For Orlando City's MLS home opener, the club sold out the Citrus Bowl, attracting 62,510 fans. On Wednesday, club president Phil Rawlins announced that the club was approaching 24,000 tickets sold for Saturday's second home match against the Vancouver Whitecaps. These numbers have led to many declaring that the club's new stadium of 20,000 seats is too small, but expectations should be tempered.
While many judge the success of the team on the first two matches, that's a small sample size when considering whether or not the team will be considered successful at the gate. It's extremely tough to judge the popularity of the team based on just the first season. Right now, the club's new first division status is exciting but eventually that will wear off.
In 2010, MLS Commissioner Don Garber announced the USL's Montreal Impact as the league's 19th club to begin play in 2012. Playing at their newly renovated home of Stade Saputo, the Impact played their inaugural MLS season in front of a routinely packed stadium, averaging 22,772 fans per game. However, the team's on-the-field success (outside of this year's CONCACAF Champions League run) has failed to materialize.
The lack of success in Montreal has led to steadily declining attendance. Last season, the club hit a new low, averaging just 17,421 per game, leading to recent disparaging comments by club owner Joey Saputo, questioning whether Montreal can support an MLS team. It's a cautionary tale for the City Beautiful.
That's not to say Orlando would have the same fate as Montreal. After all, Montreal and Orlando are two very different cities. Portland, a city with more similarities to Orlando, has continued to be a tremendous success. Despite not performing on the field as fans would like, the Timbers routinely fill their baseball stadium turned soccer-specific stadium of Providence Park with over 20,000 fans.
Portland is also like Orlando in that the only other major professional sports team in the city is the NBA's Trailblazers and the city sits near two bigger cities (Seattle and San Francisco), which boast top level professional teams from several sports.
The fact that the Lions are drawing such large numbers is great for the city, the club, and the league. However, one shouldn't be overwhelmed by the attendance numbers this year. This season, the excitement of MLS may help inflate these numbers and next season the new stadium may do the same. It won't be until 2017 that we really see a realistic average.
The club may very well go on to average 25-30 thousand a game for the foreseeable future and be a success in the model of Portland. Nobody would be surprised to see that. However, they could also go the way of Montreal and slowly decline as the novelty of MLS and a new stadium wear off.
While Orlando City looks to be another MLS success story, only time will tell where the club truly sits in the hearts of Central Floridians.