Orlando City and the Orlando Pride have an engagement problem. I know it might seem funny that a club that rose from the USL to Major League Soccer on the strength of its community support is struggling for fan engagement, but I think there are some issues that need to be addressed before it becomes a bigger problem. Let’s take a look at those issues.
The Fan Experience
When the Wilf family took over ownership of the club, they made it clear that they wanted to increase community involvement, reach out to the fans, and create a better experience for those who support the club. We were told that they wanted to make match days special, and to increase attendance for both the men’s and women’s sides.
I’m not a season ticket holder because I live in Tallahassee. I can barely make it to all of Tallahassee Soccer Club’s matches, let alone an entire MLS home season for Orlando City four hours away. As such, I’m no expert on what the club does for season ticket holders. After talking to some season ticket holders, including our own Sean Rollins, I have an idea of what the club has done in the past.
- 2015 - Personalized Society XXI scarf, Society XXI sticker, 2015 season booklet, sent in a deluxe black box that closes with a magnet, one per seat.
- 2016 - Cardboard VR viewer (they only ever released one video for), booklet, sent in a UPS box, one per account.
- 2017 - Orlando City flag (one per account), sent in a regular mail package.
- 2018 - Purple plastic license plate frame (one per account), sent in a regular mail package.
- 2019 - Season ticket patch (one per seat), a season ticket scarf (one per account), and a booklet, sent in a tin box.
- 2020 & 2021 - Season ticket patch (one per seat), season ticket scarf (one per account), and a booklet, sent in box similar to 2015, but smaller.
What we’ve seen is a pretty severe dip in the quality of what you get for your money from 2015 to 2018. To be fair, it seems to be moving in the right direction since then. If the list of stuff on the 2022 Season Ticket page is accurate, it might be even better this season. Hopefully, that is an indication of the direction the club is moving in. However, I’d love to hear from you. If you are a season ticket holder, let me know your feelings on what the club is doing.
The Orlando Pride also sell season tickets, and the package being offered in 2022 is almost exactly the same as for the men’s side, but without the specialty license plate. That is also a good thing, especially given the cost is half as much. But even with all of that, attendance numbers have fallen year over year. Yes, it was bound to happen when the club moved from Camping World to Exploria Stadium, but it’s more than that.
In 2015, the average attendance was 32,847. In 2016, it was 31,324. In 2017, it dropped again to 25,028 (nearly a maximum capacity sellout in the new stadium), to 23,866 in 2018, and to 22,761 in 2019. On the field results certainly contributed to the decline, but that is when a club must try harder to win over people, not do less. We can throw out the 2020 and 2021 attendance figures to some extent due to the pandemic.
The MLS and NWSL clubs in Seattle and Portland had to deal with the same things over that period of time in regards to the pandemic, but kept their average attendance much higher. I doubt that those fans are more dedicated to their club, so what is the difference?
I had a conversation with Jeremiah Oshan from our SBNation sister site, Sounder at Heart, He shared that while not every Seattle Sounders practice and match is open to the public, the majority are at least open to the media.
It never ceases to amaze me how much most MLS teams restrict access. Teams are constantly exploring how the Sounders have managed to be so relevant in their market and somehow miss that doing basic stuff like allowing media to attend training sessions is a BIG part of that.— Jeremiah Oshan (@JeremiahOshan) January 20, 2022
That act is by itself inviting and ensures the supporters know they are a part of the club. Media can provide more accurate coverage and fans can stay engaged. However, there is a definite lack of transparency when it comes to the preseason for Orlando City. By that, I mean that all practices and matches are closed to the public and even the media has extremely limited access. We are seeing some well-produced videos from the communications department on social media, but that is it.
It didn’t used to be that way, at least for the media and the season ticket holders. Is Óscar Pareja that worried other clubs will pick up on what tactics Orlando City may employ in the upcoming season? I feel he and his preferred style of coaching are well known at this point. If that is the reason, it is a poor one.
Literally, the first preseason match is currently scheduled for this Sunday against — wait for it — To Be Determined. I’d like to give you more information on the match-up, but I couldn’t find TBD’s record from last season, or even who their coach is. I’m willing to bet we don’t find out who the opponent is until Sunday, and even then it will only be in a tweet. If we’re lucky, we will find out what the final score is and perhaps get some footage on Twitter.
This is not how you generate excitement for the upcoming season. I know that these preseason matches are not like real matches. The club is working on certain things, or looking at different players, and not necessarily focused on winning. But, who cares? Don’t you want to go see how the players are doing? Don’t you want to put on your favorite Orlando City gear and go to Exploria Stadium at least once or twice when the weather is not blazing hot? Of course you do, but it’s not going to happen this preseason.
That brings me to the biggest lost opportunity for the club this preseason. On Saturday, Feb. 19, the Lions will play the Tampa Bay Rowdies in a preseason match. The I-4 Derby is going to be behind closed doors. If it was opened up, just think about how many fans would want to attend and how much money the club could potentially earn. Although it’s only preseason, the match might even have a good chance of selling out. With the Rowdies supporters making the trip, the atmosphere would be electric. Even if tickets were free (which they don’t need to be), the sales from concessions, and other merchandise would make it worthwhile. More importantly, the goodwill and excitement garnered from allowing supporters in for this match are priceless. Some new fans might go, have a great time, and buy season tickets as a result.
So, what is to be done? If we are lucky, the Wilf family will realize what these problems are, and will take steps to address them. If not, the club could see fan interest and attendance erode even further. Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.