A major reason for MLS’s success is the insistence on teams playing in soccer-specific stadiums — the heart of the league business plan. But the two best-drawing teams in MLS play out of football stadiums. A visit to the Citrus Bowl shows why Orlando City SC has been such a huge success this season – and why a soccer-specific stadium should be in the team’s future.
That Orlando City SC would be a success upon moving to MLS this season was a given, but the extent of the success was perhaps a surprise to many. Last season Orlando City, playing at the USL Pro level, averaged some 4,100 fans a game at ESPN’s Wide Word of Sports in Disney World. Currently Orlando City SC’s 34,393 fans per game is second in MLS attendance behind Seattle Sounders FC’s 40,217 fans per game. Interestingly, the top four MLS teams on the attendance charts all play all or part of their games in football stadiums and ballparks: besides Seattle, NYC FC’s home stadium is Yankee Stadium, and San Jose Earthquakes attendance is boosted by two big gates at Levi’s Stadium and Stanford Stadium. The current goal: a 2016 opening.
But attendance doesn’t equal revenue, and this is where the football/soccer-specific stadium debate comes in. What Orlando City SC has done at the Citrus Bowl is create a terrific party atmosphere surrounding a soccer match. And while the future of the franchise is clearly in a new Parramore-area stadium, the Citrus Bowl works – for now.
SETTING THE SCENE
The Citrus Bowl dates back to 1936, but the Citrus Bowl we know today has its roots in three major expansions: a 1974 project raising capacity to 52,000; a 1989 expansion that saw installation of the upper decks; and a 2014-2015 project that saw new concourses, a totally new lower bowl and infrastructure added to the east and west sides of the stadium. That $207.7 million project basically created an entirely new stadium.
Today’s Citrus Bowl was designed for big events — concerts, wrestling, NCAA bowl games. In comparison, an Orlando City SC game is a big event, but not a big event on the order of a bowl game or even WrestleMania. Since the Citrus Bowl was designed to easily manage those 65,000-strong crowds, there is a lot of capacity for Orlando City SC games.
It’s a luxury for SC to draw on that capacity as needed. Case in point: the expanse of parking surrounding the stadium, enough for a big bowl event. On game night, that parking is a high-octane party zone, as fans turn out early to down a few adult beverages with their friends in a very typical Florida fashion. (The only prohibition: no kegs.) Another case in point: with the expansion of the Citrus Bowl, entertainment spaces were added as well — after all, a bowl game is a big event. That’s allowed SC to create a fan zone on the east side of the Citrus Bowl (near the majority of parking) complete with bands, kids’ entertainment, food, a beer garden and more. That experience begins a full three hours before gametime, and 90 minutes before gates open.
THE SEATING EXPERIENCE
Once inside the stadium, that infrastructure needed to support 65,000 fans can be a drawback. The infrastructure includes very wide concourses and lots of staircases, escalators and elevators to ferry fans up and down. Wear your Fitbit and be amazed as to how many steps it will take you to make your way from the parking lot to your seat.
And we come back to that capacity when it comes to seating options. Orlando City FC wisely blocks off the upper deck (which are lower-grade bleachers, in any case) unless demand requires it be open, as was the case for the team’s MLS debut. That still leaves a slew of seating options in the lower level. There is the obligatory general-admission supporters section in one end of the bowl. The Citrus Bowl’s renovation created a horseshoe, not a closed stadium: the north end of the stadium is an open plaza on the second level, with seating leading down to the playing field. The 20,000-square-foot Plaza Deck is a popular spot to just hang around, with a view of the action on one side (including a primo view of the large end-zone videoboard) and Lake Lorna Doone to the north. The renovations created a 360-degree concourse on the plaza level.
The renovations added clubs on both sides of the pitch — some 50,000 square feet of indoor and outdoor spaces featuring covered seating, TV sets with the action, and multiple bars. (The bars were busy, but a lot of the club space was unused.) If that’s not separate enough for you, the suites at the Citrus Bowl were overhauled as well: very white, very bright.
Despite the expansion, Orlando City SC and Orlando Venues have managed to create a fairly intimate soccer experience, with most fans sticking to the Plaza level for most of their needs, which provides the best view of the action. The bulk of the food concessions are on the lower level in permanent stands, but an Orlando City SC crowd doesn’t come to the Citrus Bowl for burgers and Mexican food: they’ll eat some loaded nachos (available on several carts on the Plaza level), $11 Lite or Heineken tall boys, or mixed drinks from the bars.
And despite some bold touches, like the Orlando City SC banner flying high on the east side of the stadium, the Citrus Bowl is a pretty antiseptic place to take in a match; lots of concrete and bare surfaces. The modern fan experience has the potential to deliver so much more, and the Citrus Bowl really can’t deliver that experience. A smaller venue — say, 25,000-28,000 or so — dedicated only to SC soccer would allow a much higher level of branding and customization of concessions and group spaces. Right now, the excitement of MLS soccer is boosting Orlando City SC attendance, and with the team competitive on the pitch, life is pretty good for the team’s fans. But with so much potential in terms of the MLS experience, a new stadium is surely key for the team’s future.