Orlando City will likely be a success if they learn from other teams’ failures

Only time will tell if Orlando City Soccer Club – now so close to its MLS launch we can almost feel the Florida sunshine on our Vitamin D-deprived skin – will be the league’s next big success story.

This much we can say: Orlando City certainly feels like the next big thing. During a recent day in Orlando I was impressed with the amount of awareness, in media impressions and from the man on the street, of the incoming invasion of OCSC purple. The city seems intent on embracing its new entry into big-time professional sports, guided by the impassioned brand of grassroots support that made Portland, Seattle, Toronto and to some extent Philadelphia such great, immediate MLS marketing triumphs.

The Lions will play for a year inside at the less-than-perfect Citrus Bowl, but that hasn’t dampened local enthusiasm. The club has topped 40,000 seats sold for next week’s big lid-lifter, and the season ticket count is up to an impressive 12,000. The planned downtown stadium that could push the club further down victory lane, status-wise.

So, yes, the “Next Big Thing” is potentially unfolding in Central Florida. Again, we’ll see.

Teams new to MLS, those entering in what we’ve come to know as MLS 2.0 and beyond, have one huge advantage over the “1996ers,” the 10 clubs still around from the inaugural MLS season: they aren’t dragging around some of the bulky, battered baggage of the bad old days.

Maybe “bad old days” is too strong; there was a lot of great stuff going on in the late 1990s – but there were undeniably a bunch of growing pains, too.

Some clubs certainly did things better than others. But almost every original MLS club, at some point along the way, stumbled and bumbled and learned tough lessons. They mucked up the marketing, or they were clumsy in dealing with fans or the media. Or they made poor choices in venue selection or stadium development. Getting the stadium situation wrong has the most enduring drag, and it’s easy to clobber the deciders with the benefit of hindsight. But the reality is that somebody had to experiment; everyone else could observe and then learn the lessons without necessarily paying the price.

Now these new teams, Orlando and New York City FC and soon enough LAFC and Atlanta, have to exploit this advantage (of not dragging around the baggage of early MLS years). They can’t afford to squander an opportunity that 20-year-old MLS clubs didn’t have.

Toronto FC was the first MLS franchise to nail the formula: Start with an urban stadium – a dedicated facility, that is, not just glomming onto a stadium borrowed from college or pro football. Allow grassroots support to cultivate genuine buzz and target the right audience: young urbanites rather than suburban families, as the game’s traditional marketing had previously dictated.

Whether all that happened around Exhibition Place through skillful planning or whether the Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment (with some legacy of bungling in its other sporting endeavors) simply got lucky is up for debate. Either way, TFC began showing the way.

Seattle and Portland certainly took notice, and the results speak for themselves. If every MLS market looked like those places, with CenturyLink Field and Providence Park absolutely teeming on game day, Major League Soccer would already have surpassed the NHL in national appeal, and this new $90 million national TV deal would be paying two or three times that amount.

Philadelphia’s choice of stadium location remains a bit iffy, and the competition side hasn’t quite been up to snuff. Still, considering an ownership portfolio not exactly blessed with as many commas and zeros as others, Philly and its Sons of Ben brigade has done a commendable job.

Some of these success stories are about prudent planning and front office follow-through. Those efforts include studying past mistakes in MLS and plotting prudent course corrections. Sporting Kansas City did a lot of the same in its wildly successful re-branding; they are now at 52 consecutive sellouts in MLS matches – and counting.

Previously, Kansas City made mistakes in sales and in marketing, errors that alienated far too much of the soccer community. Almost every MLS club playing back when Eric Wynalda hooked that historic, initial league goal back in the spring of 1996 has a similar story. The MetroStars made their share of marketing boo-boos, not to mention the dreadful (although perhaps necessary at the time) choice to play at Giants Stadium. So did San Jose and Columbus and Dallas. Obviously, Tampa Bay didn’t get it right, so R.I.P. ye Mutiny. All learned tough lessons along the way. In some ways, they are still paying the price – and not just for the big lessons, such as physical placement of facilities. The drip effect of little mistakes made in PR may still hamper media relations. Similarly, legacies of a sales staff blunder or game-day customer service screw-ups can sometimes be hard to overcome. People hold grudges.

And then there was the poor quality soccer. Some fans who came to check out a match in 1998 or 2002 or even 2006 may still bang on about “rubbish football,” unaware or ignorantly unconcerned with how much has improved since then.

Each and every year, MLS did things a little better on the field, in the stands, in spreading the word through digital media. Each team learned from its ancestors, and HQ in New York facilitated things through league meetings and seminars. By the time Seattle (2009) and Portland (2011) made the MLS scene, with the added advantage of having previously existed in their markets as lower-tier clubs, they had little excuse to make even the smallest of mistakes.

Simply put, they entered a better, more polished MLS.

But once you get going, you still have to get it right. And that takes us back to Toronto FC. Clearly, despite a roaring start, this franchise has been a master of the big, swinging miss. Watching fan enthusiasm slowly bleed out of BMO has become a real drag on MLS.

Most of Toronto’s problems were on the competitive side, reminding us once again that all the marketing wisdom in the world takes any club only so far. Good supporters will stand behind a team in tough times – but they can only take so much. It really is incredible and incredibly pitiful that TFC has yet to make the playoffs in a league that has historically A) made it fairly easy to do so, and B) provides a big leg up each year to teams that fail.

Orlando City is getting a lot of things right, exploiting the advantages of climbing aboard a train already chucking along at good pace. But things get real, as they say, in about a week. We’ll see if OCSC can keep getting it right.

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