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Orlando City, MLS, and the Millennial Fan

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In the battle for the sports dollar in a crowded American sports scene, MLS and Orlando City know the next generation of fans holds the key to both their long term survival and success.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Last week an Orlando sports radio show suggested that Orlando City needed to cater more to the Baby Boomer fan, since theoretically that is where the money is. Ideally I'd link to the show and the subsequent "Thought Provoking Poll" but the radio station's website is not well archived.

While I can respect this argument, as it generally does prove true, the history of soccer in the United States, Major League Soccer, and Florida prove otherwise.

Soccer has emerged differently for each of the last three generations of American sports fans. Baby Boomers generally encountered the sport through the rise of NASL. A sport that challenged the status quo found an audience in the 1970s and 1980s. Most Baby Boomers were entering middle age and their children were joining youth soccer leagues in record numbers.

Having grown up with traditional American sports, soccer was a bit of a novelty. This was a period long before the U.S. National teams began qualifying for World Cups with regularity. For a multitude of reasons, NASL and the Baby Boomers' love for soccer faded.

Their children, Generation X, were the first generation of Americans to grow up playing the game in large numbers. With no solid professional league between the closure of NASL and the beginning of the MLS era in 1996, Gen Xers moved away from the domestic game, either shifting back to traditional U.S. sports, or following clubs overseas. With the establishment of MLS, this generation of fans supported local clubs enough to establish the league.

That brings us to Millennials, who were born or came of age around the early 2000s -- during the resurgence of MLS. It was then that an overhaul of the league began, including the launching of grassroots supporter movements in MLS cities, along with potential expansion cities.

As an example, the famed U.S. Soccer supporters group American Outlaws was established in 2007. Chicago Fire's Section 8 supporters group was formed in the late 1990s and was formalized in 2003, while the Sons of Ben were formed in 2007 in an effort to bring a club to Philadelphia. Notably, our own supporters groups that man "The Wall" certainly have an element of youth to them as well.

According to this New York Times article, the number of players playing both youth and high school soccer doubled between 1990 and 2010. Those are all players of the Millennial generation. Soccer's grasp on this generation is only enhanced by the fact that this is the most demographically diverse generation of Americans. This is a generation that grew up not only playing soccer en masse, but also through advancing technology have been able to watch more soccer and remain connected to the sport through the internet unlike any generation before it.

Certainly these are generalizations, and there are exceptions to every rule. I know of at least a handful of Orlando City supporters who count themselves as Baby Boomers. The ticket sales department and management, along with MLS brass, understand who their demographic is in the big picture. To grow the game over time, building loyalty among the Millennials is one part in a larger plan to keep soccer on the rise in America.

The truth is, all fans are welcome at Orlando City games. I know personally that the club has sought to make attending games easy for older, less mobile fans, and have found appropriate seating for families who may not appreciate the noise of the supporters section.

Not to mention, the supporters groups themselves have made an effort at self policing. While never perfect, they get it right more often than not. There's no doubt Orlando City has made fans from every generation over the past four years.

To some radio sports personalities who have gotten used to covering Florida vs. Florida State, the Bucs and the Dolphins, the Marlins and Rays, this has upset their daily routine. Soccer is an unwelcome programming note in their ongoing dialogue with radio listeners about the traditional American sports.

Soccer has always been an insurgent sport to traditional media outlets, fought off every four years, once the U.S. team gets knocked out of the World Cup.

The simple fact is, Orlando City, MLS, and the Millennials seem to have the right formula for an extended rise in the U.S. sports marketplace, meaning local sports radio hosts might want to start interviewing the next generation of sports talk radio hosts.