Since the launch of MLS in 1996, the league and its clubs have struggled to gain a foothold in the American sporting landscape. Sports such as baseball, basketball, and football took dominion over the local and national media coverage. But that has begun to change and has done so already in Orlando.
There are many cities in the country where media coverage for a soccer team is hard to come by. The games are televised and on the radio but, beyond that, the team lives in the shadow of the city's other sports franchises.
The importance of having solid coverage in the media cannot be overstated. Apart from growing awareness of the club, having a media presence gives the club a sense of professionalism. Potential fans will gravitate to a local team if that team seems professional and ambitious and having a strong media presence gives the impression that a team is of a certain quality and importance within the city.
Many people will look at the lack of coverage in cities like New York and Chicago and claim that the presence of several other professional sports hampers the ability to gain a foothold in the local market. While that may be true to an extent, that argument is an excuse rather than an explanation.
Seattle, Washington is a big sports town with an MLB team, an NFL team, and a major university. Yet the Seattle Sounders still get solid media coverage in that market. If not debunking the myth that other major sports hamper an MLS team from attracting coverage, Seattle at least proves that MLS teams in big cities have the capability of carving their own place in the sporting landscape.
Some will pin the lack of media coverage on the sport's popularity among those running media companies. But, at the end of the day, the only thing that matters to these companies is ratings. If the team is popular enough and if enough people in the market want coverage for the team, they'll oblige.
One reason some teams have struggled to carve out a place in the local market is stadium location. For example, the Chicago Fire play their games in Bridgeview, Illinois some 14 miles away from the center of downtown Chicago. The stadium, where the Fire moved in 2006, is about five miles beyond where the city's popular "L" ends. Having the other five major professional sports teams within reach by public transit makes the Fire seem like a lesser entity in that city.
But while just a few years ago MLS teams were struggling to even have their games shown on television, today some have a strong presence in their local market. No more so than Orlando City.
Since Orlando City's arrival on the scene in October 2010, the club has worked tirelessly to prove their worth to the local media. Coaches, players, and front office staff routinely would do interviews during the USL days to promote the club to both potential fans and the local media.
That work has paid off. Starting with the club's inaugural MLS season this year, every game is televised on over-the-air television and airs on one of the area's most popular FM radio stations. The city's major newspaper, the Orlando Sentinel, assigned a beat writer to the club who travels with the team to away games, something rare in American soccer.
Furthermore, while many MLS clubs are ignored by local sports radio, Orlando City is a regular topic of conversation. The area's biggest sports radio station has a weekly half-hour segment with head coach Adrian Heath and the flagship station hosts his weekly coach's show. The idea that some MLS cities could have such coverage at this point would be ridiculed.
The media coverage of Orlando City within its local market has undoubtedly had an impact on the club's initial success. The Lions have routinely drawn over 30,000 fans to home games only falling under that number once this season. A large portion of that has to be credited to the coverage in the local media which has consistently kept the club in the mind of the local sports fan.
The next step for Orlando City is to retain that place in the local sporting landscape for the future. Right now the club's existence in MLS is new and exciting which might draw attention where it otherwise wouldn't. If two or three years from now the club still has the same attention it's drawn this season, it will be unlikely to ever fade away.
Orlando City has been one of the most successful MLS clubs off the field. A lot of that success is due to the immense local media coverage the team has garnered. In a league where many have struggled to gain a foothold in their city's sporting landscape, the Lions have succeeded in becoming a major team in the area. It's something the club will have to continue working on to continue their momentum into the future.