MLS (Wisely) Headed to Orlando, But South Still Waiting…

Orlando City SC and their loyal, boisterous fans appear to be headed to MLS.

Orlando City SC and their loyal, boisterous fans appear to be headed to MLS.

Neil W. Blackmon

Yesterday was  a great day for soccer fans in the state of Florida, with the approval of a 94.5 million dollar venues package by the City of Orlando that includes 20 million in tourist taxes to help build an 81 million dollar soccer-specific stadium for Orlando City SC that will, based on most reports, soon officially become a Major League Soccer franchise. It was an enormous day for Orlando City SC, the well-financed third division club currently playing at the old Citrus Bowl that have already captured the hearts of a great deal of the city, smashing third-division attendance records and making an extended US Open Cup run by playing attacking, attractive soccer. Yes, there has been talk and hints at “attendance inflation”, but it should be noted that Orlando City are drawing (even subtracting inflated numbers) about as well as lower-division sides in Portland and Seattle (two of MLS’ darling markets) did before making the leap.

The attendance numbers, new stadium, and a need to infiltrate a new (old, sort of) market all made Orlando a desirable expansion market for Don Garber and MLS, and an official announcement is expected very soon. Other questions persist among the MLS rank and file fans about the new city. Among them are the usual “Will it work?” and the geographically challenged but at least somewhat empirically-based “They’ve tried this Florida thing before, and…”

Here’s the thing about those questions. As noted, the first is asked with most any expansion city- yes, even Seattle and Portland– though the rebuttal there was always about demographics (predominantly young, white, middle class) and lower-division attendance. Orlando shares those traits. The second question is on some level ignorant of Florida’s massive size and geography– Orlando is located in Central Florida, not in Miami or Tampa, where MLS tried and failed- and that response is before you throw in a new stadium and factor in the growth of soccer as a viable professional sport in this country since MLS closed up shop on the Mutiny and Fusion a decade ago.

Even with inflated attendance numbers, Orlando has matched Portland and Seattle's lower-division gate numbers...

Even with inflated attendance numbers, Orlando has matched Portland and Seattle’s lower-division gate numbers…

My guess? Orlando City SC- despite the rubbish name (the city is called Orlando, or, formally, the City of Orlando, not Orlando City– can we just stop with the awful names for franchises now!)– will be a roaring success. Demographically, the city is built to support a MLS side, and the jump to MLS from the third division will have the desired effect on attendance, as will the intrigue of a new product and new stadium. What’s more– the ownership group is wealthy and sound, a base requirement for better MLS sides. Orlando also doesn’t suffer from market saturation, which is to say that unlike some expansion locales, Orlando only supports one professional team currently, the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Magic fans are suffering now but they are loyal, and even the departure of bona fide superstar Dwight Howard hasn’t been crushing at the gate. It should also be noted that there is only small overlap (for now) between the NBA and MLS regular seasons- which means competition for sporting good attendance is at a minimum. Spring training is the only other time of year the city can be distracted- but that last two months and Orlando is only home to two teams- the Astros, who play in nearby Kissimmee, and the Braves, who play at Disney World. Both of those distractions depart when MLS laces it up early in the spring, so Orlando’s MLS unit will be the only game in town most the year round. All of these factors, plus the close proximity of the intended stadium site to major freeways that connect Orlando to the rest of the state (Jacksonville is 3 hours, Tampa 2 with traffic, West Palm Beach 2 hours), mean attendance, particularly for weekend matches, should be outstanding and the club should be a showcase side for Major League Soccer. This is expansion as expansion should be.

That said, there is a bit of “unspoken” about the move to Orlando that has very little to do with Orlando and more to do with MLS. Orlando City SC doesn’t solve Major League Soccer’s “south problem.” Not hardly. Not in the slightest. Orlando is in central Florida which is close to the south, to be sure. My father, a native Floridian (it is rare, people) suggests Florida is truly 4 states and a territory called Tampa.

The way he sees it- the north and the panhandle form one of those states, which is unquestionably part of the south. That includes two cities: Pensacola and Jacksonville, and three “big town”, the capital city of Tallahassee, Gainesville, and Ocala. Northern Florida stops southbound on I-75 at Ocala, from where you can travel either southwest to Tampa- which is sort of the south but has a culture very unique to the rest of the state, or you can go southeast, into central Florida. Central Florida includes Orlando, and is not really the south. It’s more “Florida” in that largely it is a cultural melting pot of concrete, condos and tourist destinations with no fall or winter. Central Florida extends south on I-95 or the Turnpike to around Fort Pierce (a tiny place that has produced several Florida senators and governors), and then becomes “South Florida” around Jupiter, where half the PGA tour members live in the offseason. South Florida used to be the south and transformed in the 70’s, where it is essentially New Jersey or New York without winter. Miami, the largest city of three in south Florida,  is really more of a South American city than an American one. Go to Brickell on a World Cup qualifying day and you’ll see something of what my father means. The final state within a state is “The Keys”, which are treasured little coral rock islands that extend 90+ miles down to Key West, and Duval Street debauchery. 

