Our City is a weekly column dedicated to taking a wide-angled lens to the soccer culture that surrounds Orlando City and Major League Soccer.
What a weekend for an Orlando soccer fan! Friday, the Orlando Pride announced the signing of arguably the best women’s soccer player, the Brazilian Marta. Last night, Orlando City B took on the Charlotte Independence with the young Lions drawing at home. And to cap off the weekend, Orlando City will be taking on the New York Red Bulls at home in an important Eastern Conference match-up. These are the kinds of weekends that a fan growing up in the soccer-free South could have only dreamed of a decade ago.
As Orlando City and MLS look to continue to compete in the Florida sports market, the development of a club culture has to be seen as absolutely critical. Over six seasons, Orlando City has worked slowly to drench the city in purple and dominate the headlines — not an easy task in a region dominated by college football.
College football and soccer have always shared a tribal aspect, a feeling that the culture of the sport extends far beyond the stadium on game day. While the cynic can look at this deep level of support and see brilliant marketing, it has to be fans who build and support the traditions that create culture and identity. Tradition is built into college football, with students and alumni creating a massive network to which others can attach their own loyalty.
Orlando City is still building that culture in Florida. Through grassroots supporter culture, multiple teams, the club’s own new home stadium, and a strong community presence, Orlando City has begun to build a powerful tradition to which fans both new and old can attach identity.
It should be clear, I’m not saying MLS will ever eclipse college football in the South. What Orlando City has done is understand and tap into a shared trait. Understanding the powerful nature of tribalism and fan identity that has an established history in the South through college football, and using that to create new subcultural identity for soccer fans, has allowed Orlando City to help add some purple to a community that has only ever been seen in hues of black and gold, orange and blue, garnet and gold, or green and orange.
I expect some push-back on labeling Orlando City and its fans as a subculture. Certainly, a team selling out a stadium it owns in the heart of downtown shouldn’t be seen that way, shouldn’t it? Despite the success Orlando has had in creating soccer culture in the city, the region is still dominated by college football and the NFL. Despite those two sports going through numerous scandals, their popularity has not waned, and won’t in the foreseeable future. Instead of a negative, subcultural status lends an element of authenticity to the club in an increasingly marketed and cultivated sports landscape.
Additionally, tapping into the shared tribal nature of soccer and college football has allowed multi-sport fans to add a soccer-specific identity to their larger profile of sport support. Meaning, instead of competing directly with other sports, Orlando sports fans have added the Lions to their calendar and their water cooler debates among friends.
With another international women’s soccer superstar adding her talents to a powerful Orlando Pride, and two men’s teams, the Orlando City stable is wisely using authentic grassroots tribalism to market soccer in a state where college football dominates.
What do you think? How important is the culture around Orlando City for you? Do you follow all of the Orlando City teams? Do you agree that soccer will never be bigger than college football in Florida? Reach out on Twitter: @KevinIsHistory or comment below. See you in the stands!