You hear it all the time – “Florida shouldn’t even be in the discussion for an Major League Soccer (MLS) expansion franchise because no one will come out to their games…just look at what happened in Tampa Bay and Miami.” I’m here to tell you that attendance was not the reason MLS eliminated both Florida teams when they contracted the league back in 2001. And the facts prove it. With Don Garber coming to Orlando on Thursday for an important town hall meeting with Orlando City supporters, we take a look at the numbers on why MLS failed in Florida before and why it appears the situation is much different now.
Admittedly, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion FC weren’t setting the world on fire with their ticket sales. In that final year in 2001, Tampa Bay had a regular season average of 10,481 fans per game and Miami had 11,177. These were 2nd and 4th to last in the league, right there with Dallas (12,574), Kansas City (10,954), and San Jose (9,635). This “Bottom 5” averaged 10,964 fans per game, while the rest of the league (the “Top 7”) averaged 17,963. The reason why all of this is important is because not much has changed with these Bottom 5 over the past ten years, and yet none of them have been contracted…why is that?
The real reason is Ownership. And not just any owner; you have to have an owner too big to fail.
As you may or may not know, MLS is a single-entity league that owns all of the clubs. “Owners” of MLS teams are essentially stakeholders in the league and are given the right to operate their franchise. This creates all sorts of odd situations, but is primarily arranged this way to provide stability that was lacking in previous American soccer leagues (see NASL).
So, who were the Owners of the Bottom 5 in 2001?
The Tampa Bay Mutiny was without ownership since their inception in 1996.
The Miami Fusion was owned by Kenneth Horowitz, a cell phone entrepreneur from Palm Beach, FL.
The San Jose Earthquakes were owned by the Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), the world’s largest owner of sports teams and sporting events. They were co-founders and lead investors in MLS who at the time also held ownership in the Chicago Fire, Colorado Rapids, New York/New Jersey MetroStars, D.C. United and the Los Angeles Galaxy.
The Kansas City Wizards were owned by Lamar Hunt, arguably the most important individual in the history of U.S. sports. He was also co-founder and a lead investor in MLS who at the time also owned the Columbus Crew.
The Dallas Burn was the only team other than Tampa Bay to not have ownership in 2001, and looked to be vulnerable to contraction. Fortunately, they were located in Mr. Hunt’s backyard and he had his eye on them. Just two years later he would add the Burn to his collection of teams.
So, guess which teams got the axe? The teams owned by the entertainment group that, at the time, owned half of MLS? Or how about the teams owned by the National Soccer Hall of Fame Medal of Honor recipient whose name now adorns the U.S. Open Cup? No, the Founding Fathers of the MLS would rightfully keep all of their teams while the Florida teams with relatively weak or no ownership were cut.
How important is having the right owner? Right after the MLS contraction, the Dallas Burn averaged 10,672 fans per game over the four-year period from 2001 – 2004. This was less than the 10,837 fans Tampa Bay averaged in their final four years. The Kansas City Wizards averaged 10,564 fans per game over a six-year period from 2005-2010, again less than Tampa Bay. So were the Burn and Wizards contracted as well? No. Instead, they were given $80 Million soccer specific FC Dallas Stadium and $165 Million soccer specific Livestrong Sporting Park, respectively.
Can you imagine what would have happened if the single-entity MLS ownership group who owns ALL the MLS teams had put a $80 Million soccer specific stadium in Tampa Bay or a $165 Million soccer specific stadium in Miami, instead of Dallas and Kansas City? I truly believe we would have seen a higher turnout than the 12,861 fans FC Dallas and 17,810 fans Kansas City averaged last year.
But that is not how history played out. A wealthy benefactor did not arrive in Tampa Bay and the owner in Miami seemingly threw in the towel. The league contracted for the only time in its short history, leaving Florida with a soccer ball sized black eye.
Fortunately, things are looking up in Central Florida. The Orlando City Soccer Club Lions are set to start their second season in the USL Pro – a league they dominated last year, winning the Regular Season and Championship Tournament. In their inaugural season they averaged 5,415 fans per game, the highest average in North American soccer outside of MLS, and are projected to exceed that this year. They are also one of the few North American clubs at any level to have a development system that covers the entire U.S. soccer pyramid, with the Orlando City Youth Soccer Club in the USL Super Y-League and the Orlando City U-23 competing in the USL Premier Development League.
Most importantly, they have Phil Rawlins, a man with a strong soccer background (board member of English Premier League club Stoke City) who is committed to bringing the highest level of professional soccer to Central Florida. When he first arrived he told us there would be friendly matches against top level European clubs. That first summer, while other MLS teams were begging European teams to stop by, Orlando City hosted two EPL teams – the Bolton Wanderers and Newcastle United. He also told us he would bring MLS to Orlando within 3-5 years. Less than a year later, MLS Commissioner Don Garber is dropping in for Town Hall Meeting with the Orlando City fans and to meet with Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer to discuss their future plans.
After the MLS contracted the two Florida teams in 2001, Mr. Garber stated, “We hope to return to the State of Florida when the league expands in future years.” He went on say, “There’s no question in my mind we will be back. It’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.”
Let’s show Mr. Garber this Thursday that that time is now.
As a reminder, we have started a petition on behalf of all Orlando City supporter groups to help bring Major League Soccer to Orlando. Please take the time to provide your information so we can get MLS back to the Sunshine State... www.OrlandoMLS2013.com.