COMMENTARY: The holdup to MLS aspirations for Orlando City might be stadium

Jeff Leadbeater@reevesarmyocContributor IMay 15, 2011

The Ruckus and The O-Town Hooligans after Orlando City's home match against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on May 14, 2011. The fans and supporters are making the best of the Citrus Bowl in City's inaugural season. (Image by Kevin Krause, used with permission)
The Ruckus and The O-Town Hooligans after Orlando City's home match against the Pittsburgh Riverhounds on May 14, 2011. The fans and supporters are making the best of the Citrus Bowl in City's inaugural season. (Image by Kevin Krause, used with permission)

The rumbles grow for Orlando City to be the cornerstone for a Major League Soccer franchise in the future.

The president of The Ruckus, Lori Conlee, released in a pregame game-plan e-mail a few weeks ago that she had it on credible sources that there is active talk between the City ownership group and MLS. I do not have access to these sources, so I consider this a rumor.

Recently, the website MLS:Rumors released an article that claimed Orlando City might be maneuvering around the New York Cosmos for the very next expansion, due to issues surrounding a potential stadium. But many consider MLS:R to be a dubious source of rumors, and they didn’t reveal the particular sources either.

However, recently the MLS website itself revealed that the league had contact with Minnesota Vikings owner Zygi Wilf about an MLS team in connection with his latest stadium plan for the Vikings in Arden Hills, Minn., to the north of St. Paul.

Many people look at the Twin Cities and see the barely-breathing NSC Stars of the new NASL. But Minnesota was one of the power markets of the classic North American Soccer League, posting well above-average attendance every year of its existence until becoming a victim of stagflation in 1981, yet another brilliant star that flickered and went out way too fast.

In 1976 through 1978, they were second in average attendance and peaked at 32,771 per game in 1977–less than 1,500 per game fewer than the Pelé-led New York Cosmos that year.

With Seattle lifting the taboo of placing a new MLS team in a football stadium (given the right experience, of course), it gives Zygi a glimmer of hope that his new stadium, if ultimately approved, will get Minnesota an MLS franchise.

But it’s hardly a shoo-in.

Seattle has a good experience with narrowing Qwest Field down so it feels intimate enough for a proper soccer experience. Vancouver will attempt to do the same when the Whitecaps move into BC Place following its roof replacement and renovation later this summer. Minnesota will have to do the same if they want MLS.

Also keep in mind, these are all new or recently renovated facilities. DC United is on the brink of moving to Baltimore because RFK Stadium is a piece of junk the team doesn’t have control of, and is losing money like a sieve.

Baltimore has proven more than willing to build them a new stadium. Although Gillette Stadium is actually slightly newer than Qwest Field (Gillette opened later in 2002; Qwest Field held USL Seattle Sounders matches earlier in 2002), Robert Kraft has made no effort to give New England Revolution fans an experience similar to the Sounders. It’s no surprise the Revs are now near rock-bottom in attendance. There is reportedly serious talk of building a new stadium closer to Boston.

You look at Qwest Field, and then you look at the Citrus Bowl. Do you honestly expect us to impress Major League Soccer with that dump? I don’t even expect us to impress them with the paltry $165-million renovation plan on the books. Even with that, it’s not supposed to start until 2020. By then, the S.S. MLS Expansion will have long since sailed.

We have only two options for sealing the deal on MLS expansion: either (A) scrap the boondoggle Performing Arts Center and divert the TDT money to completely replace the Citrus Bowl, or (B) find a place to build our own soccer-specific stadium.

Knowing the way politics works in this town (both as a life-long resident of 31 years and a degreeholder in Political Science), I have zero confidence that option A will ever happen for all the bluster earlier this year by Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. So I am going to focus on option B.

Before I do so however, there must be justification to build such a facility beyond merely pursuing MLS. A smaller outdoor stadium with a capacity of 20,000 to 30,000 with covered sideline stands and all seats (or almost-all, with endzone bleachers for a supporters’ section) could attract future international friendlies.

International clubs from Europe and the Americas could come to Orlando for summer practice, and to play friendlies with Orlando City in a much more modern environment. We could also attract matches for the U.S. national teams.

Beyond soccer, such a facility could host smaller football events, such as the FHSAA High School Football state championships, or two of the things the ancient Citrus Bowl recently lost: the East-West Shrine Game and the United Football League.

It could also, in the future, be a home for other up-and-coming minor-league sports, like outdoor lacrosse (Major League Lacrosse) or rugby (USA Rugby League, which has a team in Jacksonville). It could also be used for outdoor concerts and other events, giving a different atmosphere than the Amway Center can provide.

It would not compete with Amway Center, but rather cater to events that require a different atmosphere. It might be a keystone if Orlando hopes to fulfill the promise made by Linda McMahon to return WWE’s WrestleMania to Orlando following the success of WrestleMania XXIV at the Citrus Bowl.

Even if we do not get Major League Soccer (for example, if they decide to stop expanding for the near future beyond 20 teams), such a smaller facility would still be a major advantage for Orlando City’s future, providing an unparalleled experience for the team and its fans.

