By Ridge Mahoney
There's more at play in the speedy progress of an MLS Orlando City franchise than returning the league to Florida is it grows toward its stated goal of 24 teams by 2020.
A message has been sent to other prospective expansion cites is, and that message is: You're on the clock.
“We thank the Orange County and City of Orlando Board of Commissioners for their support to build a soccer-specific stadium in downtown Orlando,” MLS president and deputy commissioner Mark Abbott said in a statement announcing the last political hurdle had been cleared by a 5-2 vote on Tuesday. “We also would like to thank [owners] Flavio Augusto da Silva, Phil Rawlins and their staff for their passion and commitment to bring a Major League Soccer team to Orlando.
"We look forward to working with the Orlando City SC ownership group to finalize an expansion agreement.”
The vote authorized the use of $20 million in tourism taxes to help fund the $84 million project. Once an expansion agreement – which would include the fee – is negotiated, construction is expected to start on the stadium for completion in time for the 2015 season. Orlando City has won two USL PRO titles in the past three seasons, and more than 20,000 fans came to the Citrus Bowl in September to watch the Lions thrash Charlotte, 7-4, in the championship game.
“I think Orlando is a great marketplace for MLS,” said Rawlins to the Associated Press. “It's proven that with the support it has in the minor leagues. I know the city is very anxious for a second major sports team and MLS is excited about expansion in the southeast. ... So I felt confident we could make that happen in that time frame.”
The message will also be heard by New York City FC, which is supposed to commence play in 2015 but has yet to nail down a stadium site much less a funding plan. There’s plenty going on behind the scenes regarding NYCFC, for sure, though the Cosmos made the local news this week by announcing the contract of Coach Giovanni Savarese has been extended. (Orlando City also deserves kudos for using SC, i.e. Soccer Club, instead of FC.)
As of now, NYCFC will probably have to play at least one season in an alternative facility, presumably Yankee Stadium, while its own stadium is completed. MLS has been criticized for fast-tracking a New York team and ignoring efforts in other cities to jump on the expansion train, yet it can justifiably point to Orlando’s accomplishments and say, in effect, “Match this.”
Yet if the league adds both Orlando City SC and New York City FC in 2015, and both presumably play in the Eastern Conference, it will again be stuck with an odd number of teams (21), necessitating bye dates and other logistical snarls. It could solve two problems by moving Houston and one other team to the Western Conference and terminating the operation agreement in force with Chivas USA, leaving it with 20 teams equally split between the conferences, but the league has stated repeatedly it won’t take such action regarding Chivas USA unless the situation becomes untenable.
MLS could delay the entry of NYCFC for a season, adding Orlando City and moving one team west while keeping Chivas USA. The move would be practical but a public-relations disaster, and also cost the league a valuable chip as it negotiates new TV deals – which are set to expire at the end of the 2014 season – as well as a priceless market irreplaceable in just about every facet, from sponsors to Designated Players.
The addition of Orlando also applies pressure on whatever is going on with Miami. Reports resurface every few weeks regarding a developing partnership of David Beckham and Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure. Another flurry came last week from a report that Dolphins president Steve Ross would use his company, RSE Ventures, to provide marketing services and perhaps rent out Sun Life Stadium as a temporary home for an MLS team.
That’s more opportunism than entrepreneurship, and not quite the same thing as putting money into the team itself, which Ross has mentioned in the past as a possibility. Yet pairing Orlando and Miami as joint forces in Florida fits many of the league’s practical needs: scheduling, rivalries, untapped markets, increased TV footprint, etc.
Bringing aboard another NFL owner even in such a limited capacity could open the doors a crack for Atlanta. Falcons owner Stu Blank has been in the loop for a while, though the market – while large (population of about 4 million in the city and nine nearest counties) and growing -– is affected by a dip in housing sales and other troubling factors.
Does Atlanta stay in play if Miami joins Orlando in the near future, or do other cites move up in the race? Those questions stem from the success of Orlando, which so far has come up with all the right answers.