Jacksonville puts the NASL southern blueprint at five-- begging the question: Can you support US soccer as a southerner without supporting the NASL?

Jacksonville puts the NASL southern blueprint at five– begging the question: Can you support US soccer as a southerner without supporting the NASL?

Bottom line? In moving to Orlando, MLS has indeed shortened the drive to the closest MLS franchise for a large portion of “the south” proper (north Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia). Only fans in Virginia and North Carolina will find the trek north to see DC United shorter. But MLS hasn’t delivered a team to a region of the country where fan support is growing and national team support has been consistently strong. Yes, there are questions about where that should be… but it needs to happen near term. Otherwise, MLS will have a “south problem”, and one that competitor leagues, like the North American Soccer League, are eager to exploit to challenge the continued sustainability of MLS’ unique single-entity structure. The thinking here is that’s not what’s best for MLS, but there’s certainly bias in that thinking.

After all, though I’ve lived in Florida for large swaths of my life, I’m a Georgian, raised in Atlanta, and I’m proud to say, despite all the attendant “misgivings”, that I’m from “the south.”

And here’s the thing, before you just shake your head, call it bias, or even make a smart argument, like suggesting MLS should focus on player salary expansion or roster expansion before it focuses on another team. The south isn’t just about cotton fields, plantations and finding a southern belle to take to Big Daddy’s formal Halloween ball (if it ever was about that), though there’s some of that. Great changes have been made to the south, both politically and demographically, but at base- it’s not incorrect to suggest a few things about the south remain as true as ever.

1) It’s boring here.

2) It’s beautiful here, small town after small town and lush, green fields, with a beautiful “capital” city in Atlanta that is both global and parochial at the same time.

3) It’s where all the best writing and music America has ever produced was born (feel free to contest this point but you’d be incredibly wrong): jazz, blues, soul, rock, country– all of ‘em born in the south; Twain, Faulkner, Margaret Mitchell, Capote, even to an extent Hemingway–yep, south. You’re welcome.

 

Even with this in mind, great changes have occurred. Most important, for purposes of this discussion, the south is passionate about soccer. 

Sean Johnson is just one of many young American players who hail from southern soccer hotbeds...

Sean Johnson is just one of many young American players who hail from southern soccer hotbeds…

Including Tampa (for argument’s sake), five North American Soccer League teams will call the south “home” by 2015: the Atlanta Silverbacks, Carolina Railhawks, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Virginia Calvary and Jacksonville FC.  The three clubs currently playing are highly competitive and draw relatively well for lower-division sides. While this is great news for the NASL, the prevalence of these clubs and their relative success is demonstrable evidence that MLS is missing out on a large soccer market.

From a development perspective, Atlanta is one of the premier national hotbeds for the game in the United States, as are the northern Virginia counties, as, increasingly, is north Florida. NCAA teams utilize these areas to fill rosters, and the NASL blueprint of local talent to local club is exploiting this rich talent base as well. Meanwhile, MLS continues to beat the drum about being a league where the best young players get their start.  It’s a strong marketing ploy that has been bankrolled well and continues to be proven through the ever-improving, producing MLS academies, but wouldn’t the argument be stronger if there were a club that was closer than DC United to such a large talent pool? Don’t answer. That’s a rhetorical question.

National team support in the south has been outstanding. Nashville has been a gracious host and the attendance numbers have matched what the US saw this summer in Portland, among other places. Jacksonville drew around 50,000 for a friendly against Scotland last summer, and those of us in the stadium pressbox were captivated by the crowd’s passion and energy. Landon Donovan praised the fans effusively after the match, saying “I don’t know what Sunil has in mind but if we had it my way we’d back here again and again.” (The US haven’t returned.) Atlanta drew well for Gold Cup knockout matches that didn’t feature the US- prompting some cynics to suggest they only drew well because of Mexico, who is well-supported by the city’s large Mexican-American population. That argument taxes the credulity of the credulous! Since when is having a large, soccer-crazed portion of a city’s population an argument against MLS expansion? 

Yes, forced to decide- I’d openly question whether Atlanta would be the best MLS city. Yes, Atlanta by some distance is the largest market without a MLS side. But…College football and the Atlanta Braves are king in my hometown and Atlanta’s rather transient population doesn’t support the Hawks particularly well, or the Falcons when Matt Ryan and company aren’t winning. The hockey support was so poor the Thrashers moved to Canada. But some of those comparisons are poor, anyway. Atlanta was never a “hockey hotbed” like it is a soccer hotbed. And the ownership group was lousy, something the Braves can survive thanks to a smart scouting department and front office but other teams in the city can’t. Still, the fact that Home Depot tycoon Arthur Blank, who owns the Falcons, seems interested in a soccer club is promising.  Blank’s ownership of the Falcons has made the team competitive and enjoyable. He could do the same with a soccer club and wouldn’t, initially,have to go far to find the talent. Using largely local players, the Silverbacks under Eric Wynalda and Brian Haynes won the NASL this spring. Surely a MLS side could dip into a similar talent base?

