Business

New spring professional football league could have headquarters in Lakewood Ranch

MANATEE -- A new professional spring-football league could soon call Manatee County home.

Major League Football announced Thursday, two days after Manatee County Commission approved an economic incentive package, that it may locate its headquarters and training facilities in Lakewood Ranch.

"It's accelerating our focus to finish off," Frank Murtha, senior executive vice president for Major League Football, said Friday. "It certainly is a giant step forward toward our ultimate decision in locating there."

While the commission approved the more than $200,000 incentive package at its Tuesday meeting, Murtha said they are still considering other locations for the headquarters and training facilities. Murtha said MLFB has looked at Arizona, Texas and Orlando in addition to Lakewood Ranch. MLFB management will be in Manatee County in early June.

"We haven't finalized our decision," Murtha said. "We have taken some giant steps. We are certainly hoping to have some resolution in the very near future. We have some more details on other matters (office space and hotel space) to work out in the Lakewood Ranch area."

But the fields at Premier Sports Campus in Lakewood Ranch were what got the league looking at Lakewood Ranch. Murtha said they've talked to Premier Sports Campus about using its fields for the league's training camp, which would be held in February and March. If they elect to choose Lakewood Ranch, they would be occupying office space for the headquarters but wouldn't be building any fields, Murtha said.

Premier Sports Campus officials declined to comment Friday.

"The first place that got us to look at the area is the Premier Sports Campus and the fields located there, which would obviously have the capacity to have all 10 teams training and practicing in one location," Murtha said. "That and the geographic proximity to air transportation and whatnot was certainly a factor. ... The sports mentality of Manatee and Sarasota counties, the whole area, that's what attracted us."

What is Major League Football?

MLFB, which has been a publicly traded spring football league since last July, is scheduled to open its first season in 2016 but has been in the works for more than five years. Fans can purchase and sell shares for their desired ownership in the league. Murtha said the shares are owned by a variety of individuals and anticipates other investors in the future but wasn't in a position to name the owners.

The season would begin in mid-February with the training camp, which would last until mid-March. While the league is finalizing the number of games in a season, there will be between 10-12 games with the season ending by July 1 to allow for those players who are attractive to the National Football League to have the opportunity to sign with a NFL team, Murtha said.

In football, there are more good football players than roster spots on NFL teams, Murtha said, adding that this league would give more athletes the chance to play professional football.

"There is an abundance of talent out there," Murtha said.

Similar to NFL Europe, MLFB would offer players the opportunity to refine their skills and potentially return to the NFL, Murtha said. Additionally, when the NFL teams make their roster cuts in September, Murtha said he would expect those players to be in the MLFB talent pool.

MLFB would have 10 teams with each team bringing 80 players, who would be drawn from a variety of sources, to training camp, Murtha said.

"Training camp would have 800 players who will in effect be competing for roster spots on our 10 team rosters," he said.

MLFB fills a need that is currently lacking in the U.S., Murtha said.

"A league like ours is for the abundance of good talent and would give the opportunity for those players not playing in the NFL to play in our league to further refine their skills and further their career," Murtha said.

While Manatee County residents would only get to see these football players during training camp, 10 other cities in the U.S. would host teams, Murtha said. There will be teams in Orlando, Oklahoma City, Little Rock, Ark., Salt Lake City and Birmingham, Ala., Murtha said, adding that the other cities have yet to be announced. MLFB is targeting non-NFL and non-Major League Baseball cities.

Economic impact of MLFB

While MLFB has not officially announced it will locate its headquarters and training facilities in Lakewood Ranch, there is anticipation that will occur, said Sharon Hillstrom, president and chief executive officer of the Bradenton Area Economic Development Corp.

"We would obviously be thrilled to have Major League Football here in Manatee County," she said. "Just goes to give further credibility of the sports performance industry as an important sector in the economy."

This speaks volumes in terms of sports performance as a driver for the local economy, Hillstrom said.

"This is a big deal," she said.

Manatee County and the region are set apart from other areas with sports performance industry focus, Hillstrom said.

"I don't know other areas that have sport performance as a targeted industry sector," she said.

When companies locate to the area, there is typically a multiplier effect as employees will buy houses and go to restaurants, Hillstrom said. According to county documents, they would create 49 new jobs over the next five years.

"This is all good stuff," she said. "The other thing is the Major League Football will be bringing events here. ...I don't see a downside."

On Tuesday, the commission approved two incentive programs, including Project SPUR, which is designation for the Major League Football package. As part of the incentive program, MLFB would receive a $147,000 Economic Development Incentive Program grant and a $61,896 Transportation Impact Fee Incentive.

"We could not be more pleased that Manatee Board of County Commissioners is encouraging us to locate operations and training facilities in and around Lakewood Ranch," Murtha said in a news release on the league's website. "Community involvement and support are tenets of our league and our business approach. Support from communities, cities and counties, like Manatee, are a necessary component of any sport venture."

The incentives are performance-based and the companies do not receive the money until they prove they create the jobs and put the infrastructure in place. State law allows the names of the companies that receive the incentives to be kept confidential until their plans for Manatee County are officially announced.

Manatee County Commissioner Vanessa Baugh, who represents Lakewood Ranch, said she didn't know the name of the company until contacted by the Bradenton Herald on Friday.

But after hearing the possibility of the MLFB locating in Lakewood Ranch, Baugh was excited.

"I'm very excited because it goes right in with the sports industry and what we've been trying to build in Manatee County," Baugh said. "By doing that, we are diversifying our economy besides tourism and real estate. It really excites me from that standpoint."

It fits in with Premier Sports Campus and IMG Academy, Baugh said, adding MLFB would bring jobs and be good for the economy.

"It's a win-win for Manatee County all the way around," she said. "I think it will be exciting to see what they put together for this headquarters."

Claire Aronson, Manatee County reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7024 or at caronson@bradenton.com. Follow her on Twitter@Claire_Aronson.

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