This wasn’t the season opener Phil Rawlins wanted.
Not this year, not with so much to prove. He wanted a showcase, a chance to show the media and city and county leaders and state legislators and the honchos at Major League Soccer that his stunningly successful United Soccer Leagues pro team, Orlando City Soccer Club, was ready for a new, $110 million downtown stadium, ready for throngs of cantankerous fans, ready for prime time.
Mother Nature is not cooperating.
From all directions on this Sunday evening, April 14, the Citrus Bowl is besieged by a mass of ominous, dark storm clouds. They bring with them periodic squalls of driving rain punctuated by frequent flashes of lightning and booms of thunder. It’s the kind of ferocious Florida thunderstorm that can be a thing of tranquil beauty, a reminder of how small we are. Today it’s just wreaking havoc.
The grass and dirt parking lots to the north and west of the stadium have been reduced to muck, the mud an inch deep in places. Tailgating has been canceled. The crowd is sparse, just thin handfuls here and there around the stadium’s lower rim. The Citrus Bowl can hold about 65,000 people. For today’s 6 p.m. match against the middling Rochester Rhinos, Orlando City’s official count is 6,351. That, to my eyes, is wildly optimistic.
To be fair, this is unusual. The Orlando City Lions are a very good team. In their first two seasons, they won one USL-Pro championship and another regular season crown. They’re atop the league standings for the nascent 2013 season and are riding an impressive 22-game home-unbeaten streak.
Concomitantly, their attendance is the best in the league – last season, the Lions averaged 6,900 fans per game. For the team’s next two home games, on April 19 and April 27, the Lions reported record crowds of 9,140 and 9,589, respectively.
What tonight’s crowd lacks in size it makes up for in vigor. Behind the Rhinos’ goal, there is – as there is every game – a raucous group of die-hards, maybe 150 strong. And they are a sight to behold. No matter how torrential the downpour, there they chanted and yelled and banged cowbells and set off hazy-orange smoke bombs and waved a giant Florida state flag. They were loud and obnoxious, zealous and devoted, the kind of fans you’d expect from the Barclays Premier League, not a minor-league match in Orlando.
The two largest of Orlando City’s supporter groups, as they’re called, are the Iron Lion Firm, the purple-shirted crew in Section 121, and the aptly named Ruckus in Section 119. I couldn’t tell which of the groups – maybe both – directed a chant of “You suck, asshole!” toward a Rochester player who’d aroused their ire. (A fellow journalist in the press box overlooking midfield tells me that last year, during a game against rival Tampa Bay, the die-hards erupted into the belligerent cry, “Fuck you, Tampa!”)
This is part and parcel of the Orlando soccer experience, oftentimes as engaging as the game itself. And while the enthusiasm of a few shouldn’t be mistaken for widespread support, it’s precisely this unbridled passion that makes Rawlins, the Orlando City founder and president, believe Orlando is ready for a Major League Soccer franchise – and has led area leaders, especially Mayor Buddy Dyer, to call for building yet another taxpayer-backed sports facility, alongside the $450 million Amway Center and forthcoming $175 million Citrus Bowl retrofit.
“Here, there’s a desperate need for attachment to place,” Rawlins would tell me a few days later in his Winter Park office. “The citizens of the city are desperate for something to latch onto to define who they are. That’s one of the voids we’ve filled. People are passionate about what we’ve built for them.”
From the moment Rawlins moved his family and his team from Austin, Texas, to Orlando in 2010, there’s been a singular goal: to join the ranks of Major League Soccer. Publicly, MLS has been supportive but noncommittal. The 19-team league has made clear that its next expansion target is Queens, N.Y., and only after that will it consider future sites. But the Southeast is a logical choice. The closest teams to Florida are in Washington, D.C., and Houston.
While there are other potential MLS contenders in the region, including Miami and Atlanta, “there’s no question Orlando is in the best position,” says Adam Henckler, an Orlando-based soccer blogger who runs the website the Scoring Third. He thinks it likely that MLS will award Orlando a franchise by the end of the year, and the team will start playing in MLS by the 2015 season.
But the league has made it equally clear that to even be considered, Orlando City needs a new, soccer-specific stadium. Rawlins’ ownership group has deep pockets – earlier this year, he announced a partnership with Brazilian entrepreneur Flavio Augusto da Silva, who has committed $80 million toward the stadium and MLS franchise fees – but he also wants taxpayer help. This legislative session, Orlando City spent tens of thousands of dollars, maybe more, on lobbyists trying to capture a 30-year, $30-million sales tax rebate to help finance the stadium. In addition, current plans call for the city and county to each chip in another $25 million, and the Dyer administration has already spent more than $8 million acquiring land for the stadium a few blocks west of the Amway Center on Church Street.
