By Marc Vitenzon
“The attendance is 62,510,” announced the commentator on ESPN2 during Orlando City’s first match in the MLS. The record breaking season opener was on the 8th of March. It was a home match against another new MLS franchise, New York City FC. The match provided great entertainment and kept the sixty thousand Orland City fans waiting until the end. Losing by one goal by the end of the game, it was none other than Brazilian marquee signing Kaka, who stepped up and scored a freekick off of a deflection. Only five days later, on the 13th of March Orlando City SC recorded their first win in the MLS against Houston Dynamo.
This blockbuster debut in the MLS raised many eyebrows towards Orlando City. What is this new club? How did it get to the MLS? How did it obtain the services of a World Cup, Champions League, and Ballon D’or winner? To many people’s surprise, Orlando City SC was founded in 2010! This raised one big question: How is it possible to become such a successful club in so little time?
On the 16th of January 2014, I sat down for an interview with the woman behind the attendance record, Kay Rawlins, Co-owner and Director of Community relations at Orlando City SC. This interview took place more than a year prior to Orlando City’s MLS debut and a long, perilous voyage which lay ahead for the club. It is only now that this interview has become relevant, when Orlando City has risen to the pinnacle of American soccer. A year later, the interview provides fantastic insight upon what is required in order to build a successful soccer club. Below, are the five requirements for a chance at success in building your very own soccer club.
“The sky’s the limit, we want to be the next Manchester United, we want everyone to know the name of Orlando City and to collect our Jerseys. This is what we are trying to set up. We’ve been here for only 3 years and now we are headed to the MLS.”
First and foremost, there must be a mentality that everything is possible. People must believe in the success of the club because that is what will keep the club afloat through tough times. When the funds are lacking and the stadium’s are empty, it takes pure confidence and belief to push the club forward. When one embarks on a multimillion project, there is a huge chance of failure. Every owner knows that at any moment their club can come crashing down. When Manchester United was founded in 1878 it was a bunch of railroad workers playing for the team. As time progressed, the team had nowhere to play, the whole squad died in an airplane, coaches were hired and fired, and yet the club is where it is today, simply because the people behind it truly believed in it.
“MLS has become a proper business that is financially rewarding. It is a very expensive hobby. It is something you cannot do on your own. You need to have partners who have passion, and think about this strongly.”
The people running and funding the club must be willing to go negative. They must be willing to lose money in order to be a successful soccer club. Every successful club has a moment in history during which it struggles to perform. It is important that the owners are passionate about their project and that it is at the center of their interests, otherwise, the club won’t succeed.
“At the moment we are [financially] healthy. We have quite a lot of owners from all different backgrounds. We have a lot of sponsors and owners. What made this all happen was finding people inside the MLS and getting into the MLS. Getting into the MLS is a great hurdle for all teams. The cost has gone up every year. You have to be prepared to put the money in, someone who is prepared to pay over the odds is someone who will bring attention to the team because of who they are.”
Many would love to believe that soccer is all about belief, passion, and determination. However, this is never the case. Professional soccer is just as much a business as it is a game. Everything has a price. In order to have the best players, the best facilities, and the best fans there must be money constantly going into the club. Kaka may have come to Orlando City on a free transfer, but his annual salary is a guaranteed 6.6 million dollars, the second highest in the league. The world’s best clubs are also the world’s richest clubs. Coincidence? Absolutely not.
“I think sponsorship is a huge piece of revenue. You can’t survive without sponsors. We already have our front jersey sponsor secured for 2015.”
A great example of the fact that the American soccer industry as a whole would not be able to survive without sponsors is the names of the stadiums. Dick’s Sporting Goods Park, Gillette Stadium, Red Bull Arena Sponsors and Toyota Park are just a few of these names. Sponsors are vital to the financial stability of a club, because they guarantee the cash flow which owners cannot. Ticket sales and merchandise sales fluctuate based on club form and popularity. The advantage of sponsors is a contract. They will always be paying money to the club regardless of the success for a given amount of time. Therefore, it is important that clubs have a sponsor in order to keep the club afloat during tough times.
“The biggest drive that we’ve had is our social media. If you look at our Facebook page we have 40 thousand. We’ve got Instagram, and Pinterest. Social media is a huge piece,” and “it’s quite the atmosphere at our games. And social media is a big driver of that. It is a way of keeping contact with your fans on a daily basis.”
Social media is huge to any business nowadays, and soccer is no exception. Orlando City’s Facebook page has multiplied significantly over the past year. They went from having 40 thousand likes to 260 thousand in the period of one year. This growth is symbolic of not only their burgeoning fanbase but also how they are able to reach these blockbuster attendance rates on their debut. It is a way to stay in touch with fans outside of the stadium. Fans begin learning the names of players and different facts about the club which will allow them to discuss it even more. Also, it allow for clubs to create an image for themselves for the rest of the world to see. For the players represent their club for 90 minutes a week, social media represents the club every moment of the day.
Taking everything to consideration, the key to building a club takes great skill not only off but also on the field. Many may argue that a lot of luck is involved in this process. However, it is only possible to be lucky if there is the opportunity to be lucky. These are the factors necessary to building a successful club.