|Courtesy of Orlando City S.C.|
The Scoring Third is an Orlando-based soccer blog, so I would be remised if I didn't admit to being a bit of a "homer" when it comes to our local professional soccer team, Orlando City F.C. Although we typically focus our 11 Questions series on players, we thought it would be great to reach out to our hometown club to see if we could get an interview. Needless to say, the front office staff was very responsive and we were able to hook-up with Orlando City's President, Phil Rawlins, to get the inside story on the club and its plans for 2012 and beyond. What better way to start off the new year for a Lions fan, right?
Originally hailing from Stoke-on-Trent, England, Phil Rawlins has been living and working in the United States for the last two decades. Although he accumulated his wealth through several information technology and consulting companies, his passion has more recently focused on professional soccer club ownership. He is on the board of directors for Stoke City F.C. of the English Premier League and purchased the USL-level Austin Aztex in 2007. He decided to move the team and his family to Orlando in 2011 with a new group of partners in an effort to gain a more favorable market for growth and possible MLS expansion. In addition to managing the day-to-day operations of the club Phil is deeply involved with growing soccer in Central Florida. With the recent addition of soccer camps, clinics, and satillite training facilities for the team, Rawlins' vision for the franchise goes well beyond the walls of the Citrus Bowl. With his wife, Kay Rawlins, as the director of community relations for the club, this is more than just a business venture, but rather a family affair.
With a successful inagural year in Orlando, winning the USL-PRO Championship, and rumors filling the internet of potential MLS expansion discussions, we were excited to have a few minutes with Phil to discuss what is in the works for the club.
1) Choosing to re-brand the Austin Aztex as the Orlando Lions immediately drew in the "hardcore" soccer fans who remembered back to the days of the old Lions of the late 1980's and early 1990's. How does the team plan to attract the other half of the soccer audience, the "casual fan", in Orlando?
We are working hard at attracting the real soccer fans to all our games. In the new year you will see a coordinated marketing campaign, radio, billboards etc. However, the best marketing is always word of mouth, we would encourage all our fans who have been out to games and enjoyed them to bring along a soccer friend.
2) The team recently signed forward Matt Luzunaris, a former UCF player with professional experience. With strong collegiate programs at UCF and Rollins is the team actively trying to recruit talent who played locally to give Orlando City more of a "hometown" feel?
We aim to recruit the best talent available to us, it's a big bonus when that talent is also local, as in the case of Matt and Dennis Chinn. I would love to see us have 4 or 5 local players on our roster.
3) With the many Orlando City soccer camps, satellite training locations, and with the recent acquisition of the Central Florida Kraze of the PDL, how do you think your "local soccer pyramid" ranks in comparison to other professional franchises in the US?
Central Florida has lots of very talented athletes but still has some way to go by national comparisons. Our recent announcement of the partnership with FSA youth club and the European style Youth Academy structure we will set up are aimed at improving this very point.
4) We all know the rich soccer history of the Citrus Bowl (1994 World Cup, Int'l Matches, etc) and City/County have planned in excess of $150M in improvements to the facility, mostly for football bowl games. With the success of the OCSC in its first season, what discussions have you had with the City about modifying the renovation plans to include soccer improvements?
We are in continual dialog with the City about the refurbishment and they are very open to our ideas and making the new Citrus Bowl soccer friendly.
5) If the stars aligned between the City/County/Team and you had your choice of building a 20,000 soccer-specific stadium in Orlando, what would be you first choice? (Sites like the Creative Village at the old Amway Arena site have been mentioned or even a Home Depot Center situation with an on-campus venue at UCF.
Is it important to stay close to downtown and away from an I-Drive/Theme Park location?) Ideally that stadium would be near to downtown or very accessible for everyone. I think others experiences have shown that building something too far out of town hasn't worked.
6) Are there any plans in the works for improvements to the game-day atmosphere at the Citrus Bowl such as adding a pre-game march from Church Street (a la Seattle), an official band (such as the T&T steel drummers), or to tarp-off the upper bowl for matches?
I believe our fans already create a fabulous atmosphere in the Citrus Bowl, they were voted loudest fans in the League last year. The fans already tailgate before games and march in together from the parking lots. I think fan initiatives like these are best designed by the fans, that way youe get their buy-in and participation which is critical to longevity.
7) With the ultimate goal of gaining an MLS franchise in the next few years why do you feel Orlando can succeed where Miami (Fusion) and Tampa Bay (Mutiny) failed in the past? With so many other competing entertainment options in the Sunshine State, do you think top-level professional soccer can succeed here?
Yes, I firmly believe it can succeed and thrive here. Orlando has little pro sports right now and a growing and sports thirsty fan base. The MLS is a very different League to the one that failed in Miami and Tampa, I firmly believe Orlando can succeed this time given the right opportunity.
8) Are there any plans in the works to have a Orlando City Lions night that might bring back some of the old players/coaches from the 1980's/90's era of the team? Maybe have the team play in vintage kits from the previous version of the team?
That would be a great idea. I know several of the old players from the Lions days and they remember those games with fond memories. Maybe this is something we can do in 2012.
9) Orlando City was fortunate enough to gain a strong following from supporters groups like "The Ruckus", "Iron Lion Firm", and "Rhythm Section" in its first season. From an ownership standpoint, what is being done by the team to help further cultivate the supporters groups and do you feel their growth is tied directly to the team's growth?
We had fantastic support last year from these three groups and others. It was great to see how they embraced the team and the players so quickly! We are in constant touch with all our supporter groups and encourage and support them how we can. At the same time, as I said earlier, I believe that supporter based ideas are best generated by the fans themselves and we assist them where possible. Our fans are very creative and will no doubt come up with more fun ways to show their passion for Orlando City.
10) The 2012 Disney Pro Soccer Classic will feature Orlando City along with 7 other teams, 6 of which are MLS squads, with most of the matches broadcasted on ESPN/ESPN2. Don Garber is scheduled to be in town to meet with Orlando City and take in the tournament. What can the fan base do in your eyes to enhance the exposure for the club during this important February period?
This is an area where our fans can REALLY help us! The MLS will be looking closely at these games and the crowds they draw. I would encourage all our fans to come out and show their support, bring a friend, drag someone off the street..just be there and show Don Garber that Orlando is ready for major league soccer!
11) Last Question. With EPL sides Newcastle and Bolton having successful training and friendly matches with Orlando City last summer, what is in the works for a return of EPL teams to the Orlando area this year?
We plan on bringing other EPL teams and other international teams to Orlando. Plans for games like these don't usually get nailed down until Jan/Feb so unfortunately on this one you will have to wait a little longer (fingers crossed).
Special thanks to Phil Rawlins, Chris Jones, and the rest of the Orlando City front office staff for their support on this article and helping out their local soccer blog in general. Best of luck to the Lions in their sophomore year in USL Pro as they defend their title!