ORLANDO, Fla. -- “I see myself as a member of the club rather than a fan of the team.”
So says Orlando City supporter David Valentin, encapsulating the growing Central Florida vibe that is rapidly coming to stand for a social phenomenon in purple.
It seems there are fans, there are soccer fans, and then there are Orlando City fans. The latter boast plenty of elements of the first two, but also a unique extra dimension all their own that is helping to take things to a new level.
Consider this: Orlando is the 19th biggest market in MLS, yet it was second in merchandise sales in 2015, and second for both total and average attendance in the league. They're also big internationally--with even official supporters' groups abroad--largely thanks to the interest in seeing Brazilian star Kaká. For a city of less than 300,000, albeit with a metro population more than seven times that, it's a startling series of statistics.
But then usual rules don’t seem to apply to the fledgling "Soccer Capital of the Southeast," which has been making increasingly bigger waves since Phil Rawlins uprooted the Austin Aztex in 2010 and relocated them to a part of the world that had little soccer history, but plenty of potential.
Rawlins lit the fuse of expectation, and a fully-fledged sports marvel has exploded into life almost right before Orlando residents' eyes. And fans like Valentin have helped to drive the runaway bandwagon that has twice "Filled the Bowl" (the Citrus Bowl, Orlando City's current home), and averaged almost 33,000 per game since joining MLS in March 2015. The team has now become almost ubiquitous in an area previously known only for its support of the NBA's Magic and various state college football teams.
Crucially, Valentin identifies the connection between the players and supporters as the extra dimension that continues to drive the social nature of the Lions’ following.
“Orlando loves its soccer team, and the team loves us right back. It is ‘our’ sport in a way that the Orlando Magic hasn’t been able to do, even after 27 years," he says. "My kids are six and eight and they are only interested in going to City games. Too many fans at Magic games are supporting the visiting team because they originally come from Boston, or New York or somewhere else. At times, it doesn’t feel like a home game.
“But with soccer, these are all first-generation fans, dedicated to the winning culture the team has established. We have grown this culture ourselves, with the support of the team, and we feel totally invested in it.”
True, the team has fueled the fire with plenty of fan-friendly promotions, and they have stoked the appetite for soccer in 2016 with two new teams, Orlando City B (in USL) and Orlando Pride (in the NWSL), bolstering the "soccer club" nature of the organization in the process. Orlando City's name–along with all its attendant purple-colored implications–are hardly ever out of the local media.
But just listen to another fan, Nelson Ramos, a transplant from Brazil (and a Gremio supporter) who has made the Lions his team in the five-year transition from USL to MLS. He's also one of many fans who have helped to add a South American flair to the fan base.
“It was a curiosity at first. I was drawn in more for the friendly games against big-name opposition, and it attracted a lot of South American people like me, maybe 1000 to 2000 in the early days," he says, of why he first checked out the team. “Everywhere you go in Orlando now you see the tags and the flags, everyone knows about Orlando City. People are really, really excited to be at the games and, for sure, every single game will be a big event. And yes, there has been some great advertising and marketing, but I think this is a movement of the fans. To begin with, I went with five or six people. Now it's 200 or 300, and I know everybody."
Orlando’s ethnic diversity, its young demographic, the Magic's floundering fortunes in recent seasons, and the marketing juggernaut that is City’s front office have all combined to create a perfect storm of fan interest. But the real curiosity remains the way it has connected with Central Floridians on a fundamental level, from zero to golazo in such a short amount of time.
And it was ex-Navy man Valentin who put his finger firmly on the key issue that has beguiled so many, even if they don’t realize it themselves.
“This is new to American sports,” he says. “Orlando City brings an emotion to you as a fan, especially those of us who have been interested since the first year. Now, we look around at the numbers involved and say to each other, ‘Wow. Look at what we have accomplished.’ We feel our support for the team has helped move it to where it is now, and we feel privileged that people are joining us."