This past weekend, Florida was the showcase home of professional soccer in the United States. On Saturday, the Tampa Bay Rowdies defeated the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in front of a near-sellout crowd at the newly renovated Al Lang Stadium in St Petersburg. The next day, Orlando City SC recorded its first home victory in MLS with a 4-0 smashing of reigning champions Los Angeles. The game, which was played in front of a crowd of over 40,000, demonstrated that soccer is not just a passing fad in the state of Florida.
Orlando City’s success is not limited to the catchment area for the club. The soccer fan boom that has come from the Lions’ incredible marketing prowess and hip community feel has rubbed off on the entire state. On any given day, in any corner of the state you can drive around and see dozens of Orlando City SC car magnets. The energy and enthusiasm created by Lions supporters has motivated supporters groups in Jacksonville and Tampa Bay to grow their numbers, and has fed a soccer watching explosion among younger people in the state that Fort Lauderdale, Jacksonville and Tampa Bay have all marketed directly to with great success this season.
For almost a decade, Florida represented a professional soccer wasteland. Following the contraction of the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny, the state was absent of high-level and well-marketed pro soccer for almost a decade. During this same period, fewer and fewer international friendlies were held on Florida soil. Between 1990 and 1993, the United States’ Men’s National Team played more games in Florida than any other state, but between 2005 and 2009 the USMNT played just once in the sunshine state.
This statistic, along with the lack of media coverage for the sport and almost no high-level or highly-marketed international friendlies to speak of, conveyed the apathy that had overtaken the state. However, the rebirth of the Tampa Bay Rowdies in 2010, one of the legendary brands of American soccer, quickly connected with old-time local fans.
The Rowdies fans were able to quickly build a supporter’s culture tapping into both the tradition of the original club as well as the younger demographic groups in the Tampa Bay area.
Later that year, the Austin Aztex were relocated to Orlando and instantly had thousands of fans, mostly of the young, progressive and hip variety. From Orlando City SC’s first USL PRO game at the Citrus Bowl in April 2011, it was only a matter of time before the club was playing among the big boys in MLS.