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Investors bet time is finally right for a pro soccer team in Florida

Phil Rawlins is boldly going where others have failed before. He is leading a group to start an MLS team in Orlando, part of a larger league expansion effort.

November 02, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • As the Galaxy's Marcelo Sarvas, left, and Real Salt Lake's Khari Stephenson prepare for their playoff matchup Sunday, a group of investors is working to start an MLS team in Orlando.
As the Galaxy's Marcelo Sarvas, left, and Real Salt Lake's Khari… (George Frey / Getty Images )

Phil Rawlins heads a group that is about to invest $112 million in a professional soccer team that will play in a state where the sport has failed five times before and in a league in which the vast majority of franchises have never made a profit.

And no, Rawlins does not appear to be crazy.

"We've done a lot of research on it, we've done a lot of due diligence on it," Rawlins, a transplanted Brit, says of his efforts to bring Major League Soccer's next expansion team to Orlando. "We think it's a very, very good investment. Not only for the owners of the team but for the community as well."

History suggests otherwise.

The old North American Soccer League had three franchises in Florida — in Tampa, Jacksonville and Miami-Fort Lauderdale — but the league eventually folded, deep in debt. And in its infancy MLS returned to two of the same markets, only to close franchises in Tampa and Fort Lauderdale, which were successful on the field, for financial reasons after six seasons.

Then there's the rapid expansion of MLS, from 12 teams in 2005 to 21 for the 2015 season.

When the two newest teams — New York City FC, whose membership was announced earlier this year, and Rawlins' Orlando City Soccer Club, whose once-quixotic quest to join the league could be approved as early as this month — begin play, MLS will become the largest top-flight soccer league in the world. That could further dilute the already uneven talent pool from which MLS draws its domestic players, and it could weaken a league already hobbled by troubled franchises such as FC Toronto and Chivas USA.

Toronto, which joined the league in 2007, has yet to post a winning record, and Chivas, whose dysfunctional ownership has been sued for discrimination three times this year, saw its average attendance tumble more than 35% to an MLS-low 8,366.

Leaguewide, attendance fell for the first time since 2009 with nine of the 19 teams posting declines. And regular-season TV ratings were way down — a dangerous trend a season before the league will have to negotiate a new broadcast deal.

But if those are the negative trends, here are the positive ones for MLS and its newest partner: Orange County, where Orlando is located, is one of the nation's fastest-growing counties, having added more than a quarter-million residents since 2000. And according to a 2011 congressional study, it's also one of the youngest with a median age below 33.

And that, the bullish Rawlins says, makes it soccer territory.

"It's a generational thing," he says of soccer's popularity in the U.S. "If you're kind of in the over-40 age group, you grew up with different sports. And you don't get it.

"It's something that's become much more widely available to a younger generation."

Consider Rawlins young for his age then, because despite being 54, he gets soccer. For more than a decade he was a part owner and director of his hometown team, Stoke City of the English Premier League. And his passion for the sport didn't fade after he moved to Texas, where he founded an IT sales and marketing consulting company at about the same time as MLS was kicking off its first season.

Six years ago, just as MLS was beginning its aggressive growth spurt, Rawlins founded the Austin Aztex, which played in the USL First Division, the second tier of professional soccer in the U.S. The ultimate aim was to join MLS, though, so in 2010 Rawlins moved the minor league franchise to Orlando, which he viewed as a more attractive market for a league looking to expand to the Southeast.

"We really felt from the get-go that this could be an excellent MLS marketplace. We said as much when we brought the team here," Rawlins says.

The league wasn't as impressed — with Rawlins or Orlando.

"I'm not so sure if anybody was taking them all that seriously," says an MLS official, who asked to remain anonymous because he is not authorized to speak on the subject.

But Rawlins, who was later joined by Brazilian businessman and investor Flavio Augusto da Silva, would not be deterred. Asked to show a track record of success on the field, Rawlins' team won two USL Pro national titles in three seasons in Orlando. When the size and depth of Orlando's fan base was questioned, the team drew 20,886 to September's USL Pro title game at the aging Florida Citrus Bowl.

That left one final obstacle. Before MLS would consider Orlando for expansion, the franchise had to build an intimate soccer-specific facility to replace the 77-year-old college football stadium it called home. And that proved a tough sell in Florida, where taxpayers had just been duped into assuming responsibility for $3 billion in interest on the construction loans used to built a retractable-roof baseball park in Miami.

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