I have been a supporter of soccer in Orlando since long before the original USL announcement this past March.
One of my earliest posts at my original blog, Sport Club Orlando, was a justification for soccer in Orlando last August. A week before the USL announcement, I reiterated it, in the context of going against Armando Gutierrez’s plans for baseball in Orlando. Since that blog is now gone, both those links are directed to my presence on Bleacher Report.
We have a surprisingly good history with soccer. We averaged over 61,000 fans per game for our six qualifiers in the 1994 FIFA World Cup. The UCF women’s team is a legendary program, and produced FIFA 100 list member Michelle Akers. The Central Florida Kraze were PDL Champions in 2004. The Orlando area is the home of current MLS players Eddie Robinson and Dax McCarty.
Now that Orlando City is here, new majority owner Phil Rawlins, also an investor in English Premier League side Stoke City, says he wants Orlando to host MLS.
It’s not really that big of a stretch. But, in order to make that a reality, we need to do some work.
First: the Citrus Bowl, as it is, cannot be our permanent home.
I still believe that the Citrus Bowl is not a good long-term solution in its current condition. It is a decent venue for soccer, and most people I have spoken to who have been to soccer games there think it’s a good place to watch a game, especially if you’re sitting in the lower bowl, the 100 sections. But in its run-down condition, it is not suited to be a permanent home, especially for MLS. And I still think laying AstroTurf has further harmed it as a soccer venue.
The Citrus Bowl is a dump. It needs its renovation, and Orlando and Orange County really screwed the pooch when they chose to build their boondoggle $400-million Performing Arts Center instead of replacing the Citrus Bowl.
MLS expansion isn’t likely to wait the 10 years that are now expected to elapse before the Citrus Bowl gets its lipstick-on-a-pig treatment. And we’re not going to get the public to build a soccer-specific stadium now. Downtown Master Plan 3 made the landscape toxic for future publicly-financed projects in Orlando, even though it’s principally funded by the tourist development tax.
We need to find private investors to get a proper soccer stadium built. A real stadium. There have been ideas conjectured before, like the Ajax Orlando idea for downtown, or Mark Dillon’s soccer complex idea near Horizon West.
Second: We need to get the word out.
Orlando City is really lucky. It has the soccer-savvy Austin Aztex organization as its foundation, so we’re getting a good team from Day 1. But what does that matter if nobody knows about it?
Many people have mixed feelings about Steve Donner, primarily due to the economic difficulties that cropped up in Rochester. But the one thing that is undisputed about him is that he can get butts in the seats. He drove the Tampa Bay Lightning to NHL attendance records at Tropicana Field in the mid-1990s.
Financially, Orlando can handle an MLS franchise. Portfolio.com did a study that suggests we have a prime economic capacity for Major League Soccer even in these tough economic times. (PDF in link) Naturally, we need to get the word out that we don’t just have a new team. We have a GOOD new team that is deserving of support.
I am confident that we can get a good attendance for our inaugural games. The Florida Tuskers pulled 11,000 in their first ever match, and the Orlando Titans did around 9,000 in their first match. The key will be to keep awareness in the community, and to have a good team on the field that is winning so once we get the butts in the seats, we can keep those butts in those seats.
Finally, the public needs to contribute to the environment at the games.
The die-hard soccer fans that I have come to know don’t care about where we’re playing. A bunch of us will be at UCF’s NCAA men’s soccer tournament match tomorrow, and essentially where they play is a glorified high-school football stadium.
We, as the die-hard supporters, need to show the people of Central Florida how to have fun while supporting our team. Show them the cheers. Teach them the songs. Soccer is not about gigantic scores. It’s about building the anticipation toward the goals that do come.