Orlando offers FC Cincinnati perfect orange-and-blueprint for MLS expansion
Just follow the leader
Laurel Pfahler | WCPO contributor
9:00 AM, Sep 17, 2016
CINCINNATI - Just as quickly as Orlando City SC rose from the United Soccer League to Major League Soccer, it has become a model for other lower-tier teams.
FC Cincinnati included.
When the Orange and Blue host Melbourne, Florida-based Orlando City "B" on Saturday for their home finale, it serves as a reminder of where FC Cincinnati hopes to one day be. Parent club Orlando City SC started out in 2010 in similar fashion to FC Cincinnati and quickly became one of the USL's biggest success stories and an MLS hit by 2015.
Now, FC Cincinnati is using Orlando City's rise as a blueprint for its own MLS expansion goals.
"Phil Rawlins (Orlando City SC president and founder) saw Orlando as a market that was ripe for professional soccer," FC Cincinnati president and general manager Jeff Berding said. "He secured the Citrus Bowl to play in, a stadium that like ours is also familiar with college football. The first year, they led the league in attendance. They had a quality team that won the league that first year, and it was very organically grown with supporters groups and the local population being excited and creating an organic soccer culture. The experience at the games was very high-energy from the start, and they were located in an area in Orlando where there was not a lot of MLS exposure.
"They did an incredible job growing and building from Year 1 at a very successful level. We saw a lot of similarities in what we were trying to do, so as I was building a plan for our vision, Orlando City certainly was a model."
FC Cincinnati researched Orlando City's successful rise before launching last August, then reached out to club executives soon after and have had multiple conversations, including a visit at the end of last month.
Rawlins said he was happy to help any club that wanted to learn from Orlando's jump into MLS. Orlando City invited FC Cincinnati executives to visit during a home game against New York City FC on Aug. 28 and then brought them back the next day to talk more in-depth.
Much of what they discussed was how Orlando was able to convince MLS it couldn't go without a franchise there. Rawlins had begun his MLS pitch from the get-go -- as FC Cincinnati did -- at the club's press conference to announce it was moving the USL Austin Aztex to Orlando in late October 2010.
"Our goal when we started was to bring Major League Soccer to Central Florida within three to five years, and we were fortunate enough to do that," Rawlins said. "The plan was pretty straightforward. We went to the league and we said, ‘Please tell us what it will take. Give us the roadmap of what you want and what you want teams to aspire to be as they move into Major League Soccer,' so we mapped our plan based on the feedback we got from MLS.
"And, I like to say, we really gave the league no option but to give us a franchise because we checked all the boxes on the checklist they gave us. It was no more sophisticated than doing what they told us to do and to prove to them Orlando could be a great Major League Soccer market."
While playing in the 62,500-seat Citrus Bowl (now called Camping World Stadium), Orlando City averaged 5,265 fans during its first season in 2011 and won the regular-season title and USL championship that year.
They went on to repeat as regular-season champs the next season, while averaging more than 6,900 fans to lead the league in attendance, and won the league title again in 2013 with 8,053 fans attending games that season. A record crowd of 20,886 fans attended the 2013 league championship.
"People wanted to come to our games because it was exciting and it was fun to be at the games and great atmosphere," Rawlins said. "All those things help you build a product and build support. That in itself is very important, but then it also makes a statement to the league -- the fact we went into the Open Cup and beat several MLS teams and got through to the last stage a couple times and won championships and dominated in USL. I think that showed MLS we were ready to step up as well and that we understood the quality and the level of what it would take to be successful at the next level and we had good bones and good foundations in place."
On Nov. 19, 2013, Orlando City SC was announced as MLS' 21st franchise and it began play as an expansion team in 2015 and sold out the entire allotment of 14,000 season tickets by March that year. A capacity crowd of 62,510 showed up for the home opener. Louisville City FC launched that year as its USL affiliate club before Orlando City "B" opened play this year.
Rawlins said Orlando had established itself as a viable MLS market with its consistent crowds, which was one of the major factors in getting the MLS tag. The club's success on the pitch also played a factor not only in fueling local support but also in showing MLS that it knew what it would take to be successful at the next level.
FC Cincinnati has done much of the same. The Orange and Blue (14-6-8) sit in third place in the United Soccer League standings and can clinch a home playoff game with a win Saturday. They've more than proven they can sustain large crowds, too.
The club has smashed USL attendance records in its first season, averaging 16,790 fans a game in a league that averages about 4,000 and drawing a single-game record crowd of 23,375 fans to a highly-marketed match against Pittsburgh on May 14. FC Cincinnati, which is using the "Rise Together" marketing slogan, has sold more than 20,000 tickets four times this season, including for Saturday's game.
