Should Orlando City be Courting an International Audience?

Information has been leaking this week from Brazil about Orlando’s inaugural pre-season tour and Kaka’s rumored first game as a Lion being against Flamengo in Manaus. Combined with the confirmed cancellation of Disney’s annual preseason tournament, this all means it is going to be a little while longer until we see the first ball kicked by anybody in purple and white.

Orlando City has always been a club with an international flavor.  English and Brazilian ownership, players and coaches drawn from around the world, and high profile international friendlies have dominated the club’s short history.

During the club’s early years, Phil Rawlins and company emphasized the links between Orlando and Stoke City of the English Premier League, hoping to make Orlando City supporters fans of the English club, and vice versa. After new co-owner and chairman Flávio Augusto da Silva invested in the club, buoying its MLS ambitions, immediate links between the club and Brazil began to form.

Bringing on Brazilian star players, rumored Brazilian stadium naming rights, and the anticipated upcoming preseason tour of Brazil all are part of a plan to make Orlando City the second club of Brazilians, as they catch a game while vacationing in the states—maybe we should start calling them Futebol Clube de Cidade Orlando.

Should Orlando City, a club still selling itself to Orlando, Central Florida, and MLS, be working so hard to curry favor with fans beyond our borders?

Will Kaka's first game with Orlando City be played in his native Brazil? Probably.
Will Kaka’s first game with Orlando City be played in his native Brazil? Probably.

Pros:

  • This is a marketing strategy still in the developmental stage in the United States. The David Beckham-led LA Galaxy come to mind when I think of teams trying to aggressively market themselves to overseas fans. Orlando is ahead of the curve for U.S. teams in terms of marketing the club overseas.
  • It’s sexy and preseason tours are fun. You get to peek in on clubs and countries you don’t normally watch. I know the big clubs in Brazil, but I cannot tell you the last time I saw a game broadcast from there.
  • Everybody else is doing it.  This is usually the worst reason to do something, but in this case taking cues from the biggest clubs in the world makes a lot of sense. There is a reason Manchester United drags their entire club on worldwide tours when they should be focusing on preparing for the season.
  • Speaking of preparation, preseason tours can build camaraderie.  Unity is a useful goal for a first-year team.
  • Orlando is a multicultural, international city. Two of the biggest groups of visitors and expatriates happen to be the English and Brazilians. It is not a bad strategy to market to these groups, both here and abroad.

Cons:

  • Traveling sucks sometimes. If the World Cup announcers are to be believed, traveling in Brazil sucks even more. Long flights, delayed flights, jetlag, strange hotels, and unfamiliar foods can be unsettling to an athlete, especially to young players not used to that much travel.
  • The “city” in Orlando City is our city. A term meant to create community identity with the team. Large sections of tourist fans really will not bring the kind of unity that makes other MLS stadiums into fortresses of sound. A jersey might be purchased, a ticket or two for the novelty of a game abroad, but at the end of the day, I cannot imagine fans of two of the most soccer saturated countries in the world will ever make Orlando City as anything but a distant second club in their hearts.
  • Two high profile international friendlies—Newcastle and Fluminense—brought enough fans to make those two games some of the highest attendances in club history. Those two games have never translated to large numbers of local British or Brazilian supporters for the club. We have a multicultural organic club, but we have never drawn disproportionate numbers of these groups. We have Brazilian and English social media sites, but we do not have a local British supporters group or a samba band in the stands.
  • Not to belabor a point, but anecdotally, when discussing Orlando City with English, Brazilian, or Italian fans during the AS Roma friendlies, there was never more than a cursory interest in our club—usually just a politeness and gratitude that the club was able to bring their favorite club or players here to watch play. The suggestion of coming next week to a USL match-up had little appeal to them.
  • The MLS is still a second-tier league worldwide. I don’t mean to take away from its progress, and I don’t believe it always will be. But today, right now, internationally it is still seen as a league with some growing up to do. It has been hard enough to get American EPL fans excited about MLS. I can’t imagine teams making significant inroads in a country with a tradition-rich league and superior talent on the field.
  • It has not worked for the Orlando Magic. The NBA has actively sought to create itself as an international brand, and to a certain point, I think it has been successful. The Magic has sought to make itself part of the tourist experience in Orlando, but, from my observations at games, foreign fans have never become a highly visible aspect of the crowd. I can’t imagine the Orlando Magic ticket office investing too many resources in attracting tourist fans.
Englishman Luke Boden is one of several players that give Orlando City its international flavor.
Englishman Luke Boden is one of several players that give Orlando City its international flavor.

Conclusions:

Orlando is a tourist city. Despite the fact that every local will remind you that there are two Orlandos—the one near the theme parks that we all avoid, and “our” Orlando—this city was built on the back of tourism. In an effort to sell the city and county on helping to build the club a stadium, the club’s international ties were marketed as pluses. The idea of drawing extra international tourists resonated with mayors and commissioners. That’s how politics work.

Selling the club as an international brand to a city with an international portfolio is just common sense. Understanding globalism and the international community means clubs around the world are all actively marketing themselves beyond their borders. Most soccer fans follow teams from around the world, and it has become a rite of passage for the newly devoted American fan to seek out the team or teams they will pledge allegiance to.

The club would be wise to continue working to bring the Orlando community to games. The profile of MLS and the arrival of a top Brazilian player might help to coax the so-far reluctant fans to games, be they American, British, Brazilian, or any of the other various soccer crazy expatriates living in “the city beautiful.”

As for this summer’s preseason, I know we all can’t wait to see our team line up for the first time. That’s the only reason this pre-season is even interesting to me. Usually, I hate watching pointless pre-season games.  It will be good to send the team out to play some different competition at least and we get the chance to watch some games from exciting foreign locales.

A season opener, with the Citrus Bowl filled to the top with screaming Orlando City fans, beats pointless friendlies against domestic competition as an introduction every time.

Go City!

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