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Orlando City, Pride, Exploria Stadium Sold to Wilf Family

Flavio Augusto da Silva states publicly the deal is near completion while those on the Wilfs’ side say the agreement has been reached.

Green Bay Packers v Minnesota Vikings

Orlando City SC has new ownership, although the handing over of the keys could still take some time. Flavio Augusto da Silva announced today that he is in “advanced negotiations” with the Wilf family for the sale of Orlando City, the Orlando Pride, and “soccer related assets.” The Orlando Sentinel reported that the agreement is in place and the deal includes Exploria Stadium and the OCSC Academy. Multiple outlets have reported the sale price is believed to be between $400 and $450 million, although no official number has been announced.

“After eight years, a new chapter has opened for Orlando City SC, as I announce today that we are in advanced negotiations with the Wilf family to purchase Orlando City SC of MLS, the Orlando Pride of the NWSL and our related soccer assets,” da Silva said in a public statement released to the media and on the club’s website — his first public statement regarding the sale. “With their passion for the sport and Orlando’s two teams that are in position to compete for trophies, I am confident that the Wilf family will continue to push Orlando City SC to new heights and lead the Club into this next phase, both on and off the field.

“While we expect the acquisition to be finalized over the coming months, I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you, the Orlando City SC family, for being a part of my journey and for embracing our Club as such an integral part of our community.”

The Sentinel report said the ownership transition will happen in June or early July after a 30- or 60-day closing period. The sale must still be approved by the MLS Board of Governors, but that should be a matter of formality. Vikings Executive Vice President of Public Affairs Lester Bagley confirmed the sale with the Sentinel.

“The Wilf family is excited to become stewards of the Orlando City Soccer Club of MLS and the Orlando Pride of the NWSL,” said Bagley, who has worked closely with the Wilf family on a variety of projects for the past 16 years. “Among our goals are to build championship soccer clubs for the passionate and loyal soccer fans of the region, provide a best-in-class fan experience, and use our platform for positive impact in the Orlando community. We are optimistic that our acquisition will be finalized after the customary closing process is completed, and we look forward to making an official announcement in the near future.”

The sale of the club has been a prominent news story since last fall. On Oct. 15, 2020, Street and Smith’s Sports Business Journal’s Mark J. Burns and Chris Smith reported that da Silva was nearing the final stages of a sale to an unknown buyer believed to be based in North America. More recently, The Athletic named the Wilf family, owners of the National Football League’s Minnesota Vikings, as the group in talks with da Silva over purchasing the team. On Friday, Sportico reported that several sources told the publication that the two sides were nearing an agreement that could be announced in a few days and that report was confirmed by the Orlando Sentinel.

Da Silva and original USL Orlando City owner Phil Rawlins brought the team to MLS in 2015 with an expansion fee of $70 million. The duo of da Silva and Rawlins worked hard to self-finance Exploria Stadium after a funding initiative stalled in the legislature, largely through the somewhat controversial (to some) EB-5 Immigrant Investor Program, which offered green cards in exchange for large investments. They also brought the Orlando Pride to the NWSL in time for the 2016 season. Eventually Rawlins stepped away from his role with the club, just before the 2017 season. But he was present for the stadium’s opening.

Rawlins had originally found in da Silva the partner he needed to take Orlando City from the USL to Major League Soccer after a meeting was set up by Marcos Machado, who was coaching da Silva’s son at the time. Da Silva had been looking for a way to bring MLS to Orlando and his meeting with Rawlins forged a pathway forward. That path was built on the success of Orlando City in the USL, where the club had set attendance records and established a history of on-field success that gained the attention of MLS Commissioner Don Garber.

Orlando City had to jump through a few hoops — some of which have not been forced upon other recent expansion sides — such as a downtown soccer-specific stadium plan, to get an expansion slot in MLS. But the da Silva-Rawlins partnership cleared every hurdle and the club was named the 21st MLS club on Nov. 19, 2013.

After playing a lame duck USL season in 2014, winning the regular season title before being upset in the playoff quarterfinals, the USL franchise was sold to Wayne Estopinal and moved to Louisville, KY, to make way for the “new” Orlando City MLS franchise.

After six MLS seasons and part of a seventh, the club has its second majority owners. The Wilf family principals involved are real estate billionaire Zygi Wilf, his brother Mark, and their cousin Leonard. All three hold prominent positions within the Minnesota Vikings, which the family purchased in 2005. Zygi is the owner and chairman, Mark is co-owner and president, and Leonard is co-owner and co-chairman.

The Wilfs aren’t without their share of controversy.

In August 2013, a New Jersey judge ordered the Wilfs to pay $103 million in compensatory and punitive damages, and interest to former business partners they were charged with defrauding in violation of state racketeering laws. That amount was reduced to $32 million in a 2018 appeal. They were ordered to pay $2 million to other business partners in 2014 and lost an appeal in that case in 2015.

What It Means for Orlando City

The Wilf family seems to be an ownership group that cares about its on-field product. I’m not saying da Silva didn’t care, but he trusted Alex Leitao to run the club and didn’t say much publicly about Orlando City or post much on social media about the team.

It’s possible the Wilf family will be willing to spend more money on Designated Players to keep the club competitive in a growing league where salaries and transfer fees to acquire players are on the rise. But it’s also possible that they won’t.

There’s no better illustration of the uncertainty of an ownership change than the Columbus Crew. The fans and supporters of the Crew successfully managed to keep their side in Central Ohio when Anthony Precourt wanted to move the team to Austin. However, the new ownership is set to make one of the least popular rebranding decisions in league history without any buy-in from supporters.

New owners often want to put their own stamp on the club they spend hundreds of millions of dollars to purchase. Orlando at least already wears purple — the same color as the Wilf family’s Vikings. But the crest or the name could be changed if that’s what they want to do. They weren’t part of building the brand to this point and may have their own ideas. However, Orlando City grew with a European-style club name to begin with rather than the more uniquely American Columbus Crew and already has sizable followings in Brazil and in the U.K.

As someone who was with a major league sports franchise when it changed owners (I worked for the Florida Panthers when Wayne Huizenga sold it to a new group of owners led by Alan Cohen), we can probably expect some turnover in executive positions. New owners often install people they know well and trust in key positions.

As for the product on the field, I don’t expect many changes. Oscar Pareja is a well-known coach who has improved the team vastly in his time in Orlando. Luiz Muzzi and Ricardo Moreira have a proven track record of finding talent that can step right into MLS and produce. Spending on players could go up, but that’s not something that can be counted on at this point. We’ll have to wait and see about that.