Florida’s big crowds in Orlando, Tampa, Jacksonville & Lauderdale

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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.

Ralph’s Mob, the supporters group of the Rowdies who have been a staple at games since 2010, boasted close to 300 fans in their section for Saturday’s Florida Derby versus Fort Lauderdale. And those fans stood and sang the entire match even during bouts of heavy rainfall. On the other side of the ledger, Fort Lauderdale’s management team made a strong commitment to busing fans over for the rivalry match and brought close to 50 staff and fans to enjoy the festivities.

The match, which Tampa Bay won 1-0, was played in a renovated baseball stadium that has a distinctly soccer feel after $2 million in offseason renovations and the implementation of a marketing campaign by the club.

Feeding off the success of the Rowdies, Armada and Lions, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers’ new ownership has begun its most ambitious marketing campaign in team history, and attendance is significantly improved over last season. A rising tide lifts all boats and while resentment has festered among some fans about the international success and stardom of Orlando’s soccer boom, the residual impact has improved and motivated teams in Jacksonville, Tampa Bay and Fort Lauderdale to do a better job at marketing.

Orlando City’s 4-0 victory over the LA Galaxy was an event of incredible significance. Florida has the reputation for being a fair weather state in sports terms. But despite some inclement weather and the failure of the Lions to win a home game in the first two months of the season, over 40,000 fans turned up. Historically, critics have claimed thunderstorms and afternoon kickoffs during the hot Florida summer lead to disaster, but hours before the 5pm local time start time, hundreds of fans were tailgating and hanging out in the parking lots that surrounded the Citrus Bowl. For the national media that has covered the Orlando story, the long-held skepticism about Florida’s enthusiasm for soccer has quickly faded.

The real question going forward however remains David Beckham’s Miami experiment. Orlando’s supporter culture and dominant place on the local sports landscape was built organically through work in the lower divisions of American soccer. Currently, Tampa Bay, Fort Lauderdale and Jacksonville are the doing the same in the lower division. Beckham’s Miami team will not have the legion of fans attracted by the community feel of the lower division clubs to draw from, and will need to either implement an aggressive model to find new local soccer fans or work with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers supporters to garner some of that enthusiasm. The Orlando model should be the prototypical plan for any side looking to win over a traditionally poor and skeptical soccer market. But perhaps with Brand Beckham on board, the proponents of the Miami feel they can create their own model and rules.

US Soccer has noticed the upward trend in Florida. Since 2010, the US Men’s National Team has played seven games in the state of Florida. Fans across the country have noticed as well as evidenced by my Twitter feed, which is peppered regularly with questions about Orlando City SC and the state’s three NASL clubs from fans outside Florida.

It took some heavy lifting, and hard work through lean years but the state of Florida has proven that soccer is not only here to stay – but it is among the best places for the sport at a professional level in the United States.

 

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4 Comments

  1. francis May 18, 2015
  2. Kei May 18, 2015
    • Kartik Krishnaiyer May 18, 2015
  3. Kei May 19, 2015

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