Atlanta's NASL side was a champion this past spring. Will the city be given MLS?

Atlanta’s NASL side was a champion this past spring. Will the city be given MLS?

Finally, there’s the matter of the game in America. Earlier this year, Alexi Lalas made the reasonable argument that “you can’t support soccer in America without supporting MLS.” The argument was well-intended, and when pressed, Lalas suggested supporting your local club was close. But many folks missed the “fine line” distinction. There’s a sense, despite national team support that is on par with most of MLS’ darling cities– that the south and MLS won’t work. That southern soccer fans enjoy their Premier League more than their domestic league, and that they’ll turn away from the game for other interests when the heartstring tug of the national team and all it’s “Go ‘Merica!” subsides. Maybe. But who should they cheer for? DC United? Supporting anything in DC is a tough sell in the south.

But doesn’t the south deserve that chance? And shouldn’t they protest more- now that there is a team in Orlando, and they must feel like they are oh-so-close? There’s something disingenuous about the “you must love MLS” argument to this southern soccer writer. As much as I try to support the league, I support no team. I have no connection with any of these sides- save perhaps New York- another place I’ve called home. 

To me, the North American Soccer League is far more worth writing about and supporting, at least for now. That league hasn’t ignored or blown off the south’s passion for soccer and the talent it produces. To me, a southerner probably doesn’t support the growth of soccer in the United States if they don’t support their local NASL side, or for that matter, a USL or NPSL side (of which the south has a few…) 

Kartik Krishnaiyer of World Soccer Talk, and another soccer writer based in Florida, agreed when I caught up with him about whether it was disingenuous to expect the south to support MLS when MLS doesn’t pay attention to the south last month. Krishnaiyer wrote that it was, noting that type of thinking “does nothing to promote (soccer) in markets without MLS.” 

“Whether it be the USL, NASL, or NPSL, they (the people who think American fans must support MLS) do very little to acknowledge it.” And would Atlanta be a good home? Should it happen quickly? Krishnaiyer thought it would, but has his doubts: “I thought Wynalda’s success with Atlanta would force them to pay attention and at least mention it but it didn’t.” 

Getting a team to Orlando is progress, and perhaps the south will get a team in short order. One can hope. And given the south’s history of producing civil rights leaders, novelists, and musicians who guided them out of the past, helped them making unique contributions to American art, and reflect on the future, there’s something uniquely southern about hope.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Co-Editor of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt

Filed Under: FeaturedMajor League SoccerOctober 2013

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  • Mark Fishkin

    A great piece, Neil. We’ll surely see Atlanta play a role in MLS expansion talk for 2020. I guess the question for Southern NASL/USL owners is: Why not push for MLS, as Seattle, Portland, Montreal, and now Orlando have done? Do those minor-league owners lack the capital to buy in? The vision to attract other investors? The lack of desire to “operate” a franchise rather than own a share of MLS? As you note, there’s nothing wrong with the South being ambivalent towards the league, but the path to MLS has been well-documented: Owner, fan base, stadium plan. There’s no mystery.

    • http://www.yanksarecoming.com/ The Yanks Are Coming

      Yes, I think these are all very fair questions.

      As noted, having Arthur Blank interested helps- but we’re likely to see less movement until we know where the team in Atlanta will play. The Silverbacks are a great example, actually– if they played inside the perimeter of Atlanta they’d draw exceptionally well. It’s a long trek for their fans as is. That won’t work with MLS.

    • Oshi

      NASL currently has a large Exit Fee, whether because of folding, or leaving to join another league. While this is great for NASL, it helps league stability and prevents non-committed owners from joining, it definitely works against the concept of “promoting” any of the existing southern teams to MLS.
      Shame, though, I would love to see the Railhawks go up to help fill the area alongside Atlanta, but their owners definitely don’t have deep enough pockets currently.

  • http://www.yanksarecoming.com/ The Yanks Are Coming

    Good reader e-mail brought this news story to light– “As noted, having Arthur Blank interested helps- but we’re likely to see less movement until we know where the team in Atlanta will play.”

    I think this answers that question. Notice lower bowl configuration with MLS logos in the architect’s animated rendering:

    http://www.wsbtv.com/news/news/local/blank-new-atlanta-stadium-will-raise-bar/nbX2c/

    Timely since this was a question yesterday. Bottom line is they found the architect they want. Now they go sell Atlanta taxpayers on the rest of the bill…

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