If you’ve listened to the stadium’s proponents in recent months, the arguments probably sound familiar: an economic boom, better quality of life, a “cultural cornerstone for generations to come,” as Dyer put it in an Orlando Sentinel op-ed in March. These are, by and large, the same shopworn, sometimes specious claims espoused by the Orlando Magic and Florida Citrus Sports when they were at the public trough, lobbying for the arena and renovated Citrus Bowl, respectively.
But this time feels different. The push for the basketball arena and Citrus Bowl renovation was elite-driven, top-down, muscled through by an edifice-obsessed mayor at the behest of moneyed interests. This isn’t that. The groundswell behind Orlando City is somehow more genuine, more grass-roots, propelled by true believers in both the sport’s appeal and Orlando’s viability as the Southeast’s soccer mecca. And there is no truer believer than Phil Rawlins – a man who, if he pulls this off, will have done so by sheer force of will and fervor, and just a bit of luck.
To understand what Phil Rawlins wants to do, it helps to understand where he came from: Stoke-on-Trent, a city of 250,000 about 150 miles northwest of London and 45 miles south of Manchester. Actually, it’s less a city than an amalgamation of six smaller towns that, for good reason, are collectively referred to as “The Potteries.” From the 17th century until just a few decades ago, this area was the epicenter of England’s pottery manufacturing industry.
“It’s a working-class kind of city,” Rawlins says. “It’s gone through quite a transition.”
The best American analogue is perhaps Cleveland or Pittsburgh, blue-collar towns ravished when manufacturing jobs were outsourced to Asia in the ’80s and ’90s, leaving in their wake high unemployment and unrest. By the mid-2000s, however, Stoke-on-Trent had rebounded. The conurbation’s economy is still pottery-based, only now it’s a hub for distribution and call centers, along with ceramics-related tourism and service industries. (One of England’s most popular theme parks, Alton Towers, is just a few miles to the east.)
Like the post-industrial cities of the Midwest and Mid-Atlantic, Stoke-on-Trent lives and dies by the success of its hometown sports team, Stoke City FC, the second-oldest professional soccer team in the world (and also Orlando City’s “sister team”). “It’s the kind of mentality [where] your sport or your team defines who you are,” Rawlins told me. “You have to be a sports fan. It’s part of you. It’s part of your DNA.”
In Rawlins’ formative years, the Stoke City Potters played in England’s top-flight Premier League. But unlike in the U.S., where, say, the Detroit Lions can suck for years on end and remain in the NFL, in Europe losing gets you demoted. And so it was with Stoke City, which was relegated to the minors for more than two decades, and only rejoined the Premier League in 2008. That demotion was, at the time, a deep psychic blow to a city already embroiled in economic melancholy. And yet the fans kept coming out. Soccer there, like baseball in Philadelphia or football in Baltimore, is a communal experience, almost a civic religion.
“However badly they do, you have to support them,” Rawlins says. “Soccer is one of those games where the crowd and the fans are so involved, so integral to the game. When you get a packed soccer stadium, the crowd can lift [the team] up, can literally motivate them to play. There’s a feeling as a spectator as though you are part of the team.”
This attitude, he says, is at long last catching on stateside. “I can see the same traits in our fans that I saw growing up. True die-hard fans.”
Fans like Rodrigo Guillen, the 28-year-old founder of the Iron Lion Firm, who told me, “Following a team from Europe is one thing, but to have a home team – this whole experience on a personal level has helped me identify who I am now. I’m a supporter.”
Rawlins is a salesman, but not an aggressive or obtuse one. He’s immediately likable, chubby-cheeked and charming, with an endearing northern English accent. He got his start in sales in the early ’80s working for Hewlett-Packard in England. In 1989, after seven years with HP, he left to co-found his own firm, the Sales Consultancy (TSC), which assisted big tech firms with sales and marketing strategies.
Five years later, he split TSC in two, a European and American branch. This was a practical decision. Many of his firm’s clients were located in the U.S., so he needed a presence here. A partner stayed in London; he moved to Dallas. This, too, was a practical choice. Dallas is an airport hub roughly equidistant to the two coasts.
“I’ve always been a believer in supporting your home team,” Rawlins says. He became, and still is, a Cowboys fan.
By 1999, TSC, which had by then merged with another company and taken the name OnTarget, had 18 offices worldwide and $50 million in annual revenues. Rawlins decided to sell.
