Steve Hogan: Florida Citrus Sports Chief Executive Officer
The completely rebuilt Florida Citrus Bowl in downtown Orlando, now dubbed Camping World Stadium, was part of the trifecta that helped land the Dr. Phillips Center for Performing Arts and provided a home for Orlando City Soccer. It was a timing and leadership alignment that is transforming Central Florida’s urban center. Fortunately, the region didn’t have to wait long for the ROI to come pouring in. The new venue also has become the host location for three blockbuster sporting events: a season opener between Florida State and Ole Miss, a preseason game featuring the Miami Dolphins and the Atlanta Falcons, and the 2017 NFL Pro Bowl. All this in addition to the New Year’s classics, the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl and the Russell Athletic Bowl. Though it took a region to ensure the realization of this monumental project, Steve Hogan has been its most vocal evangelist and a driving force for Orlando as a premier location for world class sporting events.
EW: The last time we had an in-depth conversation, the stadium that we see today was just a scale model here in your office. What was your biggest surprise in executing a project of this magnitude?
SH: Once it was approved and we were moving forward with construction, I suppose it was the scale of the project and the compression of time. The credit belongs to the City of Orlando, the program and construction team. There were thousands of people all over the property, working to complete a demolition and rebuild in 10 months; it blows me away that it was even possible. I’m no construction expert, though I know a lot more now than I did then, but I am astonished at what they were able to accomplish, while we continued on with our business.
EW: It was a blitzkrieg pace; did you ever falter and think, what happens if we don’t meet schedule?
SH: There were a lot of very anxious nights. We had a hand in the planning and design, but we also had to continue doing business here. It was like, well, tearing down a restaurant and rebuilding it, while continuing to serve customers. For them the design of the stadium was changing, seating arrangements were changing, and we didn’t know how they would react; that was a big question.
Though we had simulations of what it would be like, we didn’t know what the unique fan experience was going to be. The good news is, everyone was enamored with the process and on board with what the future might hold, but there were so many unanswered questions which we were having to answer as we went.
EW: If you were asked by a similar city, “How did you do it?” which I’m sure you willbe, how do you respond?
SH: Politics are local, so you have to understand the landscape and mood of the local leadership. Needless to say, nothing is more important than transparency, honesty and making a sound business case—that is data and research driven. Also you have to realize that though the vision is all important to you, to other people in the community it may not be important or as important as it is to you. We were moving forward at a time when multiple venues were springing up and they all were significant and had their place, so to be isolated or defensive could have meant certain death to some or to all. It was far better to say, how do we hear from everyone and how do we fit into the larger picture, how do we help everyone win?
EW: For you personally, what was your greatest challenge?
SH: It was making the case for the value the project would bring. We are a nonprofit, yet we had to make an argument that normally falls on some owner with very deep pockets. The stadium has always been a tourism draw and we had broad support from the tourist community, with funding from the tourist tax. They understood this was a tourism winner, but like the area resorts and theme parks, we had to make the investment to create a world class venue. The second was during that process, we had to hold on to and build our business; the sports world was watching to see if we would go the way of cities which used to host great events. We wanted to convince the world that we were on the rise, not demise.
Now instead of us having to make the case, everyone else in the community is making it for us. There was a resounding sentiment of, ‘They were right, if you build it, they will come.’ The consensus has been that it has outperformed people’s expectations of what is possible. They understand our competitive advantage.
EW:How big a factor has Orlando City been to your venue?
SH: We have been part of that incredible story and we hope that hosting their Major League opener and inaugural season will help put Orlando on the map as a destination for soccer fans worldwide. Which we hope means that for events which their new stadium may not have capacity for, there is an opportunity for us. Of course, hosting all those regular season games also helps work out many of the logistical bugs as well.
The more you successfully promote and host major events, whether soccer, concerts or collegiate or pro games, the better your chances of being considered for even bigger events like a national championship bowl. We’re in the major neutral site event market. Other franchises in the area being successful helps you succeed.
EW: How did you land a game like Florida State and Ole Miss?
SH: There are years of strategy and relationship building behind that. The neutral site season opener is gaining momentum around the country; Atlanta, Dallas and Houston have been the stars. We knew there would only be so many, so we wanted to be the fourth leg of that table. Orlando works for the colleges because Central Florida is a huge collegiate recruitment location and it allows them to get revenue outside the home season ticket schedule. ESPN was the key, as they are a 50-50 partner with Florida Citrus Sports in owning that game. That spreads the risk. We have ‘Bama and Louisville in 2018, then Florida and Miami in 2019. Now we are working on 2020. Our challenge is consistently making it a major game. Some of it is research or relationships and some of it is just luck.
EW: For the first time you have a corporate sponsor as well, is that correct?
SH: Not exactly. The reason the name was changed from the Tangerine Bowl to the Citrus Bowl was because the Florida Department of Citrus was the lead sponsor. We had committed to several million in usage and rights fees over ten years, to take the burden off the taxpayers for the shortfalls the facility was to the city budget. Camping World was the sponsor that helped us arrive, if you will, as a major sports facility.
EW: How does Lift Orlando and that vision play into your role here?
SH: If I have any legacy here, that is what I want it to be. When we think about what we are doing in the city, with all the impact a venue like this has and all the people who come to the sporting events, all of those successes will pale in comparison to what Lift is doing. What would it be like if we succeeded valiantly as Florida Citrus Sports, but we didn’t raise the community closest to the stadium? That would be a shame. We can focus all that energy on something bigger. What if the story was the stadium became this beating heart, bringing life into this community? It comes down to, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you” and “to whom much is given much is required.”