September 28, 2020

Sports Business

Kick Starter: Aaron Davidson re-establishes pro soccer in Florida

Almost single-handedly, Aaron Davidson re-established pro soccer in Florida with his media company, Traffic Sports.

Mike Vogel | 10/28/2014

Orlando Jumps to the Majors

Global superstar David Beckham captured plenty of attention with his bid to bring a Major League Soccer team to Miami, but the only Florida team certain to take the pitch anytime soon in the nation’s premier league lies about three hours north in Orlando, “the soccer capital of the south.” 

That title was bestowed by Phil Rawlins, president and minority owner of Orlando City Soccer, a third-tier team that gained a spot in soccer’s major league in part by paying a $70-million franchise fee. It will play its first MLS season in 2015 at the Citrus Bowl before playing in 2016 in a new, 19,500-seat, purpose-built stadium in downtown Orlando.

“About two years ago I stopped getting asked, ‘When will soccer take off? When will it arrive?’ The game is on such a growth curve right now,” Rawlins says.

Even though it has played in the third-tier league, Orlando’s attendance is bested only by MLS teams, he says. It draws the 18- to 35-year-old millennial demographic. Nearly half of attendees come from families making more than $75,000 a year. Some 41% are families, and 35% are Hispanic.

The team will enjoy the novelty of being the city’s first new major league team in 25 years and will compete for fans’ dollars and time against only one other pro franchise, the NBA’s Orlando Magic. Orlando, the nation’s 20th-largest TV market, will end up with two pro teams, while Miami, just a few notches up at 17th, already has four pro teams, with Beckham’s to come, according to Vanderbilt University sports economist John Vrooman.

“Orlando City makes sense because of the wide-open market demographic, whereas Miami’s market is currently saturated,” Vrooman emails, adding, “Miami will do fine if they can get a suitable venue.” 

The proof that Orlando’s ready for prime-time soccer, Rawlins says, is in the gate. One month after beginning sales of season tickets for its debut MLS season, sales had reached 7,500 tickets compared to the team’s 13,000-ticket goal.

Rawlins, founder of Orlando City, is a United Kingdom native who has lived in the states for more than 20 years. His background is sales and marketing consulting, and he also was owner and director of Stoke City FC, his hometown team in the English Premier League.

Orlando City’s majority owner is Brazilian native and team Chairman Flavio Augusto da Silva, who founded an English-language instruction company before investing in the team in 2013. In addition to the franchise fee, he and the other owners also will put $40 million into the $110-million stadium.

Changing demographics in the United States and increased “competition among cable sports channels desperately seeking inventory” are driving soccer forward, Vrooman says. “It was after all the coevolution with TV that allowed the NFL to become America’s pastime,” he says.

From the millennials to soccer families to Hispanics, Rawlins sees nothing but promise. When Orlando City launched a Facebook page in Brazilian Portuguese, it chalked up 720,000 followers. “We are the No. 1 team in the U.S. in Brazil, and we haven’t kicked a ball in Major League Soccer,” Rawlins says. “I think we’re going to do extremely well.”

Soccer Hierarchy

The U.S. Soccer Federation, a division of international organizing group FIFA, accredits soccer leagues in the U.S.

  • Major League Soccer: The league, founded in 1993 and designated by the U.S. Soccer Federation as the highest level of soccer in the U.S., has 16 teams in the U.S. and three in Canada. The teams aren’t independently owned — each is owned and controlled by the league’s investors.
  • North American Soccer League: Designated as the official second-tier league in the U.S., the NASL has 10 teams this year, adding the Jacksonville team next year. The league is also in expansion talks with various other markets with a goal of 18 to 20 teams by 2018. The league has the same name but no connection with the original NASL, which folded in 1984. The league was based in Miami before moving to New York this year. The commissioner is Jacksonville resident Bill Peterson.
  • United Soccer Leagues: The USL, based in Tampa, is a privately held company that owns the USL Pro league, with teams in cities including Charleston, S.C., Pittsburgh, Richmond, Va., and Rochester, N.Y. Average attendance at USL Pro games ranges from fewer than 1,000 for some teams to more than 11,000 at others. The USL also owns several other leagues with more than 12,000 participants, 7,000 of them youth, across North America. It employs about two dozen in Tampa. Nu Rock Soccer, led by Atlanta developer Rob Hoskins and Alec Papadakis, acquired USL from Nike in 2009. Major League Soccer wants all its teams to acquire or affiliate with a USL Pro league team. When Orlando City moves to the MLS, Florida will have no USL Pro league team.

The Florida Connection

Billionaire owners from America, a country never enthralled with soccer, own almost a third of the teams in England’s top league, the English Premier League. The Florida connection among those American owners:

  • The Glazer family, which owns the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, owns Manchester United.
  • Shahid Khan, car parts entrepreneur and owner of the Jacksonville Jaguars, owns Fulham FC.
  • John Henry, the former Boca Raton investment manager, former owner of the Miami Marlins and current head of the Fenway Sports Group, owner of the Boston Red Sox, owns Liverpool FC.
  • Joe Lewis, the Englishman and Bahamas resident whose Tavistock Group is behind the Medical City development in Orlando, owns the Tottenham Hotspurs but reportedly was shopping it in September.

Florida Soccer Teams

Orlando City Soccer, (MLS) 

  • Owner: Flavio Augusto da Silva (majority owner) 
  • Home stadium: Citrus Bowl until 2016 season then into a soccerspecific facility 
  • Average attendance: 8,500 during play at the Citrus Bowl
  • Other Florida Soccer Teams

Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL) 

  • Owner: Bill Edwards (majority owner) 
  • Home stadium: Al Lang Stadium in St. Petersburg 
  • Average attendance: 4,638 
  • History: The original Rowdies were around from 1975-93. The team returned in 2010 as FC Tampa Bay and for the 2012 season switched back to the Tampa Bay Rowdies.

Jacksonville Armada FC (NASL) 

  • Owner: Mark Frisch 
  • Home stadium: Baseball Grounds of Jacksonville 
  • Average attendance: Team begins play in April 2015.

Fort Lauderdale Strikers (NASL) 

  • Owners: Paulo Cesso, Rafael Bertani and Ricardo Geromel 
  • Home stadium: Lockhart Stadium 
  • Average attendance: 4,314

Miami ( no team name yet ) 

  • Investors: Group includes David Beckham, Simon Fuller and Marcelo Claure 
  • Home stadium: Negotiations continue as of early October.

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