I recently met with Christopher Kokalis, the new GM for the Major Arena Soccer League (MASL) expansion team announced last week that will begin competing in the 2018-19 season. I wanted to find out more about the sport of Arena Soccer and the people behind it. Yesterday I shared what I learned about the MASL itself. Today, the focus is on what local fans should expect from the new Orlando franchise. This weekend, I'll profile the new GM so my readers can get to know more about him.
The MASL will be attempting to revive indoor soccer in Orlando. Yes—revive it. Back in 2007, the old MISL (Major Indoor Soccer League) launched a franchise in the old Orlando Arena—the original home of the Orlando Magic—which was located west of the Bob Carr Auditorium. That team was called the Orlando Sharks. They played only one season before the team and the league folded, and the game never really took off here.
Of course, there were skeptics that Orlando would support outdoor soccer, too. Back in the 1980s, there was the original Orlando Lions franchise. Then in the late 1990s, there came the Orlando Sundogs. But it wasn’t until a charismatic Englishman named Phil Rawlins brought the USL Orlando City franchise to the city in 2011 that professional soccer found a toehold here.
Make no mistake—Orlando City’s success in creating a fan base is a big reason why the MASL has chosen Orlando for expansion now. As stated yesterday, their season doesn’t compete with but complements the MLS and NWLS seasons, and they are also strategic about the venue they are choosing for their games.
The GM of the new Orlando franchise, Chris Kokalis, says that the Silver Spurs Arena in Kissimmee is a perfect sized venue for their game. “MASL home games typically draw 3,000 – 4,000 fans,” Kokalis says. "The Silver Spurs Arena holds 8,000 configured for our sport.” That size venue makes the crowd significant while still giving it room to grow. Kokalis has high praise for Rob Larsen and his staff at the Silver Spurs Arena.
According to media reports, the old MISL franchise drew an average of just over 1,700 fans to every match, and a building the size of the old Orlando Arena just swallowed that crowd. The Sharks and the MISL also suffered from a bit of hubris in terms of ticket pricing—tickets for that season ranged from $15 per match in the Supporter Section to $22 in the upper bowl and over $200 per seat near the player benches.
Kokalis and the MASL are under no such delusions. “We know what we are,” Kokalis says; “more importantly, we know what we aren’t. We are not MLS; we are not Orlando City.” Kokalis says what the MASL and the new Orlando franchise hope to bring will be a fast-paced, energetic style of soccer. In terms of pricing, they know they are going after both casual soccer fans and a general sports entertainment audience, so they are pricing their product to be attractive. For instance, fans wanting seats in the supporter section will be able to buy season tickets for $120.00 to see all 12 home matches.
Expectations for Local Fans
As GM of the new franchise, Kokalis has a vision for the kind of team he wants to build in Orlando. “We want young players that are hungry and view our league as a step toward their ultimate goal.” Kokalis believes this best appeals to the fan base that the MASL attracts and that he hopes to build for the team in Orlando.
Kokalis says the MASL target fans are split into several categories. There are those who can’t get enough soccer. This is one reason that commissioner Joshua Schaub is expanding into markets like Toronto and Orlando that already have established MLS franchises. The league also attracts fans who may not know soccer all that well, or who may think of the outdoor game is too slow and doesn’t have enough scoring. In previous stints with other MASL franchises, Kokalis has also seen the league become a “gateway drug” for some of these fans. “I’ve had season ticket holders tell me excitedly that they had been to their first USL or MLS match and they understood the game better after watching our league,” he says. After seeing the strategy played out on the more compact and confined space of the MASL pitch, these fans can come to appreciate the more tactical and strategic nature of the game as it’s played outside under FIFA regulations.
Kokalis says that a key to building a fan base will be heavy community involvement. Orlando City fans can attest to the important role that community involvement and visibility by Phil and Kay Rawlins and Coach Adrian Heath during the USL era played in helping Orlando City build its core group of most passionate supporters. And since the transition to MLS, the team has remained heavily involved in civic activities and community outreach, both through player appearances and the tireless work of the Orlando City Foundation. And the 49 rainbow-colored seats in Section 12 of Orlando City Stadium stand as a permanent reminder of the team’s connection to the community and the club’s visible memorial to the innocent lives lost in the terrible massacre at Pulse nightclub on June 12, 2016.
Kokalis says that his staff and players will also be visible in the community. “We want to be involved in initiatives where we can reach out to kids throughout Central Florida. Boys and Girls clubs, reading programs,” and other outreach activities are on his agenda. The fan base across MASL consists of men and women ages 24 – 45, as well as families with young children that enjoy exciting activities and outings that they can experience on a budget. “Kids love the chance to connect with our players,” he says.
And Kokalis also understands the importance of dedicated supporters to the success of any soccer team and its fan base. Kokalis has only been in town for a week, but he’s already attended his first Orlando City match on Saturday to see the team play against the New York Red Bulls, and he is just as impressed as every other visitor the first time they see or experience “The Wall” in Orlando City Stadium.
“Supporter culture is one thing we really want to build here,” Kokalis told me. He would love to see the supporter’s end of the Silver Spurs Arena filled with fans that have the same passion that The Ruckus and ILF bring to Orlando City matches.
“One more thing that’s unique about MASL matches,” Kokalis said, “is that there is also music that plays the entire time the match is underway.” He says that most MASL teams have a deejay that spins tunes, but seeing the drum line at the Orlando City match has him thinking that Orlando’s MASL franchise has a chance to do even better. “Who needs a deejay if we can have drums? And maybe horns?” he says.
Timeline for the New Team
Kokalis says that in the coming weeks there will be a lot more visibility about the team. Until April 15 the franchise is holding a contest asking fans to submit names for the new team on their website. Once a name is chosen, by the end of April fans can expect to see the name unveiled, along with a logo and team colors and uniform design. The team has already named Experience Kissimmee and Park Inn by Radisson as the major sponsors of the team. Kokalis also told me that XL Sports World in Orlando will be the training home for the new franchise. This location means many of the fans of Orlando City that play in recreational leagues may get a chance to see and interact with players from the MASL team as they enter or leave the facility.
In May, the team will begin open tryouts for players: there are four tryouts planned. Two will be held here in Orlando, with a third to be held in Miami and a fourth to be held in Atlanta. Also within the next few weeks, Kokalis expects to begin advertising to build his front office and administrative staff. “We move into our permanent office space next week,” he says.
Personally, I think the MASL has potential in Orlando. From my conversation with Kokalis, he seems to understand how a team like his can fill out the rest of the calendar for fans that just can’t get enough live soccer. And his intuition about a young team with hungry, energetic, and dynamic players is something that should really appeal to sports fans in this city.
I also believe the southwest corner of the metro area balances out well the other hubs of soccer activities in town: from the Lake Sylvan training grounds on the north side to UCF’s growing soccer program on the east side, and of course the Orlando City Stadium downtown. This geographic location could also help the new club attract new soccer fans that live in this part of town and have found it inconvenient to travel all the way to downtown for MLS or NWSL matches.
Tomorrow, in the third of my three-part series on the new MASL team, I will have a profile of Mr. Christopher Kokalis himself. You can also go back to yesterday's post in this series and read more about Arena Soccer and the MASL.