Orlando City fans have plenty to celebrate as the club secured government approval for a new downtown stadium. (Mark Sims/Icon SMI)
Orlando City needed Tuesday evening’s stadium funding vote by the Orange County board of commissioners to cement its ascension to MLS. And the measure passed by the minimum 5-2 margin. But the USL Pro club was confident it would get the green light and has been planning its move for quite some time. All indications are that it will be ready to make the jump in 2015.
About 12 hours after getting the good news, City co-owner and president Phil Rawlins spoke to SI.com about the vote that paved the way and how his ambitious club plans to take advantage.
SI.com: That was a long hearing [more than six hours]. What was it like when it finally ended in your favor?
Rawlins: It was great! It was a very, very emotional night. A dream come true for us to get this completed. I think we got out of the chamber at around 9 [PM] and we went and had a few beers in celebration. The downtown was full of fans, so we had a beer with them and were able to share the moment.
That’s what we saw yesterday in spades here in Orlando. It was just testimony after testimony about their love for the game, their passion for the game, their passion for the club and what we’ve built here. The community and everything else. That’s the way they feel about this team.
SI.com: There were a few speakers in opposition and two commissioners voted against the funding package [which put $20 million in tourist taxes toward the stadium]. What’s your sense of why they were against it?
Rawlins: It really didn’t have any opponents [among the public]. What you had was some people who had some serious issues -- and I feel for them, to be honest with you -- that they brought up. It was a platform to discuss those issues. They weren’t anti-soccer or anti-stadium issues. It was, “If you’re going to do this, then please help us get this.” It’s very understandable. It wasn’t opposition. It was, “Help us put security cameras in Parramore [the downtown district where the stadium will be built] so we can be safer.”
Obviously I haven’t had a chance to speak to the commissioners who voted against us. You’d have to ask them why. If you ask me my opinion, it was political principles, not anything to do with supporting soccer -- the political principle of using tax dollars, even tourist tax dollars, to support the private-public partnership we were trying to put in place.
SI.com: It’s hard to believe that you’d have just given up if the vote went the other way. We’re talking about $20 million here, a sum that [majority owner] Flávio [Augusto da Silva] probably could’ve scraped together. What was the plan?
Rawlins: We really haven’t had that conversation at all. Since day one, and Flávio came into this [in February] when the plans were semi-baked. The recipe was set out. And we said from day one we wanted to build a strong private-public partnership on this. The team was willing to put up 50 percent [$40 million toward the stadium cost]. At the end of the day the stadium will be owned and managed by the city. It’ll be a civic asset. … We never had that conversation. I can guarantee it. We were going to make this happen. That’s my commitment to the city and this community, that this was going to happen. It was going to happen hell or high water and we made it.
[Note: During the hearing Rawlins agreed to increase the club’s contribution toward the construction and maintenance of public soccer fields by $500,000 to $3 million over 15 years.]
SI.com: So what’s the timeline now? When do you expect an expansion announcement?
Rawlins: As with any expansion agreement, there are a few terms and conditions to be gone over. We’re going back and forth on a few of those. I don’t expect any deal breakers on there. I know there aren’t. We’ll work on expediting it as quickly as we can. I don’t want to say it’ll be the ‘X’ day and then it slips by a week and then we all look stupid. I anticipate within the next few weeks. My goal is to get it done by Thanksgiving. We’ll work as quick as we can and get the lawyers to finish it up.
[Note: City will pay an expansion fee of approximately $70 million. That compares to the $100 million paid by New York City FC and the $40 million paid by the Montreal Impact to join MLS in 2012.]
SI.com: What’s the timeline on the new stadium?
Rawlins: The earliest we can break ground on a stadium would be some time in the spring of next year, which if we did, that puts us at a potential opening in the summer of 2015. The Citrus Bowl [where City has played the past three seasons] is being completely, not even renovated. It’s being rebuilt. It’s going to have $200 million poured into it. So we would play the first half of the [2015 MLS] season at the Citrus Bowl and then transfer to the soccer stadium around mid-summer.
SI.com: What does $80-$90 million get you in Orlando? What can you tell us about what you’re going to build?
Rawlins: It buys you quite a lot. It’s a relatively inexpensive marketplace to build and develop in. We’ve got a great location, two blocks from the Amway Center [where the NBA’s Orlando Magic play] and two blocks from the Church Street entertainment district, where the bars are and everything. We’ve got one of the best downtown locations in the country. The march to the match here is going to be something else.