“Obviously that was a life-changing event for me,” Rawlins says. He was now a very wealthy man, worth some £30 million (about $45 million) as of 2009, according to the British soccer magazine Four Four Two.
What he did next speaks volumes: “The first thing I did, I sent a fax to Stoke.” He inquired about funding Stoke City’s youth academy, a soccer club for kids ages 8 to 18. In exchange for funding the academy for five years, he acquired a 15 percent ownership stake in Stoke City.
“It was the most bizarre thing,” he told me. “I’d met the top people in the [tech] industry. I never thought two things about it. At the first Stoke meeting, I was basically hyperventilating.”
He threw himself into Stoke City. The team’s board asked him to go around to soccer clubs in the U.S. to see if there were any best practices they could emulate. As a result, Stoke City became one of the first clubs in Europe to institute group ticket sales, a common practice in America.
More importantly, Rawlins’ tour allowed him to explore American soccer, its past and present, up close: MLS’s promising start in 1996; a slow burn that stemmed from ill-fitted stadiums and owners who didn’t understand the game; the contraction to 10 teams after the 2001 season, including the elimination of the two Florida franchises, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion; the gradual rebuilding and efforts to lure international stars, most notably David Beckham.
He also learned about the United Soccer Leagues, a minor league of American professional soccer, which piqued his interest. He asked the USL about putting a team in Austin, where he was then living, and then made his move.
The Austin Aztex debuted in 2008, first as an amateur developmental squad, then in the USL’s professional division a year later. But the team struggled to find a home stadium, and at one point found itself playing on a high-school field that disallowed alcohol sales. And Texas already had two MLS squads, one in Dallas and another in Houston. A third Lone Star franchise wasn’t going to happen.
“I had the vision to go to MLS,” Rawlins says. “I knew we couldn’t do that in Texas.”
In October 2010, the Aztex announced that they were moving to Orlando. As soon as Rawlins got here, he contacted MLS. “We wanted to put our hat in the ring,” he says.
MLS officials didn’t take him seriously at first. “We had to really prove we were worth considering.”
The league had a “shopping list” of prerequisites, Rawlins says: a big enough fan base, corporate support, the right demographics. One by one, Rawlins checked off those boxes. The crowds got bigger and bigger, especially as his team dominated the league. Orlando Health signed on as a sponsor, splashing its logo on the team’s uniforms. (Disclosure: Orlando Weekly is also an Orlando City sponsor.)
Last March, MLS Commissioner Don Garber came to visit. He met with Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. He held a town hall with some 300 fans at the former Mojo Bar & Grill on Church Street, and told them, “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”
(When I called, the league was more circumspect. “The success of Orlando City is an extreme positive,” Dan Courtemanche, MLS’s vice president of communications, told me. “But we have a very detailed process. … I can tell you that we don’t have a timetable for expansion beyond the 20th team.” He pointedly noted there are other interested cities the league is looking at.)
But first the team would need a new stadium. And it would need an infusion of cash. MLS franchise fees alone are reported to be $50 million. That’s not counting the team’s contribution to its stadium or annual payroll costs, which on average run higher than $4 million a year.
Phil Rawlins has money. Flavio Augusto da Silva has money, hundreds of millions of dollars, and he’s willing to spend it. That they met was serendipitous.
Da Silva was born in Rio de Janeiro into a lower middle-class family. His mother was a teacher, his father a soldier. He went to college to study information technology, but dropped out during his first year, at the age of 19. Instead, he worked in the commercial department of an English-language school, and there found his calling.
“I really liked that job,” he says.
“It sounded a little weird, but I liked it, I liked it.”
Da Silva called me from Barcelona, in the middle of a working vacation. The reception was spotty, and da Silva’s broken English made him at times difficult to understand, but here’s the gist of his story: After four years in that job, he struck out on his own. He created Wise Up, a series of schools that taught English to Brazilian professionals. He took out a $12,000 loan to open the first school in Rio. The first year, it drew more than 1,000 students. After three years, he had 24 schools; after 17 years, more than 500.
Earlier this year, right around his 41st birthday, he sold the company for about $435 million.
In 2009, da Silva bought a gorgeous white two-story estate in Windermere for $5 million. Orlando is a hot spot for Brazilian vacationers. But da Silva was here studying the market, concocting a business plan. He wanted to franchise soccer schools throughout the United States, the same as he’d done with English-language schools in Brazil. He also considered buying into an MLS franchise.
