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Can Orlando City B Improve Attendance by Moving to Orlando?

OCB ranked in the bottom three for USL attendance. Will playing downtown mean significant improvement?

Matt Starkey, The Mane Land

Orlando City B recently announced plans to change venues for the 2017 season, from Eastern Florida State College’s Titan Soccer Complex to the club’s new downtown stadium on Church Street. The change from the small field in Melbourne to the new stadium, which quintuples it in capacity, will hopefully have a positive impact on OCB’s lowly attendance averages in 2016.

The Orlando City brass had concerns with over-saturating the City Beautiful’s soccer market when they decided to take root in Melbourne for OCB’s inaugural season. But moving the reserves to the coast didn’t help the team’s average attendance as it sputtered to 958 by the end of the regular season. It’s a stark contrast between the usually well-attended first team’s matches that consistently rank in the top five in MLS. So the question is posed, is it Orlando’s passion for the sport that drives the attendance, or will fans just not show up for reserve sides?

The statistics show that the latter is far more likely than the former. Almost all of the reserve sides in the USL are in the bottom half for league attendance. The only two that were not were Bethlehem Steel and Real Monarchs and neither cracked the top 10. The highest average attendance for a reserve side was Bethlehem’s 2,573 — nearly 1,000 fewer than any of the independent clubs that made up the top 10.

Location did not seem to matter, as the three sides that played at the same ground as the first team — LA Galaxy II, New York Red Bulls II, and Real Monarchs — finished in varying places attendance-wise. The Monarchs were among the top of the reserve sides, while LA and New York fell toward the bottom. Interestingly enough, Bethlehem followed the same idea that Orlando did, placing its reserves outside the first team’s footprint, and fared far better.

There’s seemingly no correlation between support for the first team and the reserve side, though there’s very little to pull from. Seattle, the only team that outdraws Orlando City, barely pulled 1,400 for S2 at Starfire. The 11-mile difference between Starfire and CenturyLink could have a definite impact on that drop-off and it would be impossible to tell. Salt Lake, Los Angeles, and the Red Bulls still under-performed in attending USL matches at their home stadiums but none has the consistent draw that Orlando does.

If you’re assuming that improved performance on the pitch should equal an uptick in the stands, the jury’s still out. New York Red Bulls II, the champions of the league, barely got half of the amount of fans that OCB did for the year. FC Montreal, which finished second-to-last on the pitch, finished dead last in attendance averages with a pitiful 243 fans at matches. New York, Montreal, and Orlando made up the bottom three.

There should theoretically be some increase in average attendance — after all, it can’t be much worse — but there’s a realistic ceiling to that improvement. To hope that OCB triples those numbers to get up into the upper echelon of reserve side turnout is a bit drastic. But they will be pulling from a larger population center with a history of supporting lower-league soccer, so there is a definite expectation to see a bump, if only a small one.

Doubling their numbers would put them around the same level as Swope Park Rangers and Whitecaps 2 and set a reasonable goal of 1,800 — around 6% of the first team’s average in the Citrus Bowl. Numbers like that may not make waves around the USL, but Orlando City has a bit of a reputation when it comes to soccer support and dwelling in the bottom of the league is a bit of a disappointment. Hopefully the Orlando faithful can turn that around in 2017.