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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


MLS officials didn’t take him seriously at first. “We had to really prove we were worth considering.”

The league had a “shopping list” of prerequisites, Rawlins says: a big enough fan base, corporate support, the right demographics. One by one, Rawlins checked off those boxes. The crowds got bigger and bigger, especially as his team dominated the league. Orlando Health signed on as a sponsor, splashing its logo on the team’s uniforms. (Disclosure: Orlando Weekly is also an Orlando City sponsor.)

Last March, MLS Commissioner Don Garber came to visit. He met with Dyer and Orange County Mayor Teresa Jacobs. He held a town hall with some 300 fans at the former Mojo Bar & Grill on Church Street, and told them, “It’s not a question of if, it’s a question of when.”

(When I called, the league was more circumspect. “The success of Orlando City is an extreme positive,” Dan Courtemanche, MLS’s vice president of communications, told me. “But we have a very detailed process. … I can tell you that we don’t have a timetable for expansion beyond the 20th team.” He pointedly noted there are other interested cities the league is looking at.)

But first the team would need a new stadium. And it would need an infusion of cash. MLS franchise fees alone are reported to be $50 million. That’s not counting the team’s contribution to its stadium or annual payroll costs, which on average run higher than $4 million a year.

 

Phil Rawlins has money. Flavio Augusto da Silva has money, hundreds of millions of dollars, and he’s willing to spend it. That they met was serendipitous.

Da Silva was born in Rio de Janeiro into a lower middle-class family. His mother was a teacher, his father a soldier. He went to college to study information technology, but dropped out during his first year, at the age of 19. Instead, he worked in the commercial department of an English-language school, and there found his calling.

“I really liked that job,” he says.

“It sounded a little weird, but I liked it, I liked it.”

Da Silva called me from Barcelona, in the middle of a working vacation. The reception was spotty, and da Silva’s broken English made him at times difficult to understand, but here’s the gist of his story: After four years in that job, he struck out on his own. He created Wise Up, a series of schools that taught English to Brazilian professionals. He took out a $12,000 loan to open the first school in Rio. The first year, it drew more than 1,000 students. After three years, he had 24 schools; after 17 years, more than 500.

Earlier this year, right around his 41st birthday, he sold the company for about $435 million.

In 2009, da Silva bought a gorgeous white two-story estate in Windermere for $5 million. Orlando is a hot spot for Brazilian vacationers. But da Silva was here studying the market, concocting a business plan. He wanted to franchise soccer schools throughout the United States, the same as he’d done with English-language schools in Brazil. He also considered buying into an MLS franchise.

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