While here, da Silva often drove his son, Brenno, now 13, to youth-league soccer tournaments and games. One of the boy’s coaches was Marcos Machado, a fellow Brazilian who happens to be Orlando City’s goalkeeping coach. It was Machado who introduced da Silva to Rawlins toward the end of 2012.
Rawlins had by this point spent a year looking for investors. Da Silva was looking for somewhere to invest. They hit it off.
It took only a couple months from that first meeting for them to sign a contract. Da Silva pledged $80 million in total. And once the MLS deal is done, probably sometime next year, da Silva and his Orlando City partners plan to start franchising soccer schools throughout Orlando, and eventually the United States.
Last year, as the MLS endeavor began in earnest, Rawlins commissioned a Dallas firm, CSL International, to conduct a study on the economic impact a new stadium would have on Orlando. That study – touted uncritically by both the Orlando Sentinel and Orlando Business Journal – claimed that the stadium would generate $1.2 billion for the region over the next 30 years.
In addition to Orlando City’s 20 MLS games a year, the stadium would also host seven additional soccer matches, five concerts and 15 “other events.” Each Orlando City match would attract 18,000 fans, double the current attendance, which the report deemed likely because the four teams that have jumped from the USL to MLS have seen, on average, a 325 percent growth in attendance.
“It’s the American sports psyche,” Rawlins says. “When you’re major league, you’ve arrived.”
Da Silva is even more confident. “I know when we are MLS we will sell more than 20,000 season tickets before the first game,” he said. “It is a mistake to think locally. I guarantee you half the people who visit Orlando [from Brazil] would be very happy to take their family [to an MLS game].”
The population of Barcelona, 1.6 million, is slightly less than that of greater Orlando, da Silva points out. Yet FC Barcelona is known the world over. He believes he could do the same here: “Barcelona is a global club. It’s a matter of marketing, a matter of branding.”
As the quality and notoriety of MLS play improve, American teams will attract better players. Da Silva and Rawlins have already promised to bring an unnamed Brazilian superstar – “a Beckham-like player,” Rawlins says – on board.
Mark Soskin has what he believes is as good an economic development idea as building a soccer stadium in downtown Orlando. It goes something like this: Dig a hole. Dump $100 million in it. Cover the hole. The end.
“You couldn’t do any worse,” he says.
An associate professor of economics at the University of Central Florida, Soskin has studied public subsidies of sports stadiums for years. He’s not a fan. “Let’s say we would look at every possible dollar the city could spend for economic development,” he says. “If you were to rank them, a soccer stadium would be pretty darn close to the bottom.”
Economists rarely agree on anything, he continues, but on this there is near unanimity: “Facilities of this sort have never paid anything [back to the community]. They’ve always been a net loss.”
Here’s why: Stadiums don’t bring in outside spending. They only displace money that would be spent elsewhere – you spend $15 for an Orlando City game rather than spending it on, say, a movie. That’s not adding to the local economy; it’s just moving money around.
This is not the case for all sporting events. NASCAR at Daytona, for example, pumps millions of dollars into the local economy, but that’s because it attracts people from all over. Even the Citrus Bowl renovation, which Soskin detests, has the merit of a handful of bowl games that draw visitors from elsewhere. He suspects that won’t be the case with the soccer stadium.
To make matters worse, while Orlando and Orange County taxpayers will largely finance the stadium, they won’t reap the benefits. Rather, they’ll be subsidizing their wealthier suburban neighbors. “Soccer is a high-income sport,” Soskin says. “Orlando is one of the very lowest-income metro areas in the country.” Forty-fifth out of 51, to be exact. Orlando would have the second-lowest median household income of all MLS cities, ahead of only Salt Lake City.
“There’s never been a major league franchise in Mexico or the Dominican Republic” – places where soccer is immensely popular – Soskin says. “Just because there’s interest, that doesn’t generate revenue.”
Economists as a rule are dubious of sports teams’ economic claims. As Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross University, told The Atlantic last year, “Take whatever number the sports promoter says, take it and move the decimal one place to the left. Divide it by 10, and that’s a pretty good estimate of the actual economic impact.”
Rawlins bristled when I brought this up. “Those are not our numbers we put out, per se,” he responded, referring to the CSL report. “The economic impact study is an independent study. Those are their numbers, not our numbers.”
He makes a more convincing argument when he asks not to be lumped in with the city’s controversial billion-dollar trifecta of public works projects – the arena, Citrus Bowl and performing arts center – which were all in the works long before he came to town: “I didn’t tell anyone to build the Citrus Bowl or DPAC or anything else,” he says. He “worked feverishly” to convince MLS officials that the renovated Citrus Bowl would suffice – a cheaper option – to no avail. They told him he needed a “right-sized facility for the fans.”
