Score one for Lakeland: The city is now home to an NBA minor league team. How will the coup boost economic development for the region?
Lakeland continues to move up the ranks in the sports world — first with the recent $48 million renovation of the Detroit Tigers spring training stadium and now the Orlando Magic's NBA Development League team has committed to play ball in the fall at The Lakeland Center.
The D-League team comes from Pennsylvania, the Erie BayHawks. Magic management wanted a closer geographical relationship with the team. “Our goal is for it to be a development opportunity for the players,” says newly appointed team President Shelly Wilkes. “There will be a lot of collaboration between the two teams.”
Wilkes, who has worked her way up the ranks from when she started with the Magic in 2004, will oversee the business side of the team. She intends to initiate the Magic's public relations and marketing strategies. “I plan to tap into those areas of the community that want a different entertainment experience,” says Wilkes, 36.
Wilkes says the Lakeland community is eagerly welcoming the team. “Lakeland is a great fit,” she says. “The city leaders, The Lakeland Center and everyone has been fantastic and rallied around the project.”
Lakeland Mayor Howard Wiggs says athletics has been an important part of Lakeland's culture, with professional baseball and state tournaments being held each year in the area. “When you add the credibility of the Magic,” he says, “it puts us in the next level.”
Tony Camarillo, executive director of The Lakeland Center, says the proposal to bring the team to the area took a lot of people, playing a lot of parts. “To be affiliated with an NBA team puts us on the upswing,” he says. “This will jumpstart other opportunities.”
The Lakeland Center was in the middle of a $14 million renovation project and when the deal came available, officials shifted their priorities. Now the center will get new digital boards and upgraded concessions, in addition to a better overall fan experience.
Wilkes is no stranger to keeping the fans happy. The majority of her time with the Magic was spent in charge of entertainment at the games. “When we moved to the Amway Center (in downtown Orlando) it was a huge opportunity,” she says. “It's one of the best shows in the NBA.”
She says there will be exciting things happening this summer in anticipation of the new team. They plan to offer different ticket opportunities and get local college students pumped about it. And 3,000 people entered a contest to pick a new name for the team, which will be announced in April.
This excitement helps make Lakeland an even more “livable” city, says Wiggs, adding that while great cities have strong infrastructure, there are also fun activities. “This is a family-oriented activity,” he says. “Fans get emotionally attached.”
For now the team will practice at Polk State College, but plans are in the works to build a practice facility at the Chain of Lakes Complex in Winter Haven. The $20 million master plan for the complex will include six indoor courts, offices and training areas for the team as well as other groups, says T. Michael Stavres, Winter Haven's city manager. Discussions are ongoing regarding funding for the facility.
Lakeland's D-League team will be the only one in the Southeast except for one in North Carolina, says General Manager George Rodman. Not only will tickets be more affordable than the Magic, but 75% of the time you'll see NBA players at a D-League game.
The season begins in November and runs through late March or early April. Season ticket deposits are being accepted for $25 per seat.
There are two goals of the D-League — developing players so they can get more time on the court and eventually get called up to the Magic, and finding prospective players for the future, says Rodman. “We develop younger players, help them grow and mature and hope they eventually play for the Magic,” he says. “The D-League is the fastest way to get to the NBA.”