Orlando Magic basketball, Orlando City and Orlando Pride Soccer, the nation’s premier tennis center, college football bowl games, the NFL Pro Bowl, U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, the Arnold Palmer Invitational — and, of course, the UCF Knights.

Orlando has much to offer fans of every sport — so much that the highly regarded Sports Business Journal today named Orlando the No. 1 Best Sports Business City of Attracting and Hosting Events.

“Orlando’s elevation to the top spot in this year’s rankings is a testament to the vibrant synergy between world-class venues. dedicated sports commissions, and the enthusiastic community that makes Orlando a standout destination for sports business,” says Abe Madkour, publisher and executive editor at SBJ.

This synergy and success are testaments to the dedicated efforts of city, county and state governments; organizations such as the Greater Orlando Sports Commission; and a community of fans that embraces the many events hosted here.

As Orlando’s Hometown Team, the Knights can take great pride in their contributions that helped cultivate the city’s reputation as a prominent sports hub.

Since its humble beginnings with its first varsity sport (men’s basketball) in 1969 to its inaugural season in the Big 12 Conference in 2023, UCF has skyrocketed to unprecedented success as the youngest Power Four program in the country. With one of the country’s top graduate sports business programs, UCF has also provided a pipeline of talented graduates to some of the nation’s biggest sports brands, including franchises right in its own backyard.

Addition Financial Arena full of fans

The university also has partnered with area governments and the Greater Orlando Sports Commission to host portions of a variety of major events that bring a major tourism boost to the region. Those include the NFL Pro Bowl skills challenge, training activities for the U.S. women’s soccer national team, NCAA postseason competition, and much more.

“Over the years, sports have helped bring our community together and showcase Orlando’s vibrancy and commitment to inclusion,” says City of Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer. “By allowing us to welcome more visitors to our region, sports also drive economic growth by giving a boost to our hospitality industry and small businesses. From our hometown teams like the UCF Knights to the many regional, national and international events that we host, sports play an important role in our community.”

UCF Vice President and Director of Athletics Terry Mohajir says the strong partnerships within Orlando are a major reason why so many events — including those at UCF — are successful.

“We are thankful to be in a community where our leaders dream big and work closely together for the benefit of our region’s economic development, quality of life and community spirit,” Mohajir says. “We also appreciate the many coaches, student-athletes, donors and fans who have driven the tremendous growth and success in our UCF athletics program. We are proud to represent Orlando in a Power Four conference and the economic and social benefits it provides to our region.”

“A Remarkable Evolution”

When ESPN senior writer Andrea Adelson moved to Orlando in 2006, she said it did not feel like UCF — specifically the football team — was part of the community. Nestled in the middle of a state with three additional Power Four programs, she saw fans favoring other teams’ colors over the Knights by a wide margin.

Adelson is quick to point out today is a completely different story.

“To see that evolution over the last [18] years has been remarkable, but UCF has earned this,” Adelson says. “UCF built the facilities. UCF built the on-campus stadium. UCF made a commitment to football that has gotten them to this point where they are now in the Big 12. … Now when you go to a football game, it’s an event. Tailgating lots are everywhere. Memory Mall is full. It feels like you are going to any other college campus in some storied program that’s been around for 100 years — that’s how it feels now when you go to a UCF football game.”

UCF's football team running onto the field

Certainly the Knights’ on-the-field success has helped — and not just in football.

During its decade as a member of the American Athletic Conference leading up to their jump to the Big 12, UCF teams won more league titles than any other conference member (52 AAC titles from 2013-14 through 2022-23: 21 regular-season crowns and 31 more via conference postseason tournaments, league title games or other conference champion designations).

Simultaneously, UCF Athletics staffers’ efforts behind the scenes has ensured a unique game day experience that keeps attendees engaged and eager to return.

“We are a modern college sports game day experience — for us, it’s not about doing the same thing we’ve done the last 20-30-40 years,” says UCF Athletics Chief Branding Officer Jimmy Skiles ’06. “We want to continue to evolve who we are while representing our university and campus community as authentically as possible. We have listened to what the fans want, and we also strive to innovate and provide experiences to our fanbase that they don’t even know they need yet.

“Not every great pro-sports town has a great college team to complement it, and I think what’s so fun about Orlando is that all of our sports franchises and teams, they are such different experiences across the board,” Skiles continues. “We’re not butting heads or competing with each other. There is this genuine ‘Team Orlando’ feel because we fill the buckets of different needs and different experiences. I think that adds to us being such a great sports town.”

UCF is a hot ticket in town. The trend of the last four years: season tickets are up and sell-outs are plentiful.

The Knights’ inaugural season in the Big 12 in 2023-24 saw season ticket sales records in all eight ticketed sports (football, men’s and women’s basketball, men’s and women’s soccer, volleyball, baseball and softball).

Season tickets sold out for the first time for both the volleyball and softball teams while the football team produced its fourth consecutive season of season ticket sellouts.

Football Gameday Impact: 3.9M average 2022 Big 12 Football Network TV Audience | 45,000 FBC Mortgage Stadium Capacity | 500 Game Day Employment | 200 Game Day Police Officers from 27 Agencies | 40 EMS From Orange County Fire Rescue

At the conclusion of the 2023-24 regular season, the men’s basketball team broke a 13-year single season attendance school record. The Knights welcomed a combined 130,076 to its 18 home games — which included wins over three top 25 programs (No. 3 Kansas; No. 23 Oklahoma; No. 23 Texas Tech).