The facility itself will be a very European-style stadium. It’s going to take up two city blocks. People will empty out onto the sidewalks and into the street. The streets will be closed on game day. It’ll be a lot like a game at Hillsborough, where the stadium is literally in the streets. It creates a fantastic atmosphere when you walk to a stadium like that.
[Note: Rawlins chose HIllsborough as an example because it is the home of Sheffield Wednesday, the writer’s favorite foreign club]
Inside the stadium we’ll have the things you usually expect. A high number of premium seats, and we want a great supporters section. We have some of the best supporters in the country and we need to give them the right platform to show them off. We’re talking to [MLS] about a standing rail section. Not bench seating. There will be roofs over three sides of the stadium, premium seating at about 20 percent of the stadium, initially about 20 suits and the usual media facilities. We want the rake on the stadium as steep as we can make it, legally. We want to create a cauldron, a great atmosphere, an intimidating place to come and play. The roof is close to the fans, the noise bounces off the roof. The steepness of the seats, the closeness of the spectators to the field, all those things matter and they create atmosphere.
SI.com: Why a roof on only three sides?
Rawlins: We’ll probably leave one side open for expansion. We’ll have a roof on the two main stands and the supporters’ stand. The north end will probably be open initially.
[Note: The stadium likely will seat around 18,000 when it opens.]
SI.com: At the hearing you mentioned the possibility of hosting an MLS All-Star game.
Rawlins: Yes, we talked with the league about bringing the All-Star game here in the first five years after we open, and some international friendlies as well.
SI.com: As far as building a team for next year and beyond, do you put together a USL team for 2014 with MLS in mind? Will you keep the rights to the players you have next year?
Rawlins: I think the way it works is that the players that are with us and we sign in 2014 that we want to bring over in 2015, we’ll be allowed to. The other [MLS] teams won’t be able to attach a discovery to them and take them away from us. I’ll use Jamie Watson as an example. He’s one of those players that we want to bring over, and I’m of the understanding he would come with us in 2015 and that there would be no other ties to him [Watson, 27, was waived by FC Dallas in 2008]. We’ll get clarification on that and I’m sure many more things related to player contracts.
[2014 is] going to be an unusual year in many respects. We’re going to be running a football club playing in a league, but preparing to go into another league with very different rules and regulations. It’s going to be a challenge and it’s going to be a fun year. I’m looking forward to it.
SI.com: When do you start talks with potential [designated players]?
Rawlins: They’ve been underway for more than six months! We’re not starting those conversations. Those people were following us on Twitter last night [during the hearing]. We’ve been having those conversations for six months. We know who we want and it’s fair to say that the people we want also want to be with us. I don’t think it will be too hard of a negotiation.
[Note: Brazilian midfielder Kaká, who’s currently at AC Milan, is frequently linked with Orlando City. He visited the club in June.]
SI.com: There are a lot of roster rules to figure out over the next year. You’re a soccer guy and an investor. Do you appreciate the regulations or restrictions as someone with money at stake or does it offend your sporting sensibilities?
[Note: Rawlins also is a director at English Premier League club Stoke City.]
Rawlins: There are many things I really admire about MLS. When you have the opportunity like they did to start with a blank sheet of paper, they created some very good models to build a league. There are a lot of rules and a lot of guidelines and our biggest challenge is to come up to speed and be knowledgeable on all of those rules and the practices of running a club in this league.
But in general terms, I think MLS does a very good job of managing itself and creating an even competition that’s interesting and that allows the game to grow and be sustainable. You have to take your hat off to them for what they’ve done. It’s easy to pick on one or two examples that people want to have a go at them about, that stand out. But they’ve created a solid platform for growth. Our job now is to learn the rules and be competitive within them and put the best team we can on the field in 2015.
SI.com: You told the Orlando Sentinel that there might be some logo or brand modifications when you go to MLS. What do you have in mind?
Rawlins: The colors [purple and red] aren’t going to change. The name isn’t going to change. We’re going to own the color purple. But one of the things we have to change is the logo. We would’ve changed it in a year or so anyway, had we not even been going to MLS. You give the trademark over to the league. So we’ll work on changing the logo in the next few months and probably launch that some time next year. We’ll put a team on it and get working on it. The lion will still be a very prominent part of it. We’ll still be the Lions. Other than that, we’ll wait and see what we come up with.
About the brand, I want to say that last night, that was a defining moment, in my opinion, for the city of Orlando. People know us for the attractions. But there’s a whole city here of young people, young professionals, that want civic pride and pride in their city and don’t want to be going around the world and the only thing they’re known for is being the home of Mickey Mouse. It’s why we named the club Orlando City. There’s a deep need for civic pride and we wanted to bring that in the name.