Orlando City SC has been a huge success since arriving in the city in October 2010. The first year of existence, the club was drawing numbers bigger than club founder and president Phil Rawlins ever achieved with his previous experiment, the Austin Aztex. Within two years, the club was regularly drawing crowds above 10,000. All this for a town that outsiders said lacked the loyalty and ability to care about professional sports.
The question that some people are still asking is: why is it so popular? Is it the fact that the city only has one other major professional sports team, the NBA's Orlando Magic? Is it true that, as Rawlins has repeatedly stated, the young age of the city has that big of an impact with soccer? But there's one fact that most people haven't mentioned.
Rawlins has also said that civic pride is a big part of why the club is so popular. As all residents know, Central Florida is seen as a tourist destination more than anything else. It would probably surprise many outsiders that there's anything in the area other than theme parks, hotels, and an airport. Orlando City SC has given the entirety of Central Florida--not just the city--something that will represent them around the nation and the world, something that truly belongs to them.
But another aspect that some don't realize is that because it belongs to them, the team can't belong to Tampa. Separated by less than 90 miles down I-4, Tampa has always been considered a more important city than Orlando by professional sports leagues. Despite the fact that Orlando is a more centrally placed city and available to more residents of Central Florida, Tampa has usually been granted major sports teams ahead of Orlando.
After the NFL moved to Tampa in 1976, Central Florida remained a one-team region until 1989. That's when local resident Jim Hewitt shared a vision with Philadelphia 76ers general manager Pat Williams about an NBA team in Orlando. A few years later, the Magic were born.
Orlando did come close to gaining two major professional sports teams in the early 1990s. When Major League Baseball was looking to add two expansion teams to the National League, Orlando was close. Led by a group including future Magic owner Rich DeVos and Williams, Orlando was one of the six finalists for an MLB team. The team name would've been the Orlando Sun Rays, a name with a long history in the city. However, the lack of a stadium was the death knell for the bid and the league instead went to Miami and Denver. Eight years later, the American League would expand to the Tampa market with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays.
That same year, Orlando was in the running to draw a franchise for the National Hockey League. Looking to expand, Orlando had a lot of positives. The league wanted to move to Florida and the city already had an arena which hockey could easily move into. However, no local investors were interested in the project and outside investors were more interested in Tampa. In 1992, the Tampa Bay Lightning began play and Orlando was left on the doorstep again.
The final blow for the city came with the start of Major League Soccer in 1996. The city of Orlando wanted an MLS team of their own. The city had successfully hosted the 1994 FIFA World Cup and women's soccer in the 1996 Summer Olympic Games. They had a world class training facility in Sanford that had been built for the U.S. Women's National Team and a stadium in downtown Orlando. However, the league followed the others and chose Tampa, making the Tampa Bay Mutiny one of its charter franchises. That team would eventually fold in 2001.
The last three major professional sports leagues to move into Florida have chosen Tampa over Orlando, despite the fact that Orlando would seem the better choice. Whether residents of Central Florida realize it or not, that blow to civic pride has probably made that pride stronger in the long run. So, while other factors have certainly had an impact, another, less publicized part has been the people in and around Orlando showing that they deserve to be considered a big sports city like others have labeled Tampa.
So far, they've done an excellent job.