Our City is a weekly column focused on my perspective on Orlando City as a supporter. I would love to incorporate your ideas and stories, if you have something to add or a story idea please connect by commenting here or on Twitter: @kevinmercer225
It was great to see last week's "Our City" column generate a nice discussion on the developing fan base for Orlando City SC. A comment by reader "Affe Ofen" really got me thinking about the club's presence beyond the city and state, but as a regional team. The South Carolina-based commenter made the statement that he/she had become a fan because Orlando City was, in essence, a regional team. My first thought was, "But wait, why not support Atlanta?"
I'm from the South, I know how this works. Generally, everybody in the region from Mississippi to at least South Carolina supports the Atlanta professional teams, and people in Florida support the teams in Florida. As quickly as I asked myself that question, I remembered that Atlanta won't show up on the MLS map until 2017. A year that still sounds futuristic enough to have flying cars and robots. All of a sudden, the reader's comments made total sense.
Orlando City is just one part of the MLS southern strategy. With Atlanta coming in 2017 and Miami coming when David Beckham and the local governments can get their act together, Orlando City is left with two solid seasons to build a fan base around the South. That is significant. Sports loyalties are hard to break. Just go to an Orlando Magic home game against the Boston Celtics or a Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the Pittsburgh Steelers at Raymond James Stadium and you will see legions of fans unable to break their sports loyalties, despite living closer to another team.
Before Orlando City's arrival, I struggled to support MLS -- not for a lack of trying. I'm a passionate fan of U.S. Soccer, so it seemed natural that I should find an American club to support. I wanted to like D.C. United with its lovely black and red uniforms and a town I've often enjoyed my time in. Washington is, however, 847 miles away and not technically part of the South.
The other choice, Houston Dynamo, was less appealing on the jersey color and not a town I'd ever spent much time in. Texas, while part of the South, has always been its own thing. Therefore, I felt isolated both geographically and culturally from the two closest teams in MLS. I watched a few games out of interest but allegiances were difficult to forge. My eyes and spending on replica jerseys remained firmly overseas.
Out of curiosity, I looked at other major sports in the Southeast. Drawing a mental arch from Houston to Washington, D.C., with Orlando as the axis, I was able to count 25 major NCAA college football programs. There are six NFL teams, five NBA teams, and, most surprisingly, three NHL teams. That's right, a region that shuts down everything and sells out of bread and milk if they just hear the word "snow" has three professional hockey teams. I began to realize just how shocking the lack of an MLS club in the Southeast really was. The league's return to the region is crucial. The Southeast is the demographic future of the United States.
The Southeast is a notoriously difficult region for professional sports. You could write a lengthy history of all the sports franchises that have either closed or moved out of the South. MLS knows this from its own contraction out of Florida and the Southeast in 2001.
The challenge of establishing a presence in the region is why MLS has tread carefully in its return to the area. Orlando City was forced to consistently prove itself in terms of both attendance and the right stadium deal up front. Atlanta came into the league only behind the Atlanta Falcons ownership. It is also why MLS won't budge its demands for a downtown stadium deal in Miami.
Orlando City has a unique opportunity to think regionally, as it has a solid two years to turn the Southeast purple, add soccer fans all over the Deep South to its growing army of supporters, and get a jump on the three-way regional rivalry. Audentes Fortuna Iuvat, Fortune favors the bold. Go City!