Orlando Sentinel opinion columnist Scott Maxwell ran a column this week questioning the wisdom of moving Orlando City from the Citrus Bowl to their own smaller Soccer Specific Stadium after this season. On the surface and to a casual sports fan, Maxwell's arguments seem to have some merit: Orlando City has drawn over 27,000 for every home MLS match so far, and they are second in average attendance across all MLS teams at an average attendance of 37,446 over six matches. Meanwhile, the new stadium that Orlando City is constructing is set to hold a little under 20,000 fans. On the surface it seems like Orlando City's ownership and management is limiting their revenue opportunities by moving the team to a smaller venue. But I'm of a different opinion. I think Scott Maxwell is a bit too naive about the MLS and the growth of soccer in this country to understand why the Citrus Bowl is just not the right long-term venue for Orlando City's needs.
The number one reason for moving the team out of the Citrus Bowl is the pitch surface itself. The Citrus Bowl is an artificial turf surface, and historically that's just not a good surface for playing soccer. Granted the science and art of creating artificial turf has come a long way since the days of the old Houston Astrodome where essentially it was a thin, barely padded carpet laid down over a slab of concrete. Modern artificial playing surfaces have a lot more give and are a lot less prone to cause injury than old-fashioned astroturf fields. But they still have problems.
The first is that artificial surfaces still place more stress on knees, ankles and other joints than does natural grass. A second problem is that artificial surfaces tend to hold heat and get hotter than does natural grass. Of course, playing in Florida, you want to keep the surface as cool as possible for the players since the heat will sap more of their energy. Third, the ball simply behaves differently on an artificial surface than on natural grass. I've heard some people asking in the stands and on social media why the crews use fire hoses to spray the artificial surface before the match and during halftime at the game. The reason is to make the ball more lively and to have it bounce and skip more like it would on grass. Part of the reason modern artificial surfaces are less harsh on players' leg joints than they used to be is that there is a lot more give in the substrate of the ground cover. For the ball, this means that when it hits it tends to rebound less than it would on natural grass. Watering the surface reduces the friction when the players kick the ball down the field so it skips and rolls better, and it compacts the granules in the substrate a bit so that they are a little firmer when the ball bounces.
In 1994 Orlando was very lucky to be selected as a host city for some of the World Cup matches. This is because a soccer pitch has generally larger dimensions than an American Football gridiron. One thing that I found surprising as I've learned about soccer is that there is a "minimum" pitch size and a "maximum" pitch size, but there are no real ironclad rules specifying exactly how long and how wide a standard pitch should be. While every NFL team and every NCAA Division 1 college football team is required to play on a gridiron that is exactly the same size in length and width, the pitch dimensions across MLS vary to a certain extent depending on the venue. The smallest pitch is actually in Yankee Stadium where NYCFC is playing their home matches for the next few seasons.
I couldn't honestly tell you where the Citrus Bowl pitch size ranks in terms of MLS, but I know the sidelines are an issue. If you look along the west sidelines (where the team benches are) you'll see something that is unusual for professional soccer teams. The coaches and reserve players sit on metal benches like you would expect to find at your local high school football stadium. In most European and South American soccer stadiums, there are structures erected like "bus stop shelters" where the players and coaches can sit protected from the elements. Whether that is necessary or not is debatable, and everyone will have their own opinion, but is is the accepted norm and it's something that can help sway a prospective player who has the option to play for more than one team, especially if they are coming into MLS from a different international league.
And then there's the safety factor. Without much room between the edge of the pitch and the benches or the concrete retaining walls at the edge of the grandstands, there's not a big margin of safety for players that are rushing at top speed to the sidelines to try to save a ball from going out of bounds. You want a wider sideline so that a player has room to safely dive into the grass and slide or roll to a stop before crashing into a wall.
