On Sunday evening Orlando City SC will take the field at the Citrus Bowl against New York City FC in the inaugural MLS game for both clubs. Four years ago, it was a pipe dream of club president Phil Rawlins that this day would come, but that dream is set to become reality.
And while this should have been a week in which Rawlins reveled in his victory, the Englishman was stuck in an unfortunate situation, one that was ultimately avoided by the MLS collective bargaining agreement deal that was struck Wednesday night.
The MLS CBA expired following the 2014 season, leading to contentious negotiations heading into the 2015 season. The Major League Soccer Players Union (MLSPU) decided it was time to be granted some form of free agency, something lacking from MLS’ single-entity structure. The league, made up of a collection of investors (owners), felt otherwise, preferring to keep the status quo.
Meanwhile, in Orlando, Rawlins and his staff remained busy growing the brand of Orlando City. Through several fan events and massive promotion, the club has been able to sell 60,000 tickets for its inaugural MLS game on Sunday. On the surface, everything seemed to be going swimmingly, but there was an underlying problem.
The substantial growth of Major League Soccer has brought in rich owners who see the league as a successful investment, but that’s only a recent development. MLS investment was previously a disastrous business decision. In 2003, following the 2001 contraction, there were only 10 teams and the league only had three owners. The Anschutz Entertainment Group owned six teams, Lamar Hunt owned three teams, and Robert Kraft owned one.
That’s where the division among the owners came from. Those three owners lost millions upon millions of dollars to keep the fledgling league afloat and, now that the league has the potential of profitability, they’re understandably looking to make some of that back. These owners were afraid that free agency may drive up salary prices, forcing them to invest more in a league in which they’ve already invested immensely.
Entering his inaugural MLS season, coupled with the contentious CBA negotiations, put Rawlins between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, Orlando City could not afford to have its first home game postponed. 60,000 fans have purchased tickets, many of whom will be attending their first soccer game. Postponing the game could have been detrimental to the future of the club in its home market.
On the other hand, Rawlins is entering his first season as an investor in MLS, and disagreeing with the "old guard" could have damaged his relationship with the other owners and the commissioner. Considering that MLS didn’t want Orlando City in the first place, giving the club requirements other markets were exempt from, Rawlins can’t afford to fight the league office at this point.
So Rawlins sat in a state of impotence, unable to play without an agreement and unable to create one. It would've been a tough position for someone that has been forceful and proactive up to this point.
Sunday’s game will be a shining example of the work Rawlins and his staff have done over the past four years. Had an agreement not been reached prior to this weekend, it could put a catastrophic halt to the tremendous progress made over the past few months.
But now, with that problem avoided, the sky's the limit for the newest MLS expansion club.