All of the football team’s Big 12 home games this season sold out — the first three (Baylor, West Virginia and Oklahoma State) were announced as sell-outs more three months before the games kicked off.

Part of the success has been UCF’s ability to be at the forefront of technology and innovation within the market. UCF is among a select few colleges in the country to serve as BETA testers for new products and features that Ticketmaster plans to roll out; recent adoptions include digital tickets and virtual venues for FBC Mortgage Stadium and Addition Financial Arena, which allows ticket buyers to see the vantage point of the field/court from a seat prior to purchase.

UCF Is a Destination | Kenneth G. Dixon UCF Athletics Village annual figures: 300 events, 800K attendees, 37K campus tour visitors, 10K youth sports camp visitors, 6K visiting student-athletes and coaches, 2K visiting recruits and families

“It has been a total team effort to hit the goalposts that we have in recent years,” Senior Associate Athletics Director of Ticketing, Strategy and Analytics Brooke Smoley says. “It’s easy to point to the jump to the Big 12 as an attractive ticket, but we were selling out for three straight years prior to this season. I am proud of the work that went into making that happen. Our charge is to generate revenue that can help our teams continue to be competitive, and we also work hard to keep it at an affordable price for our fans to make memories with their friends and families.”

It’s important to remember that UCF is still a year away from becoming a full-share member of the Big 12 Conference (operating with a fraction of the budget of its peers in the meantime) but must maintain its foot on the gas pedal by continuing to equally prioritize investment and fundraising in four key areas (operating capital, personnel, facility and maintenance costs, and recruiting/).

Investing in this program means positively impacting and uplifting the community it calls home.

Economic Impact: $5.5B from Florida collegiate athletics (Florida Sports Foundation); $350.6M revenue generated from collegiate athletics attendees from out of state (Florida Sports Foundation); $7.8B value added to the economy by UCF (Florida Board of Governors 2009-10 study); $1B 10-year economic impact of UCF Athletics (Greater Orlando Sports Commission); $205M media value for one UCF football season (Joyce Julius Associates and UCF Athletics)

Team Orlando

In 2007, UCF opened its doors to both its on-campus football stadium and new basketball arena in back-to-back weekends. The two structures became the anchors of what is now known as the Kenneth G. Dixon Athletics Village, which is now a booming epicenter of competition.

Take the recent weekend of March 1-3. UCF hosted 22 events from Friday-Sunday including a softball tournament, professional volleyball, rivalry games and a men’s basketball game versus the No. 8 team in the country.

“When the Athletics Village was born, it opened up this whole new sports neighborhood in Orlando, creating a new opportunity to host to support all of Orlando’s events,” Skiles says.

Whether hosting international soccer teams’ training sessions; annual bowl games; marquee events ( NFL Pro Bowl skills challenge and Harlem Globetrotters) or some of the best and biggest college football matchups in primetime, UCF has leveraged its facilities to become a valued partner in Orlando’s sports scene.

Built by UCF

In addition to the economic impact of its sporting events and partnerships, UCF is supporting the city’s sports businesses in another way: a talented workforce.

The university has been home to the DeVos Sport Business Management Program, one of the country’s top graduate sports business programs, for more than two decades. Graduates from many other UCF programs also play important roles for Orlando sports entities in fields ranging from marketing to ticket sales to strategy to event management.

Name a local sports entity and you’d be hard-pressed not to find a UCF alum among its staff.

UCF Athletics itself is a testament to keeping business within the family. Roughly 25% of the full-time staff are alums — spanning 22 departments (from sports medicine to brand advancement to business operations to academics and everything in between) and eight sports, which includes two head coaches (baseball’s Rich Wallace ’04 and spirit’s Linda Gooch ’85).

These are examples of the many hardworking Knights contributing to Team Orlando:

  • Orlando Magic: Alex Martins ’01MBA, CEO; and Shelly Wilkes ’02 ’04MBA ’04MS, executive vice president of marketing and social responsibility
  • Orlando City Soccer: Jessica West ’12 ’14MBA ’15MS, vice president of facility and Operations; and Christopher Kamke ’09MBA ’10MS, chief strategy officer
  • Orlando Pride: Taís Cotta ’17MBA ’18MS; manager, player affairs and administration, Savannah Blake ’19, data analyst/sport scientist
  • United States Tennis Association: Reshina Warren ’09MBA ’10MS; and Jenna (Doerfler) Kelly ’13 ’14MBA ’15MS Director of National Events Engagement and Experience
  • NASCAR: Derek Cowan ’09MBA ’10MS, partnership marketing
  • Orlando Valkyires: Jean Racine ’17, media relations manager
  • Track Shack (co-hosts of the 2024 USA Olympic Marathon Team Trials): Michelle Maretti ’95, director of finance; Kerrie Gregory ’16, wellness outreach/Galloway training director; and Caitlin Waldmiller ’16, office manager

“I can truly say the DeVos Sport Business Management Program is why I am where I am today,” says Wilkes, who worked on class projects with the Orlando Magic as a student, was offered a job upon graduating in 2004 and now is in her 20th season with the team.