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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


The fans responded. They called. They emailed. They blitzed the Twitter account of House Speaker Will Weatherford.

Privately, team officials said they weren’t concerned. “That push was done to get the fans’ voices out there,” Orlando City spokesman Chris Jones told me in an email. It was a show of force, a way to both make supporters feel invested in the cause and bullhorn its fans’ enthusiasm to Tallahassee and MLS.

The team’s certitude was rooted in a more traditional strategy. Rawlins had gone deep on lobbyists. He wouldn’t tell me exactly how much he spent, only that it was “not an insubstantial amount.” Henckler, of the Scoring Third, estimated the team’s lobbying fees at between $40,000 and $80,000.

Rawlins told me that was too low.

This confidence, it turns out, was misplaced. State lawmakers were gun-shy, fearful of being seen as providing “taxpayer-funded corporate welfare,” as the powerful Americans for Prosperity labeled the bill. The legislation would have provided state funds to not just Orlando City but all professional teams. Fresh in lawmakers’ minds, too, was the Miami Marlins debacle. Taxpayers paid for 70 percent of the team’s new $639 million ballpark in a deal widely derided as a boondoggle, especially as the team is considered the worst in the league and the stadium sits virtually empty most home games. (Notably, the Marlins’ economic impact study promised $815 million for Miami.)

The lobbyists and Twitter swarms and even Rawlins’ 11th-hour trip to Tallahassee with Buddy Dyer weren’t enough to overcome legislative gridlock and lawmakers’ objections. On May 3, the session’s clock ran out. The bill didn’t even get a vote.

It’s unclear what will happen next. In late April, with legislative machinations still underway, Jones would only tell me that “the franchise would reassess if state funding doesn’t pass.” On the last day of session, with the bill on life support, he said, “I really don’t have a clear plan. As of right now I can’t comment on it.”

“The team does have alternate plans, self-funding options,” says Henckler. “There will be another push for an additional partner. Flavio [da Silva] has the resources.”

Without state money, though, the county will be reticent to jump in. MLS, Mayor Jacobs wrote in an April 1 memo, had told her Orlando City could play in the Citrus Bowl for another five seasons, so there was no rush. “In light of the substantial public investment, nearly $200 million, the City and

County have committed to renovate the Citrus Bowl, it is still my position that the team should play there for a period of time,” she wrote.

Last week, county spokesman Steve Triggs said that without state funds, “soccer will be on the back burner for a while.”

 

Scrape away the politics and we’re left with a simple question: Why do we even want this thing?

A new soccer stadium, after all, won’t fix Parramore. It won’t bring down one of the nation’s highest crime rates. It won’t solve the foreclosure crisis. It won’t – the team’s economic impact report notwithstanding – revitalize the city’s economy. So why build it?

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