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Cover 05/08/2013

Orlando City Soccer's goal rush

The Brit, the Brazilian and their (not so?) crazy scheme to make Orlando soccer capital of the Southeast

Photo: Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer, License: N/A

Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer

Photo: Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer, License: N/A

Photo credit: Mark Thor/Orlando City Soccer

Five years later, he split TSC in two, a European and American branch. This was a practical decision. Many of his firm’s clients were located in the U.S., so he needed a presence here. A partner stayed in London; he moved to Dallas. This, too, was a practical choice. Dallas is an airport hub roughly equidistant to the two coasts.

“I’ve always been a believer in supporting your home team,” Rawlins says. He became, and still is, a Cowboys fan.

By 1999, TSC, which had by then merged with another company and taken the name OnTarget, had 18 offices worldwide and $50 million in annual revenues. Rawlins decided to sell.

“Obviously that was a life-changing event for me,” Rawlins says. He was now a very wealthy man, worth some £30 million (about $45 million) as of 2009, according to the British soccer magazine Four Four Two.

What he did next speaks volumes: “The first thing I did, I sent a fax to Stoke.” He inquired about funding Stoke City’s youth academy, a soccer club for kids ages 8 to 18. In exchange for funding the academy for five years, he acquired a 15 percent ownership stake in Stoke City.

“It was the most bizarre thing,” he told me. “I’d met the top people in the [tech] industry. I never thought two things about it. At the first Stoke meeting, I was basically hyperventilating.”

He threw himself into Stoke City. The team’s board asked him to go around to soccer clubs in the U.S. to see if there were any best practices they could emulate. As a result, Stoke City became one of the first clubs in Europe to institute group ticket sales, a common practice in America.

More importantly, Rawlins’ tour allowed him to explore American soccer, its past and present, up close: MLS’s promising start in 1996; a slow burn that stemmed from ill-fitted stadiums and owners who didn’t understand the game; the contraction to 10 teams after the 2001 season, including the elimination of the two Florida franchises, the Tampa Bay Mutiny and Miami Fusion; the gradual rebuilding and efforts to lure international stars, most notably David Beckham.

He also learned about the United Soccer Leagues, a minor league of American professional soccer, which piqued his interest. He asked the USL about putting a team in Austin, where he was then living, and then made his move.

The Austin Aztex debuted in 2008, first as an amateur developmental squad, then in the USL’s professional division a year later. But the team struggled to find a home stadium, and at one point found itself playing on a high-school field that disallowed alcohol sales. And Texas already had two MLS squads, one in Dallas and another in Houston. A third Lone Star franchise wasn’t going to happen.

“I had the vision to go to MLS,” Rawlins says. “I knew we couldn’t do that in Texas.”

In October 2010, the Aztex announced that they were moving to Orlando. As soon as Rawlins got here, he contacted MLS. “We wanted to put our hat in the ring,” he says.

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