Over the last few years, Orlando City has had an absolute romp, playing its way to numerous USL Pro titles. The Lions have played a fun, aggressive, and attacking style favored by many American fans. Exciting play and winning are two key parts of any formula to draw in the crowds. Two memorable, edge-of-your-seat, USL Pro Finals are the kinds of games to turn the casual fan into a die-hard. And the supporters came, with impressive enough attendance figures to draw interest from MLS, where there was none before.
Over these past few seasons, I found myself trying to pull my English Premiere League friends and acquaintances to games, with little or no interest on their end. I get it; third division American soccer is a hard sell. Matchups with teams from Antigua and Harrisburg didn’t really get my friends’ imaginations running wild, I suppose. They had their Liverpools and their Arsenals to support.
I’ve been an EPL fan since the 1990s and can relate to the Saturday morning ritual of waking up and either driving to an oddly open pub at 7 a.m., a friend’s house, or the now-classic “cheering quietly while the rest of the house is still sleeping.” I understand the loyalty, and I understand the arguments about the level of play and competition. Most of the arguments against coming out to an Orlando City game fit those points into a larger narrative that made it clear there wasn’t room in their hearts or their routines for split loyalties. The average EPL fan is very content with the way things have been since they first fell in love with (insert EPL team of choice).
Major League Soccer, as the nation’s top division, should convert some of this football intelligentsia to the local side. Still, even in the U.S., MLS ratings have famously always lagged behind EPL ratings. For example, according to the site Sports Media Watch, in early September of this year, MLS pulled in 317,000 viewers. It was a good week for MLS, actually. While the EPL suffered a weak rating for its West Ham vs. Liverpool match, drawing 693,000 viewers. Translation: American soccer fans at this point are still twice as inclined to wake up at the crack of dawn on a Saturday to watch an early season game from across the Atlantic than they are to watch an MLS game during the run up to the playoffs, when teams have everything to play for.
There are no secrets here; I’m pretty sure the front offices of MLS and Orlando City are well aware of the odd habits of the American soccer fan. The question is, how will Orlando and MLS, in both the short term and the long term, continue to win over these fans?
Maybe a harder question, a less polite question, is: can you convert the Premier League soccer snob to the domestic game? To be clear, I’m not referring to all the fans of the EPL, but just a certain type of fan; the type that will have nothing to do with something so uncultured and barbarian as an American soccer game. We all know one or two of these people.
The elitist fans aside, how does Orlando bring these EPL fans into the fold? Multiple ways:
- Signing Kaka and other talent is key to “legitimizing” the game here. For a fan like me, this kind of signing doesn’t really mean that much in the long term. For the casual fan, the foreign league fan, and the transplant, a signing like this is reason enough to tune in or show up.
- Bringing up the overall level of play is key. Role players are more key than many casual fans may always recognize. A couple of star players surrounded by poor quality has proven a broken formula to draw in fans. Just ask the NASL, circa 1980. Orlando’s aggressive expansion of its youth academy and domestic and international scouting has shown its intention to not follow this formula.
- Winning helps. Orlando has already shown that it will support successful teams. While the management continually comments on how it wants to compete out of the block, history dictates we may be in for a couple of bumpy seasons. No matter how good we are, we won’t be walking over MLS like we did USL Pro.
- Finally, the development of a supporter culture (both in and out of the supporters groups) is critical for these first tentative steps. This is another positive for the club, as the culture here has developed and seems primed and ready for the big leagues.
The question remains, however, with all the things Orlando City is doing right in drawing fans, how can they pry the EPL fan out of their front door and into the stands? Or does it even matter if there’s a local soccer party and they insist on not being on the guest list?
Add your comments below if you have suggestions or observations. Go City!