- Theme Parks
- Walt Disney World
- Vacation Tips
By Nigel G. Worrall
So MLS 2016 is underway and now that the weekend frenzy has calmed down, it seems that the ownership of Orlando City Soccer has a big problem to solve… namely, what to do with all the fans that won’t be able to watch the season opener next season?
At a recent stadium media event, where the first pieces of steel were installed, we took the opportunity to question Dave Price of Barton Malow, the stadium construction company, about the possibilities of expanding the 25,500 seater stadium. In short and according to him, it seems to be pretty much an impossible task as there is not enough land or space to expand to accommodate a larger facility.
On face value a 25,500 seat stadium from a starting point in 2011 would have seemed like a dream but here we are just five years later and that dream is now turning into something of a nightmare for the ownership at Orlando City Soccer.
The simple fact is that soccer (football) has taken off like hot cakes in Central Florida as thousands have flocked to watch their team take on the best that MLS has to offer. Two season’s running over 60,000 people have turned up to watch their team in the season opener and many of those people have become die-hard fans of the beautiful game.
The question now is how Orlando City ownership plans to cater for all of those purple clad fans as well as to grow the great game along with their club? There is absolutely no doubt that the club has done exceptionally well to attract such an audience but now that it has, it simply cannot afford to turn off the faucet now.
To do so would do the game, the club and most of all, the fans a huge disservice.
We understand and comprehend the arguments about previous entries to MLS and how there is huge anticipation as a club starts life in America’s premier league. We also understand that audiences have dropped somewhat at other clubs after the initial inertia and that MLS advises clubs that a 25,000 audience equals a sustainable business plan. That’s all fine and dandy if we’re applying general-isms across the sport but the fact is there is absolutely nothing normal with how Orlando has taken to the game. This is not Houston, the closest comparison to the Lions new ground we can find and the blueprint that Orlando ownership appears to be following.
So let’s study all the current MLS clubs, when they entered MLS and what happened to the crowds to understand a little more.
In 2015, Orlando averaged 32,847 over their 17 games in their first year of Major League Soccer competition, second only to Seattle Sounders 44,427. An amazing accomplishment and one the club can rightly be very proud of. In doing so, Orlando beat Seattle’s first season average of 31,203 and it should be noted that Seattle have actually grown their audience since joining the league in 2009 by a whooping 41.8%.
Houston, meanwhile, attracted 20,658 as the 8th highest attendance behind Seattle, Orlando, NYCFC (29,016), Toronto (23,451), LA Galaxy (23,392), Portland Timbers (21,142) and San Jose Earthquakes (20,979). Having joined MLS in 2006 with an average of 18,935, Houston has seen some growth to present day as they now average 20,658.
Compared to attendance in 2014 there is little doubt the game is growing as all the clubs saw growth except for FC Dallas (-801), Philadelphia (-180), Real Salt Lake (-191) and Sporting Kansas (-316) who were all down marginally by a few hundred people. So that’s 16 clubs that are growing their club and the game of soccer while just 4 arguably remain stagnant.
Of the clubs with highest attendance numbers all of them grew in 2015 from 2014 numbers as follows:
Seattle +1%, Toronto +6%, LA Galaxy +9%, Portland Timbers +1.6%, San Jose Earthquakes +29% and Houston +3%
The conclusion from this is that the game is actually growing within the United States as over half of the clubs in MLS today have larger audiences than when they first entered the league. The argument has been put forward that a club joining MLS sees a drop off of fans after the initial season and while that was certainly the case for Chicago, Columbus, FC Dallas, Houston, LA Galaxy, Montreal, New York Red Bulls, Philadelphia, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas, Toronto and Vancouver it most certainly was not the case for Colorado, DC Utd, New England, Portland and Seattle. Further, of the clubs that did see an initial drop Columbus, FC Dallas, Houston, Real Salt Lake, San Jose Earthquakes, Sporting Kansas and Vancouver have seen a rebound in 2015 to at least the level they were when they started out as an MLS club.
Another fact supporting MLS growth is that it averaged 26,152 fans at its 10 matches for the 2016 opening day, good for sixth in the world in average attendance over the weekend.
According to Barton Malow the biggest issue the club has in expanding the stadium is the footprint the facility is located on. To expand the stadium, Barton Malow states that the club needs more land to build on. Currently the stadium occupies around 8 to 8.5 acres (rough calculations based off GoogleMaps) and it seems that roads to the north (W. Central Blvd) and the south (W. Church St.) limit growth of stands in that direction although East to West should be less of a problem.
However, when comparing the Lions stadium to stadiums in England with higher capacity it seems that the Orlando stadium actually occupies sites rather similar to many grounds including Aston Villa (42,573), Tottenham (36,257), West Ham (35,647), Middlesbrough (35,100), Leicester (32,500) and Wolves (31,700).
In stating the above, we should remember that the building rules and regulations in England differ greatly to building code in Florida and that surely affects what the club can and cannot do. Further, standing is not allowed at any of the grounds in the United Kingdom but if a general standing area was approved in Orlando, then that might make a difference to the overall numbers.
