MLS Commissioner Don Garber was in Orlando, Fla. on Thursday, mainly to talk with local supporters and the ownership group of Orlando City SC about possibly getting an expansion franchise. In regards to Orlando joining MLS, there wasn't a whole lot of new information. Garber said he'd like to see the team break the 10,000 mark in terms of average attendance. That he wants to see the team strengthen its sponsorships. And, perhaps most notably, said he definitely sees a future in which Orlando has a MLS team.
Most important line from today out of Commissioner Garber: "I believe it's not an if, but a when" for Orlando City to be in MLS— Orlando City SC (@OrlandoCitySC) March 1, 2012
That's all fine and good, but that's well short of promising that Orlando is capable of leapfrogging a second New York team, let alone poised to do just that. As Garber has previously stated, there is no timetable for bringing a 20th team to MLS and there certainly isn't a detailed plan for expanding beyond 20 teams.
Garber has made a habit out of meeting with interested MLS owners and groups in semi-public settings like this, so doing it with Orlando is not necessarily indicative of anything.
But few, if any of those recent meetings have come with groups as seemingly advanced as Orlando and it does make you wonder if Garber could be lining them up as a fallback plan if the New York stadium situation continues to stall. Let's take a look at some of the things Orlando has working in its favor, as well as the potential hurdles.
The Happiest Place On Earth
- Established soccer community: Sure, Orlando City is barely a year old, but they did come out of the gates blazing. Their average attendance of 5,415 was better than any other lower-division team in the United States (via Kenn.com) and they averaged more than 9,000 for playoff games.
- Solid demographics: With more than 2 million people in the metropolitan area, Orlando is the 26th biggest in the United States. That's not huge, but it is bigger than four cities already in MLS and basically the same size as wildy successful Portland. There's no question it's not big enough.
- Tourist destination: There are already plenty of people visiting the Orlando area every year to go to Disney World. Surely, there is no shortage of money being spent.
- Big show in town: The Orlando Magic are currently the only pro team in town and otherwise, the only competition is middling college football. Properly marketed, Orlando City could probably overtake the Magic in the same way the Sounders have carved out their place in Seattle.
New York State Of Mind
- Ownership: Phil Rawlins is currently most famous for being one of the few minor league soccer owners to move a team, uprooting the semi-successful Austin Aztex and plopping them in Orlando. That appears to have accomplished his main goal, which was to get the attention of MLS, but that doesn't really make him a MLS quality owner. His net worth isn't openly known, but it's been estimated to be in the $45-60 million range. Obviously, that's rich by normal people standards, but it's really not by the standards of MLS where team No. 20 will cost at least $50 million.
- Stadium: Orlando City currently plays in the Citrus Bowl, a college football stadium that fits about 70,000 people. It could be renovated for soccer, and there are plans to do so, but it's going to be cavernous no matter what. Definitely not their biggest obstacle, but MLS definitely prefers to have its teams in purpose-built stadiums.
- Demographics: Yes, I listed this as a positive, but it's worth noting that New York's metro area -- even after splitting it in two -- would be nearly four times as big as Orlando. That's a big hill to climb.
- Money: There are 16 Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Florida and only one is based in Orlando. Luxury boxes are the bread and butter of many new MLS teams and big companies are usually the ones buying them.
I don't think Garber is just paying lip-service to Orlando. There's no question that MLS needs to have a presence in Florida, long term. In order for Orlando to jump over New York to become team No. 20 -- and I think they are the leading contenders to do that -- they'll need to make a few things happen.
1. Get that attendance up to the magical 10,000 barrier. In Montreal and Portland, that's basically where they were drawing that forced MLS to overlook any other issues like market-size.
2. Make plans for a soccer-specific stadium. It's one thing for MLS to put a team in Seattle despite them playing in a football stadium, but that's a much bigger metro area, one with a solid soccer history and the stadium was specifically designed to house soccer. Hard to see MLS putting a team in Orlando if the longterm plan is to play in the Citrus Bowl.
3. Get some real money. Maybe Disney wants a piece, which would be an interesting set up as they are also one of the league's broadcast partners. Maybe there's some independently wealthy person. Rawlins may be the fact, but someone else is going to need to be the wallet.
If Orlando can manage to hit all these marks, probably sometime in the next couple years, they start to become a very viable alternative to New York. That leaves a lot of time for New York to get its act together. Orlando may well have to wait for further expansion.