Orlando City owners confident they have winning expansion formula
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- The conversation and speculation as this week's MLS All-Star break came to a close in Kansas City focused on 2020 and the four expansion clubs that the league intends to add in time for its silver anniversary season.
One of them most likely will belong to retired midfielder David Beckham, who has pledged to exercise his option to purchase a team and has made no secret of his focus on Miami. The remaining cities that have expressed interest, from a top-ten market like Atlanta to a major league newcomer like Oklahoma City, now have a timeline, a target and an invitation to proceed.
The roadmap has been laid out. But it is one in which Orlando City owners Flávio Augusto da Silva and Phil Rawlins have no interest. They're not concerned with putting together a package that will sway the MLS board of governors five or six years down the road. They're not worried about fulfilling the league's increasingly stringent expansion criteria. They're not challenged with the onerous prospect of establishing a brand, relationships or momentum at home.
Da Silva, Rawlins and City are anxious and eager. And they're almost ready.
On Wednesday, several hours before MLS commissioner Don Garber made the bombshell expansion announcement, Orlando City's owners made their pitch to the league's board of governors at a Kansas City hotel.
The pair -- a Brazilian and a Brit who now firmly believe in the future of American soccer -- discussed the design and public/private financing of the 18,000-seat stadium the club intends to build in downtown Orlando, a block from the city's NBA arena. They trumpeted the crowds the team has drawn to the Citrus Bowl during its two-plus seasons in USL Pro, which occupies the third-tier of the U.S./Canadian soccer pyramid. At nearly 8,000 fans per game, City's average attendance is more than double what the second-division Seattle Sounders attracted in their final minor league campaign. City already has an under-23 team and a robust youth academy up and running.
Da Silva and Rawlins also advocated for Orlando itself, which is critically important when trying to bring a team to the state that hosted MLS's only two failures, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion.
Orlando is the most visited city in the U.S., with more than 57 million people stopping through in 2012. Da Silva smiled as he said that he expects City to become the "second team" for legions of Brazilian tourists. Orlando is at the heart of the country's 18th-largest combined statistical area, which has a population approaching 3 million. Some 59 percent of Central Florida's people are under 35 years of age, a demographic that has fueled pro soccer's growth. And those potential fans are eager, Rawlins said, to establish their civic bona fides.
"There's a great need to share with the world that Orlando is a city, in and of itself," Rawlins told SI.com. "It's more than just Disney and water parks. There's people who live there and work there, who go to college and choose to stay and raise a family there. When we did our due diligence on the name, the one thing that came back at us loud and clear was that there was a huge need in the community for an identity. That's why we named it Orlando City, to give them something that could represent them, something they could feel part of."
Da Silva and Rawlins are confident that they've concocted a winning expansion formula. They're focused on 2015, not 2020. Asked to evaluate the odds that Orlando City will enter the league alongside New York City FC in two years, da Silva said, "We are much ahead of New York. ... We still have some pieces to put in place, but I would say 99 percent."
Da Silva, 41, is a Flamengo fan from Rio de Janeiro who made his fortune after launching a chain of English language schools in 1995. He recently sold the company, reportedly valued at around $450 million, to Brazilian media and education conglomerate Abril Educação, in which he now is the third-largest shareholder.
He moved his family to the Orlando area in 2009.
"I started thinking about soccer in the U.S. when I became a taxi driver for my son on the weekends, because I was a soccer dad," da Silva said. He joined forces with Octagon Latin America president Alexandre Leitao to research an MLS investment, first focusing on the Southeast U.S. and then on his new place of residence. He reached out to Rawlins and bought in six months ago.
"As an investor, as an entrepreneur, I see the huge potential in the U.S. Huge potential," da Silva told SI.com. "Here, it's not a mature market for soccer. Soccer is growing but it already has nice numbers. For example, the average attendance in (MLS) is 50 percent more than Brazil already. It's a perfect moment to invest because it's still cheap. I want to get involved in the project now because I believe in the next 10 years, it's going to be one of the three biggest leagues in the world."
There were cheaper ways to get in. The Columbus Crew, for example, were sold this week for an estimated $68 million. Considering the minimum $30 million that City will put into a new stadium and an MLS expansion fee that could fall between the $40 million put up by the Montreal Impact and the $100 million spent by NYCFC, entry via Orlando surely will be more expensive. Reports out of Florida suggest da Silva is prepared to spend $80 million total.
He told SI.com that he looked into buying an existing MLS club, but he concluded that Orlando's potential, its status as a global tourist destination, the dearth of major league competition and the response from the area's fan base made "The City Beautiful" the best choice.
Said Rawlins, "You've got to look at the value of the marketplace in Orlando. With all due respect to Columbus, Columbus and Orlando are very different marketplaces. What Flávio and I are attempting to build is a global brand for soccer, and you can do that in Orlando."
On Aug. 6 and 9, the club will make its case before Orange County authorities, hoping to secure $20 million in surplus tourist tax money to support the first phase of the stadium project (an effort to secure state funding was unsuccessful). Rawlins said that Orlando's popularity and the potential facility's ability to attract a variety of events -- soccer and otherwise -- will appeal to commissioners and politicians who prefer to invest that tax revenue in projects that will keep the tourists flowing in.
"Everybody wants to come," Rawlins said.
Meanwhile, the pair hinted that an expansion fee already has been agreed upon with MLS, although they wouldn't divulge details. Da Silva confirmed that those funds were available.
All that's left is to secure the remaining support for the stadium. Da Silva claimed MLS is prepared to award the expansion rights at that time and that City could continue to play in the Citrus Bowl during construction.
"They've made it very clear to us from day one that the key element to this was that we have a funded plan for a soccer-specific stadium," Rawlins said. "If you can finalize it, then that's the last piece of the jigsaw to get an MLS franchise."
Both were confident that those agreements will be reached and that there were no obvious pitfalls that might halt City's progress. For da Silva and Rawlins, 2020 is the distant future. They're not interested in waiting for competing markets to catch up. They hope to be confirmed as the 21st MLS club this year.