Thursday, September 1, 2011

Is it time for MLS in Orlando?

Courtesy of Orlando City S.C.
Every Major League Soccer expansion story starts off the same way, "the 20th team will be based in New York City." That has been the standard response for years, whether it was the Wilpons (owners of the Mets), the Cosmos ownership group, or even the newly formed New York F.C. that plays in the USL Pro division. Don Garber has stated on multiple occasions that the 20th team would join the league for the 2013 season and the team would likely be announced before the end of 2011. Let's get serious here; regardless of the ownership group, nothing happens in New York City quickly. It took nearly a decade for the Red Bulls to get their own stadium and it is in the armpit of Harrison, NJ; well off the beaten PATH (local folks will get this) from Manhattan. I'm not saying that NYC won't get a team; I just believe they need more time to get their act together before they join the league. The dark horse in all of the talk about the next MLS expansion team has been Orlando and we believe that the ownership group of Orlando City S.C. will be awarded the next franchise. Let's look at the issues that are positives and negatives for Orlando's case.

1. Fan Support - Florida is a quirky state when it comes to supporting professional sports teams. Having lived in Orlando for several years, I always found it interesting how no one talked about a team unless they were winning. College football is king, and anything that conflicts with the Seminoles, Gators, or Hurricanes season is usually ignored. The Dolphins might be the only team in the state that has good, long term attendance; but the Bucs, Jags, Rays, and Marlins are suffering at the gates. I honestly think the root of this problem lies in the fact that everyone in Florida is from somewhere else. I'm originally from New England (back here by the way) so I would only go to a Rays game when the Red Sox were in town. I could care less about the Dolphins and Jags unless the Patriots were playing in the sunshine state. People support the teams they know and since the population of Florida is made up of people from all over the country, its hard to support a team if you didn't grow up with them. MLS is different because it is a single generation sport. You can't say that you support DC United because your father did, and his father did, and his father did. Although some diehard MLS fans are transplants to Florida, for most people this will be the only professional sports team in the state that doesn't compete against their team from back home. Orlando City has already garnered the support of the community with matches being broadcast on Bright House Networks and supporter groups such as "The Ruckus" and "Iron Lion Firm".

2. Florida again? - Why would Florida ever get another MLS team? Florida has failed twice with MLS teams, closing up shop on the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion in 2001. That was a different time; the league was coming down off the highs of the 1994 World Cup and trying to find its identity in the vast American sports landscape. Frankly, if Don Garber hadn't taken the reigns from then commissioner Doug Logan, MLS would have gone the way of the old NASL and previous failed professional soccer leagues. Orlando is home to just one professional sports team, the Magic, who just moved into the state-of-the-art Amway Center downtown. Attendance was strong in the first season and the indications are that next season (whenever that is) will have equally impressive numbers. Look at the numbers for Orlando City at the all-but-abandoned Citrus Bowl; 8,300 fans for the match against Richmond this past weekend and likely 10,000 plus for the USL Pro Championship this coming Saturday. Attendance for professional sports in Florida will always be a risk; there is no way around it except marketing. Besides, how can you establish a presence in the Southeast if you don't start with a single team staking a claim?

3. Ownership - Orlando Sports Holdings, owners of Orlando City, are made up of a number of big hitters from the English football scene. Phil Rawlins is a board member for Stoke City and Brendan Flood is a board member with Burnley (now in the Championship League); that's a little more history than most stateside ownership groups have with soccer. The group moved the Austin Aztex to Orlando with the sole intention of getting into a better market so they could pursue an MLS expansion team within 3-5 years. Rawlins stated from the beginning that he wanted Orlando to become a world-class soccer destination and he held up his word by bringing Newcastle and Bolton to play friendlies at the Citrus Bowl this past summer. Furthermore, the club was able to sign a jersey sponsorship deal with Orlando Health, not typical for a expansion team at the USL Pro level. The money and marketing machines are already turning with the current version of Orlando City, and there is no reason to believe that it won't continue and grow stronger with an MLS franchise.

