Orlando City's True Fan Base Set to Emerge

Broadcasters, coaches, and players are not yet ready to say it, but yesterday's 4 - 0 loss to Seattle Sounders may have put the final nail in the coffin of Orlando City's 2015 season. We are reaching the point in the year when points are not just a good idea but are critical to climb into the top six positions if we want or expect to make the playoff race. Yet match after match since the beginning of July, Orlando City seems unable to equal the effort of their opponents in order to reach the necessary result.

Yesterday also marked a crucial point in the annual sports calendar, as the NFL kicked off its first weekend of pre-season games. For decades, the NFL and its organized farm system, the NCAA college football world, have been the collective number one draw for sports fans in the USA, and that dominant position will likely remain for a number of years to come.

In this first season in MLS, Orlando City has enjoyed a launch during a time when the Magic have struggled and when there haven't been any local professional teams in any other sports to compete head-to-head for the attention and wallets of curious soccer fans. Now, however, as the NFL season starts to gear up and as the college football season gets ready to kick off, we will have an opportunity to see what the real fan base of Orlando City looks like.

I think that Orlando City's leadership was wise to expand the new stadium, and I also think it was a good idea to not push it to the upper limit of the projected expansion at 28,000 seats, but to keep it at a more modest 25,500. Soon the lead in the sports headlines will be about the rookie season of Jameis Winston at Tampa Bay and the second year of the Blake Bortles era in Jacksonville, not to mention curiosity over the performance of FSU in the post-Winston era and the new coaching staff at the University of Florida in Gainesville. Even UCF will grab some headlines for its football program, although the current situation of conference alignment in college football means that it will be a long time before the Knights have a chance to repeat the magic of the 2013 season by reaching an important post-season game like the Fiesta Bowl again.

Throughout the rest of the year, Orlando City doesn't have any more midweek MLS matches--all of the home and away MLS matches will be on the weekends. This will make it increasingly likely that Orlando City matches will go head-to-head with major college football and MLS games, and then we will see who cares enough about the club to come out to the CItrus Bowl or attend local watch parties.

Over the years, fans in the state of Florida have proven to be a fickle lot, with support for teams in all sports ebbing and flowing like the rise and fall of tides pulled by the gravity of win-loss records. It will be interesting to see how this same factor influences Orlando City's fan base. From the way my twitter account blows up with invectives slung at the team with every shot missed and every goal given up to an opponent, it seems like there are already some fans who have endured as much misery as they can handle watching the team this year.

What will happen as the rest of the year unfolds? Will there be a sharp drop-off in attendance as college and pro football gets under way? I think the next two matches will be critical for the club in terms of retaining as many of the casual fans who have been attending matches all season as is possible. If they can demonstrate they have a bit of fight left in them by defeating Toronto FC next weekend on the road and then beating Chicago on August 29 at home, they may hold on to more of those casual fans and keep the crowds in the 25k - 30k range for the rest of the season. But if the current trend in play on the pitch continues, I would expect for the crowds in September to be down closer to the 20k range like we have seen for some of the friendly matches this season.

So there is the challenge for the club--to continue playing in front of large crowds, we need to put points on the table and bury balls in the net of the opposing goalkeeper each match. Doing so will ensure that fans remain enthusiastic, hopeful, and vocal in their support for the club as the push for the playoffs continues. But if the losses continue to pile up, the crowds at the Citrus Bowl will shrink until only the core fans remain.

I appreciate what the club ownership and players have done to embrace the fan base too much to stop attending the matches or writing about the games, and I think there's generally a strong commitment to the team from many in the social media sphere that has grown up around the club over the past few seasons. But this season is something new for even the most vocal of fans in the supporter groups like the Ruckus or the ILF. Never before have they experienced a season with Orlando City that has threatened to end before the playoffs, and never before have they reached the concluding stages of a season when it looked unlikely for Orlando City to compete for a league championship. I, for one, hope that the supporter groups will continue to be a strong presence at the matches, since they add so much color and fanfare and energy to the stadium on match days. 

As for the rest of the fans, how many will continue to show up? Only time and match results will tell.