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The spin on sports

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"We've got nothing but positive vibes going on," Randy Johnson, state representative and president of the Central Florida Sports Commission, told the few hundred tourism and sports-industry folks who gathered Nov. 16 in Church Street Station's Presidential Ballroom for the 5th annual "State of Sports" address.

Of course, they felt the same way last year when the talk of the town was the XFL and the 2012 Olympic bid. Both those ventures went down the toilet. So, too, did the Orlando Solar Bears ice hockey team, and the Orlando Magic's dreams of sucking a new arena out of Orange County taxpayers.

On the plus side, the Apopka Little Leaguers won the national championship. But as far as economics go -- and that's the main thing at this gathering -- the victory accomplished little except to convince New Yorkers that, yes, there is a town called Apopka somewhere in Florida and, yes, its team did kick New York's ass (at least when New York stopped using illegal players).

The new buzz centered around the U.S. Cycling Festival of Speed, a world-class biking event locked into a Lake Eola course for the next three Aprils, and the inaugural Visit Florida Tangerine Bowl -- the Citrus Bowl's pre-Christmas stepsister on Dec. 20. A five-minute video also highlighted Central Florida Extreme -- a sports and music festival to be held in Altamonte Springs next year -- as well as a life-saving competition, the annual pro-sports Mascot Games, arena football and an LPGA golf course.

Still, there was a prevailing sense that Central Florida remains a second-class sports community, not quite able to break into the big time. That was why the Olympic bid was so important, and why its failure was such a defeat.

Even Ed Turanchik, the eternal optimist who headed the Florida 2012 effort, looked beaten down as he addressed the crowd. Before the U.S. Olympic Committee voted to remove Florida from contention, he was all bright eyes and smiles; now, he seems to be going through the motions, alternating among disbelief, dismay and the fleeting hope that something good will come of his work.

At a conference in St. Petersburg last week, he blamed Orlando officials for the defeat, telling them, "You are not ready for the prime time." He went on to say that because city and county leaders couldn't come together on the small stuff (light rail, sales taxes), they simply weren't ready for decisions such as where to place an Olympic stadium.

A week later, Turanchik is a bit more upbeat: "We did a phenomenal job," he tells the commission's audience. "We're mystified as to why we're not a finalist."

Turanchik wasn't the only one trying to put out a positive spin. "If you prepared every community every day to be an Olympic community," said Lt. Gov. Frank Brogan, "what a wonderful world it would be. We've come out of this thing better for it."

Johnson and other speakers tiptoed around the Magic's failed quest for a taxpayer-subsidized arena -- until, that is, WESH-TV (Channel 2) sports director Bill Shafer tossed some softballs to RDV Sports President Bob VanderWeide while moderating a Q&A panel.

Shafer, in fact, sounded like he was reading off a Rich DeVos-authored script while asking VanderWeide to explain how "running a sports franchise is more difficult than most imagine" and how the perception of DeVos as a "mythical figure with bottomless resources" was incorrect.

"You have to manage the profitability," VanderWeide responded. "If we can't get there, we'll have to look for new opportunities." In the wake of Sept. 11, he said, RDV Sports decided to put its arena plans on hold -- though a new arena already had been kaboshed, and the best he could hope for was a renovation. He promised to renew that discussion in "a year or two." But, in a roomful of sports enthusiasts, nobody applauded.


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