Our countdown of 2017’s biggest local sports stories begins
Counting Major League Soccer, there are ten professional sports franchises in the state of Florida, as well as six nationally-notable college football programs.
It’s a lot to cover in any year, and it gives us a lot to look back on at the end of 2017. Florida was the site of all manner of sports stories in just about every sport, so many that even a list of the seventeen biggest Florida sports moments will leave things on the cutting room floor.
There was no room on this list to properly address Tiger Woods’ winding comeback trail, the disaster that has been the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ season, rumors swirling around Jon Gruden, the Miami Heat, the Orlando Magic, or Orlando City Football Club. Doral was absent from the PGA Tour schedule in 2017 and the Players Championship continues to impress, but even in the Golf Capitol of the World there simply wasn’t room to give either event much time.
The countdown will last the rest of the week, with the top story in Florida sports coming on Saturday as the finale.
17: A Ray of Hope in Tampa
In late October, with the World Series going on and baseball within the state of Florida in a state of transition, it was announced that the Tampa Bay Rays have selected a preferred site for a potential ballpark in Hillsborough County.
The new stadium would go in the Ybor City neighborhood, not far from Channelside and Amalie Arena. The transformation of downtown Tampa has become the model for sports in the area, and the prospect of the Rays doing something similar in Ybor is an attractive one.
It is important to know that, when talking about the Rays and their future, people outside of Tampa Bay generally seem unaware of the landscape of the area. Most notably, fans outside of Florida tend not to know the geographical difference between Tampa, FL and St. Petersburg, FL. From this, we get the constant refrain that Montreal might be more deserving of a new stadium for the Rays than anywhere in the bay area.
Selecting a site in Hillsborough County is only the first step in what will be a very long process. There are zero guarantees here, and the site is not the only one that management will have to consider when the time comes. Funding plans are unclear, as are plans for the park itself. This is simply the beginning.
At the same time, it is a necessary step in getting the Rays to a spot that will allow Tampa Bay a real chance to support a Major League Baseball team.
16: The Mikhail Sergachev Trade
To become a championship-level team in any sport, risk-taking is a must. When the Tampa Bay Lightning traded Jonathan Drouin to the Montreal Canadiens for highly-regarded prospect Mikhail Sergachev, Steve Yzerman was taking such a risk.
Drouin was coming off a strong 2016-17 season in which he amassed 53 points, a career high and a sign that the young forward is rounding into a very solid hockey player. The Lightning had Steven Stamkos coming back from an injury and a number of scorers that they liked coming into the season, so they felt they could deal Drouin.
The deal gave Tampa Bay the wiggle room necessary to re-sign Ondrej Palat and Tyler Johnson while keeping Vladislav Namestnikov out of the pool of potential players for Las Vegas to pick in an expansion draft. What’s more, Sergachev proved early on in this current season that he can be a vital member of the Lightning blue line as a rookie.
As of December 26, Mikahil Sergachev is tied with 2017 Hobey Baker Award winner Will Butcher for the scoring lead among rookie defensemen. He has 23 points at the moment and a +12 rating. Drouin has 18 points on the season and a -13 plus/minus rating for the struggling Canadiens.
15: The Jay Cutler Experiment
An injury at the wrong time can take all the air out of a football team. With the 2017 season fast approaching, the Dolphins provided us an example of this when Ryan Tannehill went down for the year with an injury.
Miami came into the season a potential spoiler team, having snuck into the playoffs the year before with a team showing lots of promise. Without Tannehill, optimism left town in a hurry and the Dolphins were left scrambling to find a new signal caller.
Backup Matt Moore, who had been solid enough in 2016 to get the Dolphins to the playoffs in Tannehill’s late-season absence, did not get the starting job. Instead, Miami paid ten million dollars to lure Jay Cutler out of the broadcast booth and onto the sidelines.
The Cutler signing was generally seen as the work of Adam Gase. The Dolphins’ head coach has a history with Cutler, and the general consensus around Gase is that he got the best out of Cutler as an assistant earlier in his career. With Moore the most viable other option, the Dolphins decided to bring in Cutler.
While there are certainly worse quarterbacks in the NFL this season, Jay Cutler did not exactly set the world on fire. In thirteen games, he’s thrown fourteen interceptions. The Dolphins will finish the season with a losing record.
14: FAU Boards the Lane Train
One of the very first sports stories of 2017 makes the final list. Lane Kiffin, having accepted the Florida Atlantic head coaching job in December of 2016, was not with the Alabama Crimson Tide for their playoff finale against Clemson. Steve Sarkeesian, now with the Atlanta Falcons, was promoted to playcaller for the game. Alabama lost that game, a classic that doubles as the College Football Playoff’s all-time best.
College football fans know the Lane Kiffin Drill. He’s considered cocky, with talk bigger than his team could ever live up to at times. The coach has a reputation for abrasiveness, disloyalty, and occasional ineffectiveness.
Not so at Florida Atlantic. The Owls had a very good season, going undefeated in Conference USA and bringing home their second conference championship. FAU finished 11-3, winning their bowl game 50-3 in Boca Raton, and they did so while Kiffin seemed to reinvent himself.
Once a petulant upstart seeming to live largely on family reputation, Lane Kiffin at FAU is turning more into a Steve Spurrier for the Twitter age. He uses the platform to talk trash in a funny way, to recruit through memes and one-liners, and to build the Owls’ brand by being the face of the program.
For this, Lane Kiffin was rewarded with a ten year contract just a couple of weeks ago. The Owls see themselves as a potential upstart now, perhaps the next school to crash the Florida College Football Party.
Thanks to Sports Talk Florida reporters Steve Kinsella, Brandon Howard, and Jim Williams for their work in the linked articles.