4. Stadium - Alright, this is the big one. It seems like the sticking point for every recent MLS expansion team has been the plans and financing associated with building a soccer specific stadium within the first few years of operations. The Portland Timbers had to relocate the Portland Beavers minor league baseball team from their stadium because MLS doesn't allow soccer and baseball teams to share stadiums (only football and soccer). Philly built a new stadium for its first season, Vancouver renovated BC Place for the Whitecaps, San Jose and Houston are constructing new stadiums as well. Unlike other MLS expansion candidates, Orlando already plays in stadium where they are the only professional tenant, that being the Citrus Bowl. The stadium played host to the 1994 World Cup, and although it now has Field-Turf and has aged like an old Ford Escort, the stadium is MLS ready for all intents and purposes. The city pegged the Citrus Bowl for a $175M renovation, but the hotel taxes that would cover the costs have dried up during the recession and there is no time table set for the work to begin. As much as the new Amway Center is thriving downtown because of its close proximity to entertainment on Church Street and Orange Avenue, the Citrus Bowl is just too far away. The walk from downtown west through Paramore to the Citrus Bowl is not one I would make alone. Honestly, the idea of using the Citrus Bowl for anything more than a temporary home for an MLS team is ridiculous. People have suggested partnering with Disney in the past to build a stadium near the theme parks or part of the ESPN Wide World of Sports; but Orlando doesn't live next to Mickey and Goofy. The heart of soccer in Orlando is in the suburbs and downtown, so the goal would be to build a stadium in those locations. After looking over some maps and weighing some options, it looks like the real estate just doesn't exist downtown for a new stadium. The answer lies further to the east, a new soccer stadium on the campus of the University of Central Florida. UCF has the most modern athletic facilities in the nation with a new basketball arena and football stadium along with all of the support fields and training spaces. The real estate exists in the same area as the other sports stadiums to build a dedicated soccer stadium which could also be used for field hockey, football (practice/high school), and concerts. Where's the precedence for building a professional sports stadium on a college campus? It already exists in MLS with the Home Depot Center (HDC) on the campus of Cal State Dominguez Hills. AEG leased the land from the school, built the soccer and tennis stadiums, and have a sharing agreement for the practice fields and facilities. Global Spectrum operates UCF Arena on the campus right now, and there's no reason why Spectrum or AEG couldn't own and operate a soccer stadium on the campus as well. The stadiums are encompassed by a "downtown" retail and dining district along with numerous parking garages to support the +40,000 fans that attend UCF football games at Bright House Networks Stadium. With the majority of the MLS season occurring when school is not in session, the concern of matches impacting academics is reduced. Why not just build HDC East on the campus and include a top flight tennis stadium as well? Below is a "Microsoft Paint" version of what the stadium concept might look like with HDC pasted into the landscape.


One thing's for sure, people are taking notice of Orlando and a victory this weekend in the USL Pro Championship will only further solidify City as a front-runner in the expansion debate. What are your thoughts on Orlando being awarded the next MLS franchise? Let us know by leaving your comments below or hit us up on Facebook and Twitter.

22 comments :

  1. Wonderfully written and thought out article. I really feel a strong potential for this team and this city and hope that things soon come together smoothly.

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  2. "All intensive purposes?" Where did you get THAT?

    The phrase is "all intents and purposes." For all intents and for all purposes. "For all intensive purposes," my Lord. You don't even know what that means. You wrote it because that's the way you've misheard it for years.

    Also, no, you're not a front-runner in the MLS expansion debate. You need a boatload more money and a better stadium than Orlando currently has, and, I'm sorry, that's the summation in far fewer words than you used. Holy my gosh almighty.

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  3. I would love for the MLS to have Orlando City as part of their league. I think the fan base definitely exists, especially with the recent interest in lieu of the World Cup (men and women) and ESPN showing more games and hi-lights. I agree that the Citrus Bowl is shady and wouldn't last, though I'm not sure UCF would welcome another stadium on campus. I know our women's team does well, but the men's team is only considered a club. All in all I hope this will work out! GO LIONS!

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  4. You're right, Orlando should be the Next MLS stop. Major League Soccer has conquered the Pacific NW and now they need to add a bit to the south east.

    to @Anonymous lol- if he mistyped something, so what? that's not rejecting an Orlando bid. P.S. The club has plenty of Money (IE The Rawlins Family) and if you read properly plans are already in place to renovate the Citrus Bowl. what a troll.

    #REDcity!

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  5. I like the article, but not the idea of driving to suburbs to go to a soccer game. Would make a quick death for the franchise IMO. Better idea would be to get the city to scrap plans for the old Arena and build a soccer specific stadium there.

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  6. Oh man this would be amazing! Your points are so valid, esp when you talk about every other team not working out here under "Fan Support." SOO TRUE..anyway. I have lived here my whole life and as much as I enjoy basketball and enjoy cheering for the Magic when they play, but I would rather pay to see soccer than a b-ball game personally. Its way more intense and crazy. Lets get some diversity up in here!! YEA!!!

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  7. There are issues with having a stadium on campus, namely the beer sales. A more realistic strategy would be to renovate and/or build adjacent to the citrus bowl or find a closer suburb. UCF is too far east to attract the casual fan, and even the stadium at disney-while nice is really far traveling from the northern suburbs.

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    Replies
    1. beer is sold on UCF's campus

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  8. Oh snap there's a hater in the house. We dominate the USL on the field and in ticket sales. We've beaten MLS and Premier League teams. Our stadium is doable for the shortterm until a permanent solution can be decided on. And finally you talk about how we need money but who has more than us? Red City for life!!

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  9. I love the idea of playing on the campus at UCF, the only problem is where you put the stadium is considered preserve and would take an act of the state to change that. Not saying that wouldn't happen but it is not an easy task.

    To the commenter who said the UCF mens team is a club team, that is untrue. The UCF men's soccer team is ranked No. 2 in the South Region by the National Soccer Coaches Association of America and No. 19 overall in the nation.

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  10. Great feedback people, this article is getting a lot of traffic. Let me try to respond to a couple of the comments.

