Orlando lost one of its longest-standing teams today when news broke that the Arena Football League―and with it, the Orlando Predators, one of its longest-running and most storied franchises―were folding after 23 and 18 years in existence, respectively.
Gone are the legends of the Miracle Minute and the Arena League's lone shutout. The Arena Bowl victories in 1998 and 2000. The original War on I-4 with the Tampa Bay Storm. And 12-15 thousand fans filling Amway Arena 8-12 times each spring and summer.
But when one door closes, usually another one opens. The time may have indeed come to bring soccer back to Orlando.
For some, the words "soccer" and "Orlando" may not invoke much reminiscence. But consider the following:
The Citrus Bowl was a host venue for the 1994 FIFA World Cup. It hosted four games; one in Group E, two in Group F, and one in the Round of 16. The average attendance was around 61,400, with the smallest being 60,370. This compared favorably with games held in Chicago, and did better than Boston and Dallas, and also outperformed most group stage matches at the tournaments in France in 1998 and Italy in 1990.
The Citrus Bowl was again a host venue for the soccer competition in the 1996 Summer Olympics. It hosted six matches; three each in Groups B and D. It averaged around 21,000 per game. It may not seem like much, but more than half of the group stage games in 1992 in Barcelona had attendances under 10,000, and the numbers did compare favorably to 2000 in Sydney.
The Citrus Bowl was chosen as the host venue of the 1998 Major League Soccer All-Star Game. 34,416 people braved the typical heat of an Orlando summer day to watch the league's American All-Stars beat its World All-Stars, 6-1. That's almost 10,000 more than the previous year at Giants Stadium, and the second-highest MLS All-Star Game attendance in its history.
The Citrus Bowl has hosted several club and international friendlies. Most recently, on January 13, 2008, it hosted a club friendly between C.D. Guadalajara of Mexico and Deportivo Cali of Colombia. (warning: link in Spanish) With little advertisement, they attracted 15,126 fans.
The Citrus Bowl is not a proper venue for a permanent soccer club, even without the delay in its coming renovations. The few American football venues still in use by MLS do not attract as many fans as the smaller soccer-specific venues that have been put in place in cities like Columbus, Chicago, Los Angeles and Toronto.
That's not as big an obstacle as it might sound at first. This past October, the Orlando Business Journal published an article about plans for a $50 million soccer complex in Southwest Orlando. The 118-acre complex includes the construction of a 20,000-seat MLS-ready soccer stadium.
It would be located along the SR 429 expressway at Exit 15, New Independence Parkway, near Bridgewater Middle School and Horizon West, just south of Winter Garden and Ocoee. Since MLS games are typically played on Saturday and Sunday, with the occasional Thursday, traffic for the most part would not be an impedement to attendance.
The land where this complex would go is owned by Orange County and is already zoned for recreation. The County has expressed willingness to lease the land if it attracts a team. The complex itself would be funded by private investors with no money necessary from public or government sources.
It is also now known that Don Garber, Commissioner of Major League Soccer, wants to add two more teams. With no teams in the Southeast, there is definitely an opening to return to Florida after the flight of the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion after 2001.
That is an interesting story, as soccer's flight from Florida wasn't necessarily because of flagging attendance. The Mutiny's investment group went belly-up in the wake of 9/11, and the league decided to take the Fusion with it, despite improving attendance and an elite team.
The Fusion won the Supporters' Shield, the award for the best regular-season record, in 2001, and was scheduled to attend the 2002 CONCACAF Champions' Cup, the North American continental championship for club soccer (now known as the Champions League).
The remaining question is this: Can Orlando support soccer? They already support the Magic, and the MLS season will provide minimal overlap with the Magic and the soon-to-arrive Orlando Tuskers of the United Football League. Without the Predators, an MLS team in Orlando would be the only game in town, playoffs notwithstanding, from mid-April to September.
Being the 19th-largest television market in the United States, Orlando is already larger than five of the media markets that already have, or are about to have, MLS (Portland, Kansas City, Salt Lake City, Columbus, Vancouver), and are about on-par with another (Denver). Orlando is the largest metro area with only one major-league professional team.
In addition, with its reputation as a prime tourism destination, it would be logical that Orlando would attract more out-of-town fans than other MLS cities. Soccer fans around the world are known to travel well and travel readily, and MLS fans are no exception. The added incentive of Disney World and Universal makes it even more likely that Red Bull, Crew, Galaxy, United, Fire, Dynamo, Wizards and Sounders fans, among others, would go to Orlando to cheer their teams on.
Finally, having an MLS team would also boost Orlando's chances of returning to World Cup glory. The United States is in the running to host the FIFA World Cup in either 2018 or 2022, and cities are already lining up for the chance to host games for the event.
It's sad that the Predators are gone, but it does not have to be the end of excitement in the spring and summer in Orlando. The door is open, and the opportunity is there. All Orlando needs is somebody with the money and the guts to grab it.