The original plans for the new stadium in 2012 were to spend some $110 million for 18,000 seats that would include 2,500 club seats. A cost of $6,111.11 each. In 2014, renderings were made available that saw the capacity grow to 19,500 for roughly the same cost. This effectively reduced the cost to $5,641.02 per seat. In May 2015, the club then announced that it would privately fund the stadium and that it would spend around $150 million to increase the capacity to 25,500 seats. A cost of $5,882.35 per seat.
The club has done a terrific job growing its fan base to the present size in such a short time. In marketing terms, you might even call it phenomenal but the job of marketing is to continue to provide paying customers who want to buy the product or use the product. Orlando’s fans have shown that they are fully prepared to part with their hard earned cash to support their team and the biggest issue facing the club in 2017 is trying not to disappoint those they sought out as they grew.
On Sunday, virtually everyone of the 60,000 fans attending the game was wearing some form of Orlando City merchandise. Orlando City merchandise is not cheap ($150+ for an authentic jersey) and the club stands to lose a large chunk of its revenue if it doesn’t find a way to placate fans who can’t get in to see games.
Over the last few years the clubs owners have made grand announcements about Orlando City Soccer being seen as a world force in soccer. The clubs supporters have got right behind that message making Sunday’s MLS season opening game the fifth-largest in the world over the weekend, trailing only Borussia Dortmund’s huge home match against Bayern Munich, Real Madrid’s home contest vs. Celta Vigo, Club América’s match against Morelia and the River Plate-Boca Juniors Superclasico in Argentina. Attendances at these games were 81,358, 68,467, 63,578 and 60,147 respectively.
Orlando’s current plans would make their stadium the third largest in MLS but frankly, despite this, you simply don’t become a world force in the world game with crowds of 25,500.
The simple fact is that based on current data, Orlando City Soccer actually needs room to grow. It needs a stadium that would hold at least 35,000 supporters. That would then allow some wiggle room for marketing to actually do its job and focus on what should be the very achievable goal of filling the new stadium for all of its MLS games long into the future. Having an extra 9,500 at a game would bring an even better atmosphere to the enclosed stadium and if you need evidence of what a supporter base can do when it gets behind its team then look no further than Sunday’s two goals in injury time from a seemingly impossible position to earn an extremely valuable point.
Further, it would also show some real ambition by the club to be a dominant force in MLS as the world’s favorite game grows in the United States. Along with this would come significant revenue benefits as 9,500 people at even $20 a head in the stadium equals another $190,000 per game. Over 17 MLS games per annum that’s another $3.2 million per annum and that’s at the low end of the scale. In reality, it would probably be $5M to $6m extra ticket revenue before concession and retail sales are taken into account.
Understandably, the management and ownership of Orlando is being cautious. In listening to their reasoning we can somewhat understand their thinking. It’s also rather easy to say all of the above when it’s not actually your money invested but somewhere down the line, the club needs to realize what it actually has. In simple terms, it has the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It has a growing sport, it has a fan base demanding more and more and it has a very real possibility of being the largest club in the United States if it plays its cards right. That means that the value of the club is worth an enormous sum of money and should the owners ever decide to sell, then there will be buyers eager to snap it up and exploit the economics even more.
It needs to think bigger than Houston. It needs to think bigger than Seattle even.
Some might laugh at the latter part of that statement but think about it for a minute. Orlando is the tourism capital of the world. Over 60 million people per annum visit this part of the world. Over 60 million people enjoying what Central Florida has to offer and that’s quite aside from the people who actually reside here.
And think about that for another minute. People who reside here… people like FIFA World Player of the Year and Ballon d’Or award winner Ricardo Kaká. Frankly, it sends out a message to other people of a similar ilk that Orlando is THE place to be and THE team to play for.
There’s also another important factor in things. The weather.
Florida can rely on its weather. That means fans will go to MLS games and not worry about being frozen to death. By definition that means attendances in other parts of the country are going to dip. Not so in Orlando. We don’t have that excuse. Orlando’s fans love to arrive early for games. To spend hours tailgating and enjoying the camaraderie of being with one another. It’s a large reason the club has grown to be capable of drawing in 60,000 crowds to games inside four years and frankly, if marketing was really on the ball, the average attendance could probably be over 40,000 fans if the inclination was there.
So, it’s really all down to the club now. Where does it want to go and what does it really want to be? It’s silenced an awful lot of critics in the last year or so but the new stadium now raises new questions about the future and the overall vision.
Does the club now want to miss the opportunity before it or does it want to show the same spirit that got it to where it is now… being the talk of all sports fans in America?
One thing’s for sure, a 25,500 seater stadium really doesn’t defy expectations anymore. It just dumbs them down a bit and ultimately, it leaves 7,000 to 10,000 frustrated and disappointed people outside the front door as the game kicks off. That’s not something you should ever associate with Orlando City Soccer Club.