Despite the popularity of MLS clubs in certain cities, the league is still regarded as an inferior product, unworthy of time by a large portion of American soccer fans. They tend to focus on European leagues and the U.S. national teams. Hosting national team games gives clubs like Orlando City the opportunity to grow its fan base by providing an experience to those that otherwise would ignore their hometown team.
Regardless of what team you are watching play, soccer has always been and always will be a sport best enjoyed in person. Orlando City Stadium opened this season to rave reviews, considered the benchmark of soccer-specific stadiums in the United States. But there’s one problem that has existed all season and may have cost the team fans at Friday night’s USMNT game against Panama.
Entering Orlando City Stadium has been an issue for much of its inaugural season. Long lines and delayed entrance, something the club heard about from fans after the first game, has continued to rear its head on multiple occasions during the season.
“It’s easier to get into a game at Allianz (Arena) than it is to get in here,” a former Bayern Munich regular attendee and current Orlando City fan said earlier this season while waiting to enter. “And that stadium seats 75,000 people.”
The complaint from the Bavarian native is far from the only one. While that fan will likely continue attending Orlando City games, Friday night may have turned several people away from following their local club.
Many of the 25,303 fans that packed into the stadium Friday night had never been to the stadium and have not followed Orlando City. This was the club’s opportunity to shine. If these patrons had a good time at the game and were impressed by the stadium, it’s much more likely they may return for an Orlando City game.
However, the night got off to a bad start for many of the fans trying to enter the stadium. After the club’s paperless ticket system broke down — according to the stadium worker at the gate I entered through — many fans waited well over 30 minutes to enter. As kickoff approached, lines wrapped around the stadium, causing many to miss the national anthems and kickoff.
“This is ridiculous,” one fan shouted. “I’m never coming here again.” Others around him seemed to agree.
In all likelihood, that fan lived within driving distance of Orlando and doesn’t follow Orlando City. If so, the club may have lost him. While one fan may not seem like a lot, there were probably more like him and that could cost the club dearly in the future.
Obviously, Orlando City isn’t hurting for attendance. It regularly draws well over 20,000 and often nearly reaches capacity of 25,527. But the more fans that buy merchandise or watch games on television, the better for the club.
Many people who don’t follow Orlando City will attend games at the new stadium, simply looking to see what the fuss is about. A good experience has the potential to create a new fan, and possibly generations of fans. It’s the in-person experience that will grow the fan base.
With wide praise of Orlando City Stadium and the reconstruction of Camping World Stadium, Orlando is likely to get many more major soccer events outside of Orlando City games. It could even get World Cup games in 2026. While attracting major one-off events is a great accomplishment for the city and the club, it must figure out how to improve the flow of people into the stadium or risk turning off potential customers.