    Anonymous - Grammer and spelling comments? Clearly you're the demographic we're shooting for with our blog. Much appreciated.

    Daniel - USA Today had a great article a few weeks ago on the allowance of beer sales at on-campus stadiums, it's only a matter of time at the Arena and BrightHouse (http://www.usatoday.com/sports/college/football/2011-08-07-beer-sales-rising-at-college-stadiums_n.htm)

    MKTuba - The proposed location for the on-campus stadium is where the current Frisbee Golf Course, just north of the preserve area is located. My understanding is UCF has that space pegged for future use whether it be a stadium or another mega parking garage.

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  11. Hey Patrice,

    Put a new stadium where the old Orlando Arena (Amway Arena) is. It's being demolished by the end of the year. Perfect location.

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  12. A couple of comments on using the site of the old Amway Arena for a new SSS. The city is planning to use the site for something called a "Creative Village" which is a public-private partnership which will have a mix of office space and retail. I don't see why a stadium couldn't go there, but it is still a bit of a hike to Church St/Orange Ave for a pint before and after the match.

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  13. Interesting article. I'm not sure if UCF would build another new venue like this so soon after building the Bouncehouse. Of course, if they had built the Bouncehouse just 10 yards wider, we wouldn't need to talk about building a soccer stadium there.

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  14. Hey "Anonymous" (if that is your real name) why don't you just troll on over to another site where your childish attacks are more welcome. You are only making yourself sound like a pretentious ass with your snide comments. I don't care if you don't agree, feel free to voice your opinion but maybe try to not be a douche. And if Peter's a "Fanboy" I guess that makes us all "Fanboys" of Orlando City. Is that really a dig? Are we not supposed to be fans?!?!

    Have to sy I agree with some of the others on here that would prefer to see a Soccer Specific Stadium on the site of the old Arena in lieu of something out at UCF. But I don't really see the rush. The Citrus Bowl while not perfect is good for now while the fan base continues to grow.

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  15. You can buy beer in the UCF Arena when its a non school event. I've been to concerts there and bought beer.

    Don't know where you could put it but if you can find land somewhere near Maitland, Altamonte, Longwood,Lake Mary area it may be better as you will draw more people from the suburbs from all directions.

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  16. UCF would be great location. As a recent UCF grad, I can tell you that for the most part when I talk soccer it's only with people around my age (24) or younger. My dad nor anyone his age could tell you anything about soccer except they hated missing college football on Saturday to watch us play the game. Why not create an intimate tie with UCF students and create a loyal fan base? I know my friends and I definately would have attended MLS games if they were on campus. Especially if there was tailgating (I've attended Tusker, Pred, and the Pro Lax games just because of tailgating).

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  17. Great article. Can't forget about the Preds though. They lead the AFL in attendance every year. I agree that for a true soccer stadium to be built it needs to be near downtown, however the land needed for such a project isn't available. The past housing market basically developed nearly all the local land. And local government being how it is, it would be stuck in committee forever. Remember how long it took for the BHS to be built?

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  18. Anonymous #2 - Careful there mate, you are bordering on the Trollish. Step out from under your bridge and bring a little more constructive arguments next time other than "misquotes" and just a blanket contrary view. Much of our American English language is a bastardization anyways of the "Queen's English." And really, "Intensive Purposes has made it into the dictionary. Check it out.

    Cone - good solid reasoning. I do disagree somewhat with the UCF arrangement, I worry about that one. I actually do agree with KyleJ, with that being a community sort of open space, it seems that a small multistadium open to expansion would actually fit pretty well there. One can only dream!

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  19. Great article and glad you are getting the conversation going, you missed one thing... a pretty hefty price tag. Montreal supposedly is paying 40 million for their expansion fee.

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  20. I vote the stadium be added to the redevelopment plans for the Fashion Square Mall. Orlando City implies the stadium should be within the city limits preferably and centrally located. So I would say UCF is out and so are many other areas that offer ample land, but little draw. Therefore, a mixed retail/stadium space would be great (i.e. Devil Rays Stadium and also other MLS mixed-use soccer-specific stadium). Fashion Square used to me the ONLY place in town and there is A LOT of history in the area (i.e. TG Lee Dairy, Exec Airport, Navy Base Remnants, and "Old" Orlando in general). Since the stadium would seat 24,000-27,000 or thereabouts there is no real need to worry about traffic and Hwy 50 is already slated to be widened and completely refit (see 436 flyover already completed)... Hmmmm. Food for thought. I vote Fashion Square.

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  21. I agree on not walking alone from downtown to the citrus bowl, however i dont think the walk is really that far from downtown to the stadium. I wonder how much would it be to demolish the citrus bowl and build a soccer specific stadium? The city could demolish and then lease the property to orlando city. Have orlando city build the stadium! or perhaps have the city and county demlish and build the stadium and then lease it to Orlando city. I would prefer to maintain the team near the downtown area where it can take advantage of the upcoming sunrail commuter rail. Besides it may jumpstart the corridor connecting downtown to the stadium. In essence expanding the downtown area!!!!!!!!

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