SBJ/June 12-18, 2017/Facilities

In Orlando, building a new kind of sports district

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Editor’s note: This story is revised from the print edition.

An aerial view of Lake Nona shows the Medical City in the foreground. The USTA’s center is in the distance near the lake.
All photos: LAKE NONA


Since 2014, developer Tavistock Group has been building a sports and performance district unlike any in the country, one untethered to a stadium or a team.

Tennis, golf and soccer already have professional and amateur presences at the development, called Lake Nona, on 17 square miles near Orlando International Airport. Tavistock, which has already helped unleash billions of dollars on sports and the nearby residential and medical districts in Lake Nona, is eyeing volleyball, rugby, aquatics and sports medicine, too.

The Bahamas-based developer, whose owner, Joe Lewis, owns Premier League team Tottenham Hotspur FC, is a far-flung conglomerate so vast that it is the largest land owner in Australia. But it is Lake Nona that is a signature accomplishment for the company, in rethinking the mixed-use sports district as more than simply opening businesses near a stadium.

Instead, Lake Nona, which has no team or stadium, boasts a medical district side by side with a sports and performance center. And that is embedded into a healthy living residential community that includes a school with a YMCA for a gym and internet speeds 200 times the average U.S. connection speed. Wellness is so intertwined into everything in Lake Nona that 30 percent of its residents participate in an epidemiological study to track how they fare living in such a community.

“A lot of times, whether you are talking about the Green Bay Packers or others, these sports mixed-use districts are built around a professional team,” said Andy Odenbach, vice president of sports ventures for Tavistock. “They are built around major infrastructure to support home games, and the rest of the calendar year, ‘Can we get concerts, can we get this in here?’ And I get it. But there aren’t many people saying, ‘How do we do a mass consolidation of beach volleyball?’”

“You can build the greatest sports development and if you don’t have everything else it won’t reach its full potential,” said Odenbach, a former PGA of America executive who initially joined Tavistock to run the Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, which until a decade and a half ago was essentially all there was in the area. “You better have a world-class airport, you better have world-class transportation infrastructure to get here, good housing options at your disposal. You better have great schools for the people that work there. It takes multiple ingredients in order to create what you are really after, and we are not really after sports. Sports is absolutely paramount to what we are doing, but so is medicine, so is education, so is the lifestyle experience.”

Lake Nona Golf & Country Club, the golfing piece of the Lake Nona equation


Already, the U.S. Tennis Association has opened its $100 million center for pro, college and recreational tennis. Yards away, Orlando City SC is building a 23-acre training complex. If Tavistock gets regulatory approval to build on a wetland, it plans to build a nearby beach volleyball complex on the shores of an 11-acre lagoon, and is hoping to land USA Rugby’s new headquarters.

Odenbach envisions acres of rugby fields, a boarding house, a nutrition center and top European teams traveling in the winter to train in sunny Florida.

“Everybody and their brother isn’t clamoring to figure out rugby and we are not trying to build a league,” he said. “We are trying to solve a problem for USA Rugby.”

USA Rugby CEO Dan Payne in an email wrote that the group did issue a request for proposals for a new headquarters and that Tavistock’s offer is under consideration.

Cows and airplanes

Fifteen years ago, almost nothing stood where Tavistock’s creation is growing up. Cows grazed — some still do on vacant land so the developer can reap an agricultural tax credit — and about the only noise descended from airplanes roaring into and away from the nearby airport.

“It was very, very rural out here,” said Jim Gray, an Orlando city commissioner who moved to the Lake Nona club 12 years ago, just as Tavistock broke ground on the medical city. “We would tell folks [driving from Orlando], ‘Hey, don’t turn around, you’re not lost,’ because it was literally just cows out in the field.”

When Gray moved to Lake Nona it had roughly 300 residents. Within a few years, he projects, 100,000 people will live and work there.

“In the five years I have been in [office as commissioner], with the exception of two or three months, every single month one out of three building permits in the city of Orlando comes out of this place right here.”

Indeed, there is so much construction going on that Odenbach himself must be reminded what one particular site is as he drives around giving a tour.

The development’s roots tie into sports, though perhaps in an unexpected way. In 1986, Lewis, a British businessman now based in the Bahamas who named Tavistock after a square in London, bought a lot to build his dream home in Isleworth, a golf resort outside of Orlando, home then and now to numerous golfers, tennis players and other athletes.

Lewis made his fortune in currency trading, and among his club memberships was Arnold Palmer’s Bay Hill in Orlando. There he met IMG founder Mark McCormack, who had a home at member-owned Isleworth and persuaded him to buy in. Lewis did, but the real estate market cratered in the late 1980s and Isleworth went into receivership.

The U.S. Tennis Association’s national campus has 100 courts.


Palmer, who also owned a home in Isleworth, and McCormack walked away, basically as the paint dried on Lewis’ new home, Odenbach explained. “They said, ‘Here are the keys,’” he continued. But Lewis, known as a contrarian risk taker, stayed.

“If everyone says, ‘Let’s go east,’ he’ll go west,” Odenbach said.

After several fits and unsuccessful starts by Isleworth’s remaining club members to make a go of it, Lewis bought the property in 1993. And that’s when the owners of Lake Nona golf club also beseeched him to buy theirs, too.

