( The following is a story I wrote for the May 30, 2015 edition of Lions Roar, the gameday magazine of Major League Soccer’s Orlando City Soccer Club, exploring the continued support of a legion of loyal soccer fans throughout Central Florida )
You need only to cruise the pavement of Central Florida and tally the number of OCSC magnets adorning vehicles for proof. Or stroll the sidewalks of downtown Orlando wearing the club’s trademark purple and keep tabs on the responses you receive.
It’s as though lifelong relationships are being made by the thousands in 2015.
Whether it’s the club’s work in the community or the inviting presence of its leaders around town, purple pride is spreading throughout the state at an uncontainable rate.
“I remember when we first started going to games and there was maybe a couple thousand people in the stands,” said Randy Badilo, a season ticket holder in section 110 who has supported the club since its inception. “Then at the start of this year we sell out the entire Citrus Bowl for the first game, and it’s been incredible ever since.”
Boosted by home crowds of 62,510 in the club’s MLS debut against New York City FC on March 8 and 40,122 against the defending champion LA Galaxy a little more than two months later, Orlando City is averaging 37,446 fans at home this season compared to an average of just over 20,000 for the league as a whole.
Compare those numbers to the four seasons spent locally in the minor leagues and it’s hard to imagine a more dramatic upswing for a rookie franchise. The Lions averaged 6,356 fans per game from 2011-14 in USL PRO, which included a stint last year at the smaller ESPN Wide World of Sports venue at Disney.
Orlando City has since welcomed fans from around the world, and all walks of life, no matter their degree of fandom when it comes to the beautiful game. Such an impressive show of support this season has OCSC poised to set new attendance standards for expansion clubs in the 20-year history of Major League Soccer.
“There’s people I know who have never been to a soccer game who have been talking about wanting to get tickets just to see what the atmosphere is all about,” Badilo says. “You get the feeling that a lot of people want to be a part of this kind of party, where you’ve also got some good soccer going on.”
Badilo does his pre-gaming downtown before taking a shuttle to the stadium alongside countless others, which includes both familiar faces and novice fans.
It’s certainly been love at first site for the local sports enthusiast, who have quickly adopted the blue-collar club that’s built its backbone by connecting with fans from a grassroots level.
“The growth has been amazing, honestly,” said Jerry Updike, president of The Ruckus supporters’ group. “The best part is the core group of that growth has come from friends and family of Orlando’s most ardent supporters, so I expect that number to be fairly resilient through thick and thin.”
The Ruckus has expanded from just 225 official members in 2014 to now consisting of nearly 1,300 members only two months into the season.
Fans have flocked to the South end of the Florida Citrus Bowl to join both The Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm as they combine to hold down “The Wall” on game days, where oversized flags are being waved and chants are being churned throughout the entirety of matches.
“I think we have stepped right into the league as one of the most exciting and intimidating supporter groups in the league,” Updike says. “Together with Iron Lion Firm, The Wall has been right up there already [with the best in the league] and we are still growing. If you think what we’ve done thus far is amazing, we’re barely scratching the surface of our potential.”
While the Orlando City fan base has proven to have quite the track record when it comes to supporting the club away from home, it’s not until opposing teams and fans visit Orlando that they can truly experience the passion of the Lion faithful.
“It’s nothing like I’ve ever seen in American sports,” OCSC fan Graham Northcote says. “We don’t have those kinds of sections in other leagues here but it certainly makes it more of a festive atmosphere for everyone.”
Northcote regrets not securing season tickets this year while he had the chance, though he’s remained a frequent member of the crowd in matches over the years.
He takes part in prematch festivities in the parking lots surrounding the stadium alongside a legion of other supporters, many of whom, he’s noticed, have ditched the American pigskin they once threw around while tailgating in favor of booting soccer balls before kickoff approaches.
Northcote recently treated a friend from Paris to a match this season. He remarked how impressed the French native was with the atmosphere outside the stadium leading up to the match as an assortment of supporters gathered in anticipation for what was to come.
“You’ve got a good mix of people going to these games,” Northcote says. “There’s those that really know the team and there’s the casual fan coming out to support a team from our city.”
Much like the growth of the club and its supporters since the start of the year, those fans are becoming one and the same with each passing week.