minor league football team, or any other major sports franchise.
Whether the MLFB is, indeed, a good fit for the area, isn't really the question at this point. Instead, it brings up the kind of question that might be asked not too far down the road. Should the area host some kind of professional sports franchise?
Does the area need a 20,000-plus seat stadium? If not a stadium, does the area need an ampitheater that seats 12,000 or more to become even more of a music mecca? Would Lakewood Ranch benefit from having a hotel near Premium Sports Campus? Would that hotel be attached to a convention center?
Lakewood Ranch was built on bold moves and by people who weren't afraid to take a risk.
Why stop now?