"(Orlando) was pretty similar to this," said FC Cincinnati's Michael Millay, who is from Orlando and played in Orlando City's first Player Development League teams. "There was a lot of belief from the start. That was the original plan, just like us. Obviously, they got in a little sooner than we did, but it was similar marketing. They had magnets all over the city, putting them on cars so everywhere you went that's what you saw. Everyone knew about the team right off the bat because of all the marketing, and they did a lot of 'Believe in MLS' campaigns that really took off. They overtook the (NBA) Magic quickly, so that was crazy. Everyone believed in it right away, so it was a lot like here, like it was something that was just waiting to happen."
Rawlins said FC Cincinnati "is doing all the right things, right now." FC Cincinnati not only is doing well at the gate and on the field, but it also meets other MLS criteria in that it has television broadcast partners -- Berding said there also is potential for road game broadcasts next year -- and the club recently launched a summer youth training program, which also could expand in the future, according to Berding.
Seeing all that, Rawlins had little advice to visiting representatives on things they need to do going forward.
"The thing I could share with them was, ‘Keep doing what you're doing. You prove out the marketplace,' because I think Cincinnati is probably similar in size to Orlando as much as we're not a Chicago, L.A. or New York," Rawlins said. "But I think there is a very bright future for soccer in this country in cities like Cincinnati and Orlando that have got an avid base. You see that proven time and time again. We're the 19th biggest marketplace but we are No. 2 pretty much in every metric, whether it's average attendance, ticket sales, shirt sales. We are 1-2-3 in all the top metrics that matter to the league, and that's been done in a mid-market. That's the big lesson FC Cincinnati can take away is don't set your goals too low just because you are a mid-market area. There is no reason you can't aim high and achieve the things we have achieved in Orlando. I think FC Cincinnati is well on its way to doing that."
Some might look at Orlando City's new soccer-specific stadium -- set to open next year -- as the lesson Cincinnati executives need to learn.
MLS communications director Dan Courtemanche has said that having plans for a club-controlled, soccer-specific facility is one of the criteria the league is looking at in potential expansion markets; however, Berding has repeatedly said the club maintains its faith in Nippert Stadium as a viable facility.
Rawlins said that in Orlando's case, it would not have gotten MLS approval without a plan for a stadium.
It took three years to finalize funding for its new 26,000-seat stadium in the heart of downtown, just two blocks from the Orlando Magic's NBA arena, the Amway Center. Originally, the plan was to have a $110 million private-public owned stadium -- of which 40 percent would have been funded by the club and 30 percent would come from an increase in state sales tax -- but the proposal kept getting held up in the House and Senate. Ultimately, Orlando City privately funded the stadium, which also allowed it to increase capacity by 6,000 seats to better accommodate the large crowds that had already showed up for the first six home games by that point.
Camping World Stadium was never a long-term option, Rawlins said, mostly because of its location. The facility, which underwent a $200 million renovation in 2014, could have been suitable had it not been situated on the outskirts of downtown, far from the entertainment district.
For that reason, Rawlins said, FC Cincinnati's arrangement at Nippert Stadium could work out with MLS.
"I think what they are going to do is they are going to look at each market independently, and look at the circumstances and the logistics of the city," Rawlins said. "I've not been to Cincinnati in a while, but from what ownership tells me, they've got a great location pretty much in the heart of downtown, on a campus of the university, and it seems obviously they are drawing great crowds to that facility, so it's obviously accessible and people want to go there, they want to go to a game there and enjoy the atmosphere there.
"You've got to look at that and say, 'Can that work?' I'm not the expert or the final say on that, but it sounds like they've got a good facility right now. Could it be developed and enhanced a little more? Possibly, but if you look at the supporter's base for Major League Soccer, it's very definitely targeted to the millennials, and they want to be in downtown. They want to walk to the stadium from the bars and go back to the bars after the game. It's an urban experience. That's the way it works in MLS, and I think that's the key, not so much the building itself but more the location and does it lend itself to your supporter base. Where they are now, it's pretty evident it's working out."
Rawlins said he hopes FC Cincinnati finds the same kind of success his team has because "it's good for the game of soccer" when any club at any level finds success.
He applauded FC Cincinnati's initiative to reach out to his club, just as he did in visiting Seattle, Portland, New York, Houston, Toronto and then-parent club Sporting Kansas City when Orlando City first launched. Rawlins said others have reached out, as well, and he is willing to help anyone with interest.
Berding said his intent in reaching out is solely for the purpose of improving his club.
"We're just trying to be the best USL franchise we can be, and if we're successful, we think we like our chances," Berding said. "When we're reaching out, it's about how we can improve our franchise today and for 2017. We're committed to improving.
"The opportunity to have input from Orlando City, which has gone from USL launch to being one of the top MLS teams, is a great opportunity to learn from someone who is doing it the best. They are building a new stadium, they have a youth program they are developing. In all the things since when I was at the USL meetings and MLS all-star game this summer, those are things I've been talking about are next steps. Youth programs, training facilities, those are the next pieces."