It's the Honeymoon, Dear
Right now Orlando City is enjoying something of a honeymoon in the city. They are the new team in town (yes, they've been around for several years, but this is their first year in the top tier of their sport in the country, and thus they're attracting a lot more local attention from the media and casual fans). If there's one thing you must admit about American culture, it's that we're suckers for the new and the shiny. I mean if Apple Corporation were in charge of solving the problems with the federal deficit, health care coverage, or crumbling national infrastructure, they'd have it solved in a few quarters. They'd just release shiny new products or services, hold a two-hour media presentation with corporate executives and celebrity guests and watch people fall all over themselves to sign up or pay up or get on board with some "gee whiz" gadget that they're going to upgrade next year anyway when the new model comes out.
So it's natural that as the new team in town, Orlando City is all the rage. But this is the state of Florida, however, and you have to understand sports fans in this state. Look at the holy institution of college football, for example. In the 80s and the 90s, the University of Miami Hurricanes were all the rage. They've won five national championships and even today they still go to bowl games at the end of most seasons. But in years that they lose one or two games early they struggle to get people to go to their games.
And in the past few seasons it's been the team up the road in Gainesville that has struggled to draw attendance. In the era of Urban Meyer and Tim Tebow you couldn't get into Ben Hill Griffin Stadium unless you had season tickets or knew somebody or paid an arm and a leg. But in the last two seasons there have been large sections of the stadium that look like faded ghost towns from the California gold rush on game days. And even in our city you can see the same thing with UCF and with the Orlando Magic. When they're winning they draw good crowds, but when they struggle people will suddenly find something else to do. That's because for every sports team there are always a lot more casual fans than there are dedicated fans. So taking a long-term view, I actually think it's very smart for Orlando City to build a small stadium now and then let proven consistent demand in the future force them to expand or move to a larger venue.
Proof in the Pudding
If you look at MLS teams, there are a couple of figures other than actual attendance to tell you which teams are really creating a lot of energy in their towns. We've already talked about a number of reasons that people are excited for Orlando City this year. And there's no doubting it--the way the city turns purple on match days and the way Orlando City magnets and logo gear are popping up like mushrooms everywhere you look is a great testament to that buzz and excitement. And outside Orlando, there are several other cities where MLS is super popular. One of those cities is about as far away as you can get from Orlando and still be in the continental United States:Seattle. In reviewing Seattle's attendance figures, they sit at the very top of the league in average attendance at 40,067. Furthermore, in their least attended home match to date, the still drew 39,175, which blows away the highest attended game for every other team in the league except Orlando City, who boasts the largest single-match crowd of the season at 62,510 for our opening match on March 8.
Beyond that, there are two other teams in MLS that are impressive because they have sold out every home match: Portland at 21,144 per match, and San Jose at 18,000 per match. Both of these teams play in their own soccer specific stadiums and the fact that they are selling out every match means they have built a demand that ensures their players will have stands filled with passionate fans game in and game out. Looking elsewhere around the league it's pretty dismal.
For example, DC United, who were leading the table in the Eastern Conference heading into this weekend, have the weakest number for a high attendance figure at 16,304. And DC United plays in RFK stadium, a purpose-built football stadium that holds 45,596. There are high school football teams in Texas that draw more attendance than that on Friday nights in the fall. And for the sake of reference, the attendance figures I've quoted are sourced from Major League Soccer through Wikipedia as of May 23, 2015.
So I think there are a lot of compelling arguments for a soccer specific stadium, and I know that a lot of long-time and passionate soccer fans could probably give you quite a few more. I'm just focusing on the macro reasons and don't want to pretend I know all the reasons a lifelong fan of The Beautiful Game could rattle off the top of their head.
What about you? Do you think Orlando City is on the right track building their own stadium, or do you think, like Scott Maxwell, that the team should make long-term plans to continue playing in the Citrus Bowl? As a fan, you should let your voice be heard. Drop us a line or let us know on our twitter feed or facebook page. #VamosOrlando