As an inducement, the owners added a few thousand surrounding acres. He’s gradually added parcels to create a 17-square-mile site containing the medical, residential and sports districts.

Today that’s made luring businesses easier. The USTA got a $40 million piece of land for free (Tavistock has given land to other groups as well) and spent $60 million to build its 100-court home of American tennis. But that would have been unimaginable two decades ago.

“Who wanted to live near an airport? It was not deemed valuable land,” said Orlando’s Gray, explaining why Tavistock could acquire so much land so cheaply. Indeed, the cows had free rein until then-Gov. Jeb Bush began offering inducements to attract medical facilities to Florida.

That’s when Tavistock began luring hospitals and medical centers to create a talent cluster. Today there are more than half a dozen institutions, including Nemours Children’s Hospital, the Orlando Veterans Affairs Medical Center, and Sanford Burnham Prebys Medical Discovery Institute.

Given the medicine component, Tavistock began incorporating wellness into the residential buildout, from the air systems in homes to miles of bikes lanes. The developer built its own fiber optics network, enabling residents to work from home rather than clog the roads with traffic.

Lightbulb moment

As Tavistock created a Florida medical powerhouse, American professional tennis hit the skids. Americans other than Serena Williams were not winning Grand Slams. The governing body of American tennis, the U.S. Tennis Association, trained elite athletes across the country, essentially subcontracting venues in many places. Recognizing it needed a new game plan, the USTA began looking for a site to bring all elite training under one roof.

Virgil Christian, a USTA director of community tennis, began talks with — among others — the Walt Disney Co. Those discussions, which centered on housing the complex at the ESPN Wide World of Sports facility, faltered, but Tavistock heard of them and reached out, Odenbach said.

In late 2013 Tavistock hosted Christian for lunch at the Lake Nona club, and by 2014 the sides reached an agreement on a vision far more expansive than just elite players.

The USTA National Campus houses 100 courts where collegiate, junior and youth play occurs side by side. In fact, so many locals come to play at the campus that parking is quickly becoming a problem.

“I honestly believe Orlando could become a hotbed of American tennis,” USTA Executive Director Gordon Smith said.

As Tavistock sealed the USTA deal, the lightbulb went on, Odenbach recalled. Talent clusters are well-established concepts: Bring people in the same disciplines together and ingenuity thrives. Orlando already had it with theme parks, Lake Nona was getting it with medicine, and the USTA hoped to replicate it in pro tennis.

But why not multiple sports together? So Tavistock set out to create a second specialized district, one that today already has committed Orlando City’s training center; the U.S. Professional Tennis Association, which is moving from Houston; and USTA Florida.

Healthy living is embedded in every facet of Lake Nona.


Next up is potentially a beach volleyball complex, followed by aquatics and rugby. Some of these ideas are still in the gestation phase, but Odenbach is unconcerned by time.

Joe Lewis “says he does not want us making five-month decisions, five-year decisions. ‘I want you making decisions that you can look back 50 years from now and know you made the right decision,’” Odenbach said. “We are not in a hurry, we are not a public company. We don’t have interest payments due to a bank on the 30th of the month.”

Tavistock won’t say if it is making money as a whole on the overall project, yet. It confirms that Tavistock, the public and the businesses now at Lake Nona have spent in the billions.

If Tavistock gives land to entities like the USTA, though, how does it make money?

One way is a hotel Tavistock is building near the tennis complex. But more fundamentally it is about branding Lake Nona as a healthy place to live and play. Already there have been nights when all 100 courts at the USTA complex, which opened in January, are fully booked, with many of the locals taking advantage of their new neighbor. The USTA, whose mission is to grow tennis, charges only $20 an hour, a great amenity for the area.

As word gets out about such amenities, people might move to Lake Nona, buy a Tavistock home, eat in a Tavistock restaurant in the town center that it is expanding, and work out in a Tavistock gym.

A new Orlando?

Signs in the Orlando airport promote the local marketing tagline, “You don’t know the half of it.” The idea is that Orlando is more than just theme parks and beach proximity.

The city’s mayor, Buddy Dyer, is actively trying to push the city’s image beyond mouse ears, and sports is a big part of that effort.

“We think Orlando has transformed into the premier sports destination in the country and that includes the venues that we have downtown, the Amway Center, the new soccer stadium, Camping World Stadium, out to Wide World of Sports at Disney, the Golf Channel is here,” Dyer said. “I can just go on and on and on, but the Lake Nona piece of it is a huge component to our sports destination.”

Indeed, in the last three years Lake Nona, which comprises 10 percent of the city’s land area, made up 26 percent of nonresidential growth and 18 percent of residential, according to the mayor’s office.

Dyer is personally involved recruiting sports. He tried to lure the Miami Open to the new USTA complex and traveled to the Stamford, Conn., headquarters of WWE, which staged an event April 1 in Orlando. The NFL signed a two-year deal to stage the Pro Bowl in Orlando, and Dyer fully expects the league to trigger a third-year option.

Dyer said he talks regularly to Tavistock’s Lewis and spent time with him on his yacht. When the time comes, he is ready to pitch for whatever business the developer seeks, whether it’s volleyball or rugby.

“Orlando is a pretty young city,” the mayor concluded, “so we are still in the process of making what we are going to be and who we are going be, and Tavistock is a big part of that.”

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