Since Orlando City Soccer Club started in 2011, the club has put an emphasis on the fans, the organization's number one asset. Known as a very fan friendly team, they always put the concerns of their fans above all else. But in 2016, that attitude has changed and the club has lost focus on its most important asset.
Every fan that goes to a game, watches a game on television, listens to a game on the radio, or buys merchandise of Orlando City is important to the existence of the club. But the lifeblood of the club is its season ticket holders. With all due respect to the other fans who contribute to the club's success off the field, the season ticket holders provide the club with guaranteed revenue and operating capital up front before the season even begins.
That's why one of the requirements of the club heading into MLS was to reach a threshold of season ticket holders. It's the same reason that the Orlando Magic had to reach a certain amount of season ticket commitments when they were attempting to join the NBA back in the 1980s.
In 2015, with club Founder and President Phil Rawlins running the day-to-day operations, the club's emphasis on the fans was shown. Fans received a lovely package with their season tickets, which included a nice box and a limited edition scarf, a gift that has become expected by season ticket holders from all teams. In addition, they also received the opportunity to attend a special event such as a training session, a luncheon with the coaching staff, or exclusive 'happy hour' receptions -- or a special gift, like an autographed jersey.
While those gifts were well thought out and much appreciated by the fans, the most important thing to season ticket holders was the 20-game ticket package. Each season ticket holder received access to all 17 MLS home games, as well as three additional matches. Those games in 2015 ended up being against Brazilian top division side Ponte Preta, English Premier League club West Bromwich Albion, and the team's only home game in the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup against the Columbus Crew in the fifth round.
This year, the club has stripped the season ticket holders of many of these thoughtful aspects of the season ticket, showing a complete disregard for the fans that pay a lot of money in advance to support the team in person week-in and week-out. This year's season ticket gift included a cardboard virtual reality device that by all accounts can't be used for anything, and an 18-game package that included the 17 MLS home games and a preseason friendly against mid-table, second division Brazilian side Clube Bahia. It's a far cry from just a season ago.
Gone were the scarves that most season ticket holders were hoping for (or at least a gift of similar value) and, more importantly, season ticket holders were asked to pay for Wednesday night's Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup fifth-round game with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers and the club's July friendly in Melbourne against English Premier League side Stoke City -- Orlando City's new partner club.
The change that precipitated this recent disregard for season ticket holders seems to be Rawlins' involvement in day-to-day operations. When former Orlando City general managers Paul McDonough and Armando Carneiro left the club in an embarrassing front office display during last off-season, Rawlins took over as general manager for the 2016 season. In doing so, the day-to-day operations fell to majority owner Flavio Augusto da Silva and club CEO Alex Leitao. The Brazilian pair who bought into the club in 2013, helping them get into MLS, seems to be much more focused on the bottom line than Rawlins was.
What the Orlando City fans are seeing today off the field is a shell of what they saw just a year ago. Today's club is much more focused on cutting costs and finding additional revenue than making those who keep the club in existence happy. That's why Orlando City was the only club still playing in the U.S. Open Cup not to stream their fifth-round game online Wednesday night.
Next year, Orlando City will enter its new downtown stadium in what is a gigantic step for the young club. To continue its very impressive growth, the club must find a way to mend the relationship with its season ticket holders that has soured over the past year. Either da Silva and Leitao need to learn what's important and treat their season ticket holders with more respect, or the club needs to hire a permanent general manager and more day-to-day operations need to be handed back over to Rawlins, who understands what's important. Either way, changes need to be made by next season.