It’s been a long week here in Orlando and I genuinely hope everyone made it through the storm and is surviving the recovery as well. I’ve been out of power until just a moment ago, and a bit detached from Orlando City and Major League Soccer news this week. This week’s column was inspired by a conversation I struck up with a stranger in a cafe where I sought out air conditioning and a charge for my cell phone. I’m venturing out of my comfort zone and writing about things I don’t know a lot about, honestly, but I found the topic fascinating.
A lot of the talk around MLS this week has centered around Atlanta United’s Mercedes-Benz Stadium opening this week. The American football stadium has the ability to “convert” into a soccer stadium, allowing the Atlanta Falcons and their MLS side gig to share a stadium. Financially it is beneficial to the Falcons, but as a soccer stadium it still presents challenges. It is still early days for the new stadium and the Atlanta Falcons soccer team, so I’ll reserve judgement.
I was more interested in what I heard from the West Coast, as the LA Galaxy are sharing their StubHub Center soccer-specific stadium with the transient Los Angeles Chargers of the NFL. Stadium sharing has always been unique — see New York City FC and their converted baseball diamond — but this one is truly unique. This has flipped the American sports script, when the plot usually has MLS clubs sharing massive stadiums with NFL teams.
I have to confess I don’t really follow American football beyond hoping my alma mater UCF might win a game or two. At the same time, the NFL has been in recent years ubiquitous in American culture. You can’t get too far away from it, even if you don’t watch it. With that, I know the NFL has struggled lately with bad press from the health of players through concussions, anthem protests, and domestic violence issues with some players. The NFL has evidently also been struggling with attendance, according to this article.
With two new teams playing in Los Angeles, the Chargers have a unique opportunity to reboot American football in an intimate setting on a real grass field. Despite the success of the NFL, the few games I’ve been to in massive stadiums have always felt a bit remote. Sure, there was excitement and energy, but it was difficult to feel connected to the action on the field from way up in the stands. Seating only 30,000 fans means the people who trek to Carson City to watch the Chargers have a chance to connect in a way that few other fans get to — a chance to watch the game in intimate close quarters in a way that MLS has used as the cornerstone of selling of the game for over a decade now.
Comparing my own experiences of watching soccer in the former Orlando Citrus Bowl and now in Orlando City’s new intimate stadium, the difference really is night and day. Atmosphere and energy dominate the experience, whereas the American football stadium had that similar remote feeling I had felt at NFL stadiums.
Of course, the Chargers are moving to a new stadium that seats 70,000, so this intimate experience won’t last long, but for the fans that make it I think it could change the perception of the NFL and give fans a great experience. Think of it as your favorite band playing a secret show in a local club the night before they play a sold out arena.
On the soccer side of things, I’m not sure what the LA Galaxy will get out of the deal. Since the team doesn’t own their stadium, unlike Orlando City and other MLS clubs, they won’t see profits from the Chargers games most likely. Their grass will get torn up a bit, and heaven forbid they had better not be forced to play on a field with football lines like the early days of MLS. This deal seems to be a winner for the stadium operators and, as I’ve suggested, the Chargers, as they try to build a fan base in Los Angeles.
Still, it fascinates me to see the NFL team need to use a soccer-specific MLS stadium. For a moment at least, it seems the tables have turned and it all feels a bit blasphemous.
What do you think? Could you handle Orlando City hosting American football in its cathedral to soccer? Are you an NFL fan? If so, what do you think of this arrangement?