The first important step is finding a place to plant a stadium, and there are actually a few established options if you get in somebody’s ear quick. Links to the sites referred to reference Google Maps.

First, we have the old Agere plant in Southpark Industrial Park on John Young Parkway, between the Beachline (SR 528) and Sand Lake Road (SR 482).

This site used to be the corpse of Orange County’s first attempt to diversify the local economy by jumping into the early tech boom of the 1980s. It was demolished late last year, and they just finished clearing and remediation of the site.

Believe it or not, the site is now owned by The Tavistock Group, the owners of Tottenham Hotspur and the investment group that originally passed up on MLS in Orlando because it was unsure of its financial model.

Eventually, Destination Parkway will be extended across Shingle Creek to the southern end of Southpark Circle, just north of the plant, providing a direct connection to Universal Blvd. and, eventually, International Drive. John Young Parkway connects to the Beachline less than a mile to the South. Consulate Road, which curves around the site, gives the site connections to US 441 and the Turnpike as well.

The actual footprint of the main plant building was about 225 x 150 yards. The physically-largest 20,000-seat soccer-specific stadium I’ve found, Rio Tinto Stadium in suburban Salt Lake City, is 210 x 165 yards. So the area has plenty of space for a stadium. I am unsure if they ripped up the parking lots along with the buildings; if they didn’t, then there’s already lots of parking there.

The primary issue would be traffic for day games. This area of John Young Parkway is the only portion of the road that is not yet six lanes. I am unsure when the space from the Turnpike to the Beachline will be widened, but it will happen eventually. But it's relatively easy access from two major expressways would be a help, especially if they widened Consulate Road around the site.

The thing is, I think I heard that Tavistock already has plans for this site, so it might not be an option anymore. The next option is Festival Bay Mall, on the corner of International Drive and Oak Ridge Road.

Even when the economy was good, this idea was foolhardy, with Belz Factory Outlet Mall right next door. Who would go to a tourist trap for a Ron Jon Surf Shop? Now that Belz has been redeveloped into the open-air Prime Outlets Orlando, Festival Bay’s fate appears to have been sealed.

It was bought late last year, and the new developer is slowly pushing tenants out as their leases expire; this is what happened to Cricketers Arms last month. No idea what they’ll do about Bass Pro Shops, Vans Skatepark or the movie theater—the only things anybody ever go to the mall for anymore.

The rumor I have is that they plan on redeveloping it into an open-air shopping center like Prime Outlets. But the north end of I-Drive is swimming in shopping centers, and this spot is right next to the biggest of them all, so there’s no guarantee that yet another shopping center will fare any better than Festival Bay did. Not to mention it’s not far from The Mall at Millenia, Millenia Blvd. is just off the right edge of the screen on Oak Ridge Road.

In terms of development, this place is even more perfect than the Agere site. Since it hasn’t been torn down yet, the parking is intact, and there is plenty of it. The footprint south of Bass Pro Shops is roughly 370 x 260 yards, so a large stadium could be built without disturbing Bass Pro Shops or the movie theater.

The big problem, again, is traffic, which would be more acute here since we’re talking about the tourism corridor. But the roads themselves are no worse than the roads around the Citrus Bowl. It’s relatively close to I-4 as well, just a short jog south on Kirkman Road. It’s easily accessible particularly from I-4 westbound, where you don’t even need to merge or change lanes once on Kirkman to get on I-Drive in the right direction.

There is also a third way. It might prove a bit controversial in Orlando: redevelop Tinker Field.

The footprint of Tinker Field is 210 x 170 yards; perfect to put in a soccer-specific stadium. It can use the parking currently utilized by the Citrus Bowl for events. The issue with this site is that redevelopment of Tinker Field is a very toxic subject.

There is a loud minority that wants to keep Tinker Field; it's why Orlando Mayor Buddy Dyer had it put on the National Register of Historic Places in 2004. But it is in an even sorrier state than the Citrus Bowl, making the latter look like Cowboys Stadium in comparison. The fact that it did not get any money from Downtown Master Plan 3 for at least some sort of renovation is laughable at the very least.

But before anybody shrugs off redevelopment of Tinker Field, I should note that it has proven very successful thus far in one of the new markets: Portland. The Portland Timbers played in PGE Park prior to its advancement to MLS.

Back then, it was a baseball stadium. Throughout the 2010 season, PGE Park was redesigned into a soccer facility. Now Jeld-Wen Field, it has become one of the most happening soccer facilities in this country. While it's unlikely Tinker Field as it is could be remodeled in such a fashion, it does open the possibility for replacement with a new soccer facility.

I may look at other sites in the future, but I emphasize these sites because they are relatively close to the urban core of the city. In fact, they are right smack dab between Downtown and the main tourist areas. They are relatively easily accessible from all parts of the metro area, and from the airport.

If we could convince a savvy entrepreneur to buy one of these plots and plant a stadium there, then what I see as Orlando’s final obstacle to a Major League Soccer franchise will have finally been overcome. It will only be a matter of time, and the proper words to MLS Commissioner Don Garber, before Orlando will finally realize the promise first expressed at the World Cup nearly 20 years ago.


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