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Yesterday was a strange day in many ways. First, we got the news from Orlando City that they were proud to be ranked No. 2 in Google’s Year in Search of Top 10 Trending Soccer Terms of 2015 in the United States, and then, just a few hours later, word reached fans via the Orlando Sentinel that Ian Fuller (pictured below), stalwart of the club and assistant coach to Adrian Heath, had been unceremoniously sacked.
Some strange things have been happening this close season at Orlando City Soccer Club. First there was the appointment of ex Benfica General Director Armando Carneiro as Chief Soccer Officer in early November. Then three weeks later the club announced the axing of certain players like Tally Hall and Lewis Neal with sources saying that at least one of these decisions was against Head Coach Adrian Heath’s wishes.
Last week then saw the club lose its General Manager Paul McDonough who announced yesterday he will be joining Atlanta United in January.
The decision to release people like Fuller, Neal (pictured below) and McDonough who have helped build the club since before its MLS days is odd. At a time when the club are hoping to build two new teams with Orlando City “B” and Orlando Pride, fans would be forgiven for thinking that people like this were important to help maintain the Orlando City Soccer culture that has evolved over the last four years.
There are a lot of unanswered questions at the moment and fans have every right to question the new direction of the club. For that to happen, club leadership needs to speak and communicate what is happening so that fans can understand the new culture that is developing.
Change at every football club usually comes more often than in most other businesses as clubs strive to improve. It’s natural but what isn’t natural is ripping the heart out of a club at a time when most fans feel it only needed some minor tweaking.
The role of the new Chief Soccer Officer needs defining and fans want to know how much influence he has had in these important decisions. Naturally, the Brazilian take over of the club in occupying all the key officer positions is another focus point as is the role that a certain Ricardo Kaká may (or may not) have played in it all.
A couple of years ago, fans were told that the structure of the club was solid and that all its teams would play as directed by Head Coach Adrian Heath. Now fans worry that Heath himself may be next out of the door and if that happens, then heaven only knows how fans might react to that news. Losing Heath’s long serving assistant coach and confidant certainly appears to undermine his position and although Fuller was moved somewhat sideways when Mark Watson joined in a similar capacity in November 2014, the trio looked like they were working well together during the inaugural MLS campaign.
The clubs motto is #Defy Expectations and that brings us to another important point. The new stadium currently under construction in Downtown Orlando.
The original design of the stadium was to house around 19,000 fans. In September 2015, the club announced it was going to self finance the stadium and move the capacity to 25,000. On the surface, all good news.
The club’s average attendance in its first MLS season was around 32,000 so the decision to build a smaller stadium than that average is puzzling. The club has done a pretty good job in living up to the “Defy Expectations” mantra but this decision simply doesn’t live up to that billing.
In fact, it rather speaks to the expectation that the club expects to go backwards. That it can’t maintain or even increase its current average attendance. When questioned, club officials say that they are modeling themselves based on the experience of other clubs when they joined MLS. They also say it makes good business sense to be prudent.
Let’s examine that.
No-one expects the club to regularly achieve attendances such as the 62,500 that saw the first MLS game against New York City, but the fact they were able to achieve that and could probably have sold 80,000 tickets that day, speaks to the fact that the people of Orlando are desperate to follow their soccer club.
That’s some 80,000 people, at least, who are receptive to helping build Orlando City Soccer Club as a leading brand in American sports. 80,000 folks who are open to be attracted to future games if the clubs marketing department lives up to the club’s motto. From purely that perspective it’s simply remarkable news given the average attendance in 2011 was 6,021 fans.
We then look at the financial side of things. Initially the stadium was going to cost around $100 million to house 19,000 fans. Now, the club are spending $50 million more to attract an extra 6,000 people to games. That doesn’t seem to make much sense. For a total spend of around $150 million you’d think the club would want a bigger return on investment than adding a few thousand seats.
Then we look at the numbers from the lost fans. The people who won’t be able to attend games. Some 7,000 in all.
If we take the lowest ticket price of approximately $19 that’s some $133,000 per game that the club is turning down. Add that up over a whole season and that adds up to lost revenue of at least $4,522,000.
Little of this makes much sense. Why a club would take the chance of disenfranchising the people it has worked so hard to attract is beyond logic? It simply makes no economic sense, no business sense and no common sense.
At present, all of this suggests that top level management are now keen to reduce expectations and that they don’t actually have much faith in being able to maintain the momentum that has been built.
To some degree that’s understandable because the rapid rise of the club has been spectacular. Taking a pause to reflect is sometimes a good thing but the crazy thing about the game of football (soccer) is that it stands still for no-one.
The job of the ownership of the club is to keep developing and improving the business as well as the actual quality of play on the field. To do that, changes sometimes have to be made. Some of those changes may not be popular but sometimes they are necessary.
The other role of ownership and leadership is communicating the vision as it changes. Now, more than ever, Orlando City Soccer needs to do that and with some haste.
Yes, yesterday was a strange day in many ways. One that in time we may look back on as the day that changed the face of Orlando City Soccer Club.
PS . Finally to cap off the day, the United States Women’s National team lost in the USA for the first time since 2004 and in 104 games as Abby Wambach (pictured above) said goodbye to the game that saw her record 184 goals in 255 games. Thanks for your contribution to the beautiful game Abby.