It’s time to figure out who truly bleeds purple. It’s time for longtime Orlando City fans who claim to hate the Tampa Bay Rowdies to prove it. It’s time for those Lions who have gotten off to another good start in 2022 to look up in the stands and see a full Exploria Stadium.
On Wednesday night, Orlando City will kick off its 2022 U.S. Open Cup campaign against its I-4 Derby rivals, the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It will be an opportunity for Orlando’s fans and supporter groups to show up en masse and prove that the club has strong support, which is something that has been a bit lacking in 2022 so far, despite the club fielding an exciting and successful team.
No one disputes that the fans who show up at the stadium are passionate, loud, and enthusiastic. It’s just that there seem to be fewer of them than when the team was actually bad.
In 2017, the first seven matches held in the building then known as Orlando City Stadium were sellouts. Even when not every seat — or standing position in The Wall — was filled, the attendance was strong all throughout that year. League games drew at least 22,000, and most games were either sellouts or just shy of that. The exception was a home U.S. Open Cup match against Miami FC, which drew only 5,838 fans and that ended in a quick exit from the competition for Orlando.
That 2017 team finished 10-15-9. Attendance has eroded a bit since that first year in the stadium, even before the pandemic. The team just missed the playoffs in its inaugural MLS season of 2015 and then got progressively worse on the field each year through 2018 and only slightly better in 2019. So it’s understandable if performance drove some fans away, even if the novelty of the new stadium in 2017 brought back some of them temporarily.
Oscar Pareja took over as head coach prior to the 2020 season and the team has been quite good since then. That, unfortunately, was the year that the COVID-19 global pandemic reached its height. The stadiums were closed to spectators for a while and different parts of the country — not to mention north of the border, in the case of the Canadian teams — opened back up at different rates. Orlando hosted games with reduced capacity under the recommended guidelines by health officials and then eventually opened back up to full capacity.
But the fans haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. This year’s home opener was the first non-reduced capacity opening match not to sell out, drawing 21,283 in attendance. That number would have been the lowest attended regular-season match if it had been in 2017.
Orlando City attendance recently has not been what it should be. It’s logical to assume that there are some residual effects from the pandemic at play. Many people are still not comfortable in crowds, even for an outdoor event. In addition, rising costs of fuel, groceries, and other goods may be having a minor impact on attendance as stretched budgets might cause some fans to attend fewer games. Perhaps the national and worldwide events of the last two years have even sapped some people’s enthusiasm for sports and reduced the importance that kind of spectacle has in their lives, although the escapism of sports has rarely been more needed than it is now.
For the fans who do attend home games, or those who live in other parts of the country (or world), it’s frustrating to see the club put its best product in the team’s MLS existence on the field the last couple of years and not see Orlando City, Pareja, and the players rewarded with a full Exploria Stadium. I see it in the responses to our attendance tweets during every home match. Other teams’ bloggers have even reached out to me to ask what’s going on with the Lions’ attendance.
The last home sellout was pre-pandemic, when the Lions sold out their opening day match on Feb. 29, 2020, against Real Salt Lake. The most recent home match saw Orlando City take on the then-unbeaten Chicago Fire on an absolutely gorgeous Saturday afternoon that lacked the heat or humidity issues that can plague a team in this climate. It was a perfect day to be outside, but only 16,051 fans showed up for that match, which was even fewer than the 16,763 who turned up in a downpour the previous Saturday night for the LAFC game.
People like to point to Central Florida’s vast options of things to do as a reason sports teams don’t draw well. Maybe there’s something to that, but those options are still present on days when there isn’t a game at Exploria Stadium, so it sounds like excuse-making to me. There were only three degrees difference in temperature between Saturday and Sunday the weekend of the Chicago match and the beach, parks, and area lakes certainly didn’t go anywhere.
There’s got to be something else at play, and it could be simply that this is the proverbial “bad sports town.” No one ever wants to think that about their city — I don’t want to believe that about Orlando — and it might not be the case, but some places sure do seem better/worse than others as far as regular attendance goes. Excuses are plentiful to explain away poor attendance, particularly the “there are too many options in Florida” rationalization. But sometimes it’s just a fact that a community isn’t supporting the local team the way it should. Again, this is in no way meant to disparage the folks who show up and give every ounce of energy they have for the team. They are rightfully saluted by the players after every match.
Were the ones who were previously showing up at Exploria Stadium just posers? Did those bad Orlando teams just sap their enjoyment of the game? If so, they need to give this 2022 team a look, because even in the two losses the team was playing entertaining and effective soccer. In the 4-2 home loss to LAFC, the Lions played some of the best soccer ever produced by an Orlando City team. Unfortunately, the team also made a few mistakes and every one of them was punished. That’s the way this sport goes sometimes.
The club has moved Wednesday’s Open Cup match, which was originally scheduled to take place at Osceola Heritage Park, to the comfortable and familiar confines of Exploria Stadium. I think this was a great idea for multiple reasons:
- Osceola County Stadium was built for baseball and doesn’t have optimal sight lines.
- Traveling down to Kissimmee in time for a 7 p.m. midweek game would be difficult for the majority of fans in the area.
- Tampa Bay normally plays in a stadium that is similar in many respects to OCS, so it would potentially help the visitors feel more comfortable.
- Exploria Stadium typically has a great atmosphere even when only half full.
This was a fan-friendly move by Orlando City and one that should be rewarded. It’s the second time the club has been responsive to fan desires this season, with Orlando City opening up a home preseason match after initially having all of them behind closed doors. This is the kind of decision that fans should reward by buying a ticket, so that they will continue to have the ear of the club in the future.
By changing venues, the club removed a big obstacle for most of the local fanbase. But it isn’t the only thing Orlando City is doing in an effort to entice fans to come out and support the Lions in the continent’s longest-running soccer competition.
Another potential barrier to entry is cost. Fans struggling to make ends meet, and who have already shelled out a lot of dough for season tickets, are sometimes hesitant to pile on more expenses, particularly for matches early in the competition. Add to the extra cost the fact that the game is during the work week, and it’s easy to blow off a match like this. However, Orlando City has made this an extremely affordable option. Season ticket members can pick up tickets to the match for just $10 and the general public can get in for just $15. That price should be sufficiently affordable, given that this is a professional sporting event with the excitement of a knockout competition. In addition, a club spokesman indicated to me that there will also be some specials at the concession stands on Wednesday night.
Getting back to Wednesday’s on-field match, it has been several years since the Lions and Rowdies met in anything other than a preseason friendly, so those who became Orlando City fans when the club joined Major League Soccer may not be fully aware of the Lions’ history with the Rowdies or how contentious those early games were. Longtime fans and supporter groups have been vocal on social media about their hatred for the Rowdies, but will they put their money where their mouth is and show up for the match? I expect that many Tampa Bay fans will buy tickets and make the trip across Interstate 4.
This is a good opportunity for longtime supporters of the team to bring friends to the match and explain the rivalry to them, while turning them into new fans. But if even the regulars don’t show up, it will be an opportunity for Tampa Bay’s fans to be just as loud in the Lions’ den as Orlando’s home support.
The above is a longer read than I intended, but what it boils down to is that Orlando City fans need to replace talk with action. While a midweek, early-round Open Cup match isn’t likely to produce a sellout, or even close to one, it’s not unreasonable to expect 10,000+ to show up for reduced price tickets to a historic, knockout competition. Anyone can claim to love the club and support the team. Anyone can tweet how disappointed they are with the home attendance. Anyone can say they are an original fan who really hates the Rowdies. But who is going to show up and prove it?
For those of you who do, I’ll see you on Wednesday.