Few have impacted the culture of Orlando like Phil Rawlins of the Orlando City Soccer Club. I4 Business’ 2014 Entrepreneur of the Year has celebrated a phenomenal 2015 inaugural MLS season, and we felt it was an opportune time to sit back down with him and review the year. In fact, the day this interview was held they announced they had acquired a National Women’s Soccer League franchise that will play in Orlando in 2016, “The Pride,” and the previous week they announced their new USL team, the league Orlando City started in, called Orlando City B (OCB), will play at Eastern Florida State College on the Space Coast.
EW: It’s not just your inaugural year, but you’ve broken almost every MLS record?
PR: We’re the fastest team in MLS history to get to a half million fans in attendance; we’re second in overall attendance for the league; we’re number two in season tickets sold and we’re number one in group tickets.
EW: What impact does that have on the franchise?
PR: It means a lot to the club and the team, but what is most gratifying is that the whole league has recognized that Orlando is a special place to come and play; it has a special atmosphere. Our fans are exceptional; they’re loud, noisy and passionate. The other teams see this uniqueness.
EW: Let’s go back to your first MLS game – almost 63,000 raving fans in the Citrus Bowl – what was going through your mind and heart?
PR: It was all very emotional and started several months before in the build up to the game, when we launched the “Fill the Bowl” campaign. When we started I honestly thought, “That’s a stretch. How are we going to do it?” But within weeks of the game we realized we were on pace to sell it out. It is like a hockey stick as you move towards game day; our VP of ticket sales calculated that we would have been able to sell over 80,000.
Plus, it wasn’t like a typical college bowl game where your stands are half one team and half another, it was a sea of purple. It was like we helped the city come of age and we brought the city together. That is something we keep hearing, how the game has brought families, friends and the community together.
EW: Did you ever waver? And, did any naysayers come back and say, “I was wrong.”?
PR: I always had this underlying confidence that we would get this done. No one wanted us to fail, but many were surprised at the level of our success and the level of excitement and community support we generated.
EW: You bring in a world-class player, an international superstar, a Tom Brady of soccer; it is a roll of the dice, and then the game ends with that incredible goal?
PR: The script of the game could not have been better. Kaka actually said that very thing. As I thought about it then and now, there are goals scored by players and then there are goals scored by a community. That goal, for me, was created by 63,000 people who wanted that ball to go into the net.
EW: You have a passion for the game, but a head for business. You did all the due diligence, have you been surprised?
PR: In all honesty I had faith in the game. People look at the marketing staff, the club or even me, but recognize the game is a catalyst in itself. What I mean is that soccer is unique; if you talk to our fans they will tell you they are part of the team, they aren’t passive observers; they aren’t there to just watch. They feel they have a role to play and they make a difference, their participation affects the outcome.
EW: Is there anything you may have done differently?
PR: Actually I don’t think so, and I don’t want this to sound arrogant, but it all has worked out the way it should have. I don’t think we could have or should have condensed the time frame. It gave us a chance to build our fan base and build credibility. We had a lot of fun winning our earlier titles.
EW: How do your old friends, particularly European friends react?
PR: Many wondered, “Why has it taken this long for the U.S. to catch on, it is an inevitability?” What they are genuinely surprised about is the authentic nature of how the game is appreciated, played and understood. There was a fear that Americans would want to tinker with it. But the international community recognize our game and game experience is authentic.
EW: Is that one reason Millennials dominate the fan base?
PR: What they want, in addition to the game experience, is to be connected to a global conversation. Everything in their lives has that connection; soccer gives that generation a connection with people in Berlin or Milan or Rio; though they have never been there personally, they know their players and colors, so they’re connected. And I’m not cheating on my team by rooting for another team on another continent. They have the need, perhaps because they have the tools.
EW: Do you still have a growing fan base outside of Central Florida?
PR: We have the third largest social media following in the league and this is our first year in MLS, which is huge. We have 750,000 Facebook followers in Brazil. Our goal is to be a global brand. We’ve had fans from 50 different countries come to the games. At an average game our out of state, out of country ticket sales are close to 6,000. We have a 20 game season, so over the course of the season we are bringing the equivalent of four college bowl games here every year.
EW: How much would you estimate your brand value has increased in two years.
PR: It is hard to say; we paid $70 million for the franchise, most know that. Forbes didn’t value us, because we are too new, but they valued Seattle at $250 million. So based on that I think we could conservatively say the brand value has more than doubled in two years. I can tell you we sold over 90,000 jerseys; that puts us number one in the league in jersey sales.
EW: Explain the decision to fund the stadium, instead of depending on public money.
PR: From the beginning, the public/private partnership seemed the way we wanted to go and was a great deal for the city, the county and the state. Though we got the city and the county to contribute and the club was putting in about $40 million, the state wouldn’t come through in giving the incremental sales tax dollars.
Because of that delay, we got into MLS and started playing. This is where sometimes delays are beneficial. We anticipated an MLS average of 19,000 and we are the 19th largest marketplace, so we thought if we hit the average we would be doing great. Well, our average is 33,000 and we were planning on a 19,000 seat stadium. It became clear it was too small. That’s when Flavio Augusto da Silva said, “I think there is another way, I think we can do it privately.” A 25,500 seat stadium is the right size for us at this time.
EW: How have your responsibilities changed?
PR: Our organization has grown from 20 people to 120 people; we’ve gone from small business to large business overnight. In some ways my roles and responsibilities have changed and some ways they haven’t. I am still on the ambassadorial side, like with Leadership Orlando, and that continues to grow. We like to say, “This club was built by the community for the community; it was built by the fans, for the fans.”