And though Rawlins won’t say it – certainly not while he’s asking the city for money – his team has agreed to pay for about a third of the stadium’s cost, a considerably larger proportion than Magic owner Rich DeVos offered for the arena.
On April 24, Rawlins sent a note of panic through the Lions faithful. He posted an urgent plea on the team’s website, pressing fans to call their state representatives. As the legislative session careened to a close, a bill that would make a tax rebate to help fund the stadium was stalled in the House: “If legislation does not get passed this year it is likely MLS will choose to locate their expansion team in Atlanta or Nashville rather than in Orlando!”
The fans responded. They called. They emailed. They blitzed the Twitter account of House Speaker Will Weatherford.
Privately, team officials said they weren’t concerned. “That push was done to get the fans’ voices out there,” Orlando City spokesman Chris Jones told me in an email. It was a show of force, a way to both make supporters feel invested in the cause and bullhorn its fans’ enthusiasm to Tallahassee and MLS.
The team’s certitude was rooted in a more traditional strategy. Rawlins had gone deep on lobbyists. He wouldn’t tell me exactly how much he spent, only that it was “not an insubstantial amount.” Henckler, of the Scoring Third, estimated the team’s lobbying fees at between $40,000 and $80,000.
Rawlins told me that was too low.
This confidence, it turns out, was misplaced. State lawmakers were gun-shy, fearful of being seen as providing “taxpayer-funded corporate welfare,” as the powerful Americans for Prosperity labeled the bill. The legislation would have provided state funds to not just Orlando City but all professional teams. Fresh in lawmakers’ minds, too, was the Miami Marlins debacle. Taxpayers paid for 70 percent of the team’s new $639 million ballpark in a deal widely derided as a boondoggle, especially as the team is considered the worst in the league and the stadium sits virtually empty most home games. (Notably, the Marlins’ economic impact study promised $815 million for Miami.)
The lobbyists and Twitter swarms and even Rawlins’ 11th-hour trip to Tallahassee with Buddy Dyer weren’t enough to overcome legislative gridlock and lawmakers’ objections. On May 3, the session’s clock ran out. The bill didn’t even get a vote.
It’s unclear what will happen next. In late April, with legislative machinations still underway, Jones would only tell me that “the franchise would reassess if state funding doesn’t pass.” On the last day of session, with the bill on life support, he said, “I really don’t have a clear plan. As of right now I can’t comment on it.”
“The team does have alternate plans, self-funding options,” says Henckler. “There will be another push for an additional partner. Flavio [da Silva] has the resources.”
Without state money, though, the county will be reticent to jump in. MLS, Mayor Jacobs wrote in an April 1 memo, had told her Orlando City could play in the Citrus Bowl for another five seasons, so there was no rush. “In light of the substantial public investment, nearly $200 million, the City and
County have committed to renovate the Citrus Bowl, it is still my position that the team should play there for a period of time,” she wrote.
Last week, county spokesman Steve Triggs said that without state funds, “soccer will be on the back burner for a while.”
Scrape away the politics and we’re left with a simple question: Why do we even want this thing?
A new soccer stadium, after all, won’t fix Parramore. It won’t bring down one of the nation’s highest crime rates. It won’t solve the foreclosure crisis. It won’t – the team’s economic impact report notwithstanding – revitalize the city’s economy. So why build it?
“I think the city needs that,” Rawlins says. “The city deserves it.”
For Rawlins, it comes down to the sense of belonging that soccer offered him as a boy in Stoke-on-Trent. He wants to re-create that feeling here. Orlando City is, of course, a business venture – and with an MLS franchise, a very profitable one. There’s no denying that. But it’s equally naive to assume that’s all there is to it. This is a labor of both love and money.
Rawlins is entering the final leg of a marathon he’s been running for years. But for all of his drive, for all the energy he’s expended on behalf of his vision, for all the enthusiasm he’s elicited from his team’s supporters, so much has depended, and is dependent still, on forces beyond his control, subject to the whims of politicians and league officials and what Donald Rumsfeld once referred to as “unknown unknowns.”
It’s not so unlike that miserable season opener, drenched and delayed by an inescapable downpour that all but emptied the Citrus Bowl. If you’re inclined to read anything into that – a foreboding storm portending something ominous about the team’s future – consider this: Late that night, after two long rain delays, with almost no one watching, the Lions beat the Rhinos 3-1.