To the casual MLS observer, the Orlando City vs. Colorado Rapids match-up this past Wednesday might signal an ominous milestone. With 23,372 in attendance, this match-up marks the first time this season Orlando has gone below the psychologically important 30,000 mark. On paper this could be construed as a worrying sign.
While the most important stat in any game is the scoreline, this time an impressive 2-0 win for Orlando, the second most important stat in American soccer is always attendance.
Two factors hurt the attendance numbers for the Rapids game, neither of which was the quality of soccer the Lions had on exhibition that night. First, it was a weekday match-up. Second, the Florida summer weather cycle of afternoon and early evening rains is now upon us. The combination of these two elements challenged the casual and even some of the most devoted fans on Wednesday night, making the 23,372 number an impressive total.
Major League Soccer is generally a weekend league. With occasional weekday games, Saturdays and Sundays generally feature the bulk of the league's weekly games. A fact of the modern sports landscape is that teams are going to have to play at least a few weekday night match-ups.
It's great for television, as well as adding a few more games into an already long schedule, but there is no argument that this is a trend that is now entrenched in MLS and other leagues. These games are challenges for supporters with busy lives, having to rush from work, while gathering kids from various after-school activities. The natural rhythm of our lives makes it a lot easier to shirk real world responsibilities to head to the Citrus Bowl on a Saturday night than on a Wednesday.
Still, is this an MLS fan mindset? The Orlando Magic regularly play games on weekday nights, often back to back. Historically, this hasn't ever been a factor to NBA observers. Is it the different game day experience? Is it just a fact of life in the NBA (as well as the NHL and Major League Baseball) that fans are accustomed to?
The situation in Orlando is further complicated by the summer weather patterns of Florida. Longtime residents all know there should be an asterisk next to the state motto of "The Sunshine State" that reads "except between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. in the summer, when it will rain like the end of times."
Raise your hand if you've tailgated while huddled under a pop-tent with your best mates, simultaneously flipping what's on the grill and holding down the tent so it won't blow away in the storm. While the hardcore supporters will show up, rain or shine, there are many in the fan base who see the storm clouds rolling in before game time and decide against traveling to the Citrus Bowl for one reason or another.
While these two factors combined to keep the attendance numbers below 30,000 for the first time this season, the two factors that hurt the numbers this week should not be seen as a major contributing factor moving forward.
First, the weather: while the rain always put a dent in a few USL games for the Lions, it never became a major factor in the end-of-season attendance averages. Fans learn to navigate the weather and become armchair meteorologists with all the new storm tracking technology.
Not to mention, a crucial factor in the recent stadium fight was awnings over the stands, sold as a way to increase atmosphere but certainly a good way to protect fans from the elements as well. With the Lions now funding the stadium themselves, this feature will help keep the literal fair-weathered fans coming to games.
As for weekday games, Orlando only plays one more this season in MLS play, a Friday match-up with New York City FC. Star power and inaugural season rivalry will see to making that late season match-up a must-see for most fans. With this one game left on a weekday, this factor won't come into play again for the club's attendance numbers. Orlando City also plays an exhibition against West Bromwich Albion on a Wednesday and this week's match-up with the Columbus Crew in the U.S. Open Cup on a Tuesday.
While I know a Tuesday night match-up isn't the most convenient for some fans, I personally would argue this is a must-see game for the Orlando faithful. A one-off, winner-moves-on game against the closest thing we have to a rival in the league right now; these are the games that inspire cliches like "the magic of the Cup," and make memories for supporters.
I'll see you at the Citrus Bowl Tuesday night rain or shine, Go City!