For many years Florida was a barren wasteland for professional soccer. From 2002 to 2005, the state did not boast one professional franchise and a limited number of amateur PDL teams. Suddenly after only boasting a single professional team as late as 2009 (Miami FC) and three semi-pro/4th division clubs, the state now has five professional clubs and eleven semi-pro/4th division clubs.
Orlando City has been the standout pro club in the state and their move from third division USLPRO to first division Major League Soccer is certain to have an impact on the other pro clubs in the state that are either second or third division clubs.
Tampa Bay Rowdies (NASL – Division 2)
Orlando is only 75 miles from Tampa and 90 miles from St Petersburg where the Rowdies play. The Rowdies are certain to lose some fans to Orlando City’s move to MLS. Already several people have season tickets to both teams, particularly those living in Polk County in between the two metropolitan areas. The Rowdies have a strong brand and have demonstrated increased marketing prowess this year coming off a second division title. Also the Tampa Bay area has arguably the most sophisticated and advanced youth structure in the state and a growing supporters culture. Orlando City will impact the NASL side no doubt, but the Rowdies will survive and perhaps not lose much of its audience.
Fort Lauderdale Strikers (NASL – Division 2)
The Strikers have taken a step back this season with an uncompetitive team and continued rumors about David Beckham’s potential plans for MLS in the area. Fort Lauderdale has experienced a nasty supporter group split, declining attendance, and a bungled soccer-specific stadium search all in this calendar year. The Strikers, like the Rowdies, have a proud history but they have not leveraged it as well. And despite claims from some hopeful supporters and staff that Fort Lauderdale is a different market than Miami, it isn’t. The Strikers will find it very difficult to coexist with an MLS team in Miami unless the organization is significantly upgraded and a soccer-specific stadium is built. It is quite honestly possible that the Strikers won’t even make it until the MLS places a club in Miami, but that is a subject for another day.
Jacksonville (2015 NASL Expansion)
Jacksonville is an excellent market, and though some local fans may be tempted to make the short two hour drive to Orlando for Major League games, the excitement about the new team should minimize defections. The NASL has invested a great deal in this market and if the ownership group matches the fans enthusiasm, this could be one of the best lower division teams in North America.
VSI Tampa Bay FC (USLPRO – 3rd Division)
VSI Tampa Bay FC is the closest professional team to the Orlando MLS stadium location, about 60 miles away. But VSI, a British sports management company with a vertical soccer pyramid in its organization, is more concerned about player development than attracting fans. This club may drop its professional team eventually, sharing a market with the Tampa Bay Rowdies has proven to be foolish, particularly a division lower. Still, VSI’s model is not about fans and ticket revenue, and they very well may be unaffected by Orlando City’s move to MLS.