For the past 20 years, Major League Soccer has been looked down on as not being one of the major American sports leagues. It's always been the four major leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL) and MLS was somewhere below. But there are a select few cities in the country where the local MLS club is treated as a major sports team. Orlando City has become one of those teams.
There are five things that makes a professional sports team a major team in a city. Those categories are a downtown stadium, apparel in major retail stores, visibility with major sponsors, media presence, and talk on the street. While the four major sports generally have little trouble checking off each of these categories, MLS teams have struggled mightily. Only in recent years have some clubs checked off these categories, and it's still a limited number.
Part of being a major professional sports team is having a downtown, or near downtown, stadium specifically built for your sport. The vast majority of what is commonly considered as the "big four" sports have their stadiums downtown. Meanwhile, until recently MLS teams have built their stadiums in suburbs. In cities like Chicago, Dallas, and Denver, the teams moved several miles away where most fans would find it difficult to travel. But apart from the transportation issues, being away from the other major sports stadiums in the city and the entertainment section of the city gives off the impression that the team is less important or professional than others.
While the vast majority of MLS teams with their own stadiums play well outside city limits, Orlando City is building their stadium in the heart of Orlando. Just blocks from the city's entertainment venues and a block away from the Amway Center, home of the Orlando Magic, the new stadium is one part of what will make the club look like a major sports team, even to outsiders.
Apparel in Major Retailers
In most cities when you go to major retail stores, not sports stores, you'll find t-shirts, hats, and other apparel representing the city's major professional sports teams. What you'll too often not find in those stores are apparel for the local MLS team. Again, that's not the case in Central Florida. Whether it's a store like Macy's at the mall or your local Wal-Mart, all across Central Florida stores carry merchandise of Orlando City.
Every professional sports team, no matter how popular, has sponsors. But visibility with those sponsors is a problem for many MLS teams. It's not just having their logo at the stadium, having the club's logo on television commercials or in their stores is important. It makes it seem as though those companies want to be associated with that team's brand rather than the other way around. All throughout Central Florida, if you go to popular establishments like Subway or Publix, the Orlando City logo is prominently displayed.
Since 1996, MLS's biggest struggle has been with the media. For many years, the league had to pay television stations to air MLS games. And even when that practice stopped, local telecasts were often relegated to lower-tiered channels. That goes for both television and radio. For many MLS teams, this is still a problem. They play second fiddle to the other major professional sports teams and often get bumped to alternate channels if they play at the same time.
Another problem has been local print media and news stations. The media in most major cities pay little to no attention to MLS teams. They don't provide beat writers and anything written about the team is located in a small section where it's not easily found.
Upon arriving in MLS, Orlando City made it a point to be easily found both on television and radio. They made an agreement with a major FM radio station and a local over-the-air television station to ensure their games would be easily found by fans and could be randomly come across by others. As for other media, news stations and the city's major newspaper regularly follows the club, even attending training sessions. It's something very rare for MLS teams and something to be appreciated.
Talk on the Street
Whether it's on local sports talk radio or just on the street, most MLS fans have to go out of their way to find conversation about their local club. Not so with Orlando City fans. As national MLS commentator Taylor Twellman repeatedly says when commentating in Central Florida, whether he's in a cab or in a restaurant, there are always plenty of people talking about Orlando City and often disagreeing with something he had recently said about the club. The fact that the club is on the minds of local residents even on days when they're not playing is the sign of a major professional sports team.
MLS teams have had trouble throughout the league's entire existence of trying to be viewed as a major professional sports league. Even today, most MLS clubs are seen as niche in their cities. There are some obvious advantages that clubs like the Portland Timbers and Orlando City have such as only having one other major team in their area, but none the less, they check off all the criteria for being a major professional sports team in their cities.