It’s time to figure out who truly bleeds purple. It’s time for longtime Orlando City fans who claim to hate the Tampa Bay Rowdies to prove it. It’s time for those Lions who have gotten off to another good start in 2022 to look up in the stands and see a full Exploria Stadium.
On Wednesday night, Orlando City will kick off its 2022 U.S. Open Cup campaign against its I-4 Derby rivals, the Tampa Bay Rowdies. It will be an opportunity for Orlando’s fans and supporter groups to show up en masse and prove that the club has strong support, which is something that has been a bit lacking in 2022 so far, despite the club fielding an exciting and successful team.
No one disputes that the fans who show up at the stadium are passionate, loud, and enthusiastic. It’s just that there seem to be fewer of them than when the team was actually bad.
In 2017, the first seven matches held in the building then known as Orlando City Stadium were sellouts. Even when not every seat — or standing position in The Wall — was filled, the attendance was strong all throughout that year. League games drew at least 22,000, and most games were either sellouts or just shy of that. The exception was a home U.S. Open Cup match against Miami FC, which drew only 5,838 fans and that ended in a quick exit from the competition for Orlando.
That 2017 team finished 10-15-9. Attendance has eroded a bit since that first year in the stadium, even before the pandemic. The team just missed the playoffs in its inaugural MLS season of 2015 and then got progressively worse on the field each year through 2018 and only slightly better in 2019. So it’s understandable if performance drove some fans away, even if the novelty of the new stadium in 2017 brought back some of them temporarily.
Oscar Pareja took over as head coach prior to the 2020 season and the team has been quite good since then. That, unfortunately, was the year that the COVID-19 global pandemic reached its height. The stadiums were closed to spectators for a while and different parts of the country — not to mention north of the border, in the case of the Canadian teams — opened back up at different rates. Orlando hosted games with reduced capacity under the recommended guidelines by health officials and then eventually opened back up to full capacity.
But the fans haven’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. This year’s home opener was the first non-reduced capacity opening match not to sell out, drawing 21,283 in attendance. That number would have been the lowest attended regular-season match if it had been in 2017.
Orlando City attendance recently has not been what it should be. It’s logical to assume that there are some residual effects from the pandemic at play. Many people are still not comfortable in crowds, even for an outdoor event. In addition, rising costs of fuel, groceries, and other goods may be having a minor impact on attendance as stretched budgets might cause some fans to attend fewer games. Perhaps the national and worldwide events of the last two years have even sapped some people’s enthusiasm for sports and reduced the importance that kind of spectacle has in their lives, although the escapism of sports has rarely been more needed than it is now.
For the fans who do attend home games, or those who live in other parts of the country (or world), it’s frustrating to see the club put its best product in the team’s MLS existence on the field the last couple of years and not see Orlando City, Pareja, and the players rewarded with a full Exploria Stadium. I see it in the responses to our attendance tweets during every home match. Other teams’ bloggers have even reached out to me to ask what’s going on with the Lions’ attendance.
The last home sellout was pre-pandemic, when the Lions sold out their opening day match on Feb. 29, 2020, against Real Salt Lake. The most recent home match saw Orlando City take on the then-unbeaten Chicago Fire on an absolutely gorgeous Saturday afternoon that lacked the heat or humidity issues that can plague a team in this climate. It was a perfect day to be outside, but only 16,051 fans showed up for that match, which was even fewer than the 16,763 who turned up in a downpour the previous Saturday night for the LAFC game.
People like to point to Central Florida’s vast options of things to do as a reason sports teams don’t draw well. Maybe there’s something to that, but those options are still present on days when there isn’t a game at Exploria Stadium, so it sounds like excuse-making to me. There were only three degrees difference in temperature between Saturday and Sunday the weekend of the Chicago match and the beach, parks, and area lakes certainly didn’t go anywhere.
There’s got to be something else at play, and it could be simply that this is the proverbial “bad sports town.” No one ever wants to think that about their city — I don’t want to believe that about Orlando — and it might not be the case, but some places sure do seem better/worse than others as far as regular attendance goes. Excuses are plentiful to explain away poor attendance, particularly the “there are too many options in Florida” rationalization. But sometimes it’s just a fact that a community isn’t supporting the local team the way it should. Again, this is in no way meant to disparage the folks who show up and give every ounce of energy they have for the team. They are rightfully saluted by the players after every match.
Were the ones who were previously showing up at Exploria Stadium just posers? Did those bad Orlando teams just sap their enjoyment of the game? If so, they need to give this 2022 team a look, because even in the two losses the team was playing entertaining and effective soccer. In the 4-2 home loss to LAFC, the Lions played some of the best soccer ever produced by an Orlando City team. Unfortunately, the team also made a few mistakes and every one of them was punished. That’s the way this sport goes sometimes.
The club has moved Wednesday’s Open Cup match, which was originally scheduled to take place at Osceola Heritage Park, to the comfortable and familiar confines of Exploria Stadium. I think this was a great idea for multiple reasons:
- Osceola County Stadium was built for baseball and doesn’t have optimal sight lines.
- Traveling down to Kissimmee in time for a 7 p.m. midweek game would be difficult for the majority of fans in the area.
- Tampa Bay normally plays in a stadium that is similar in many respects to OCS, so it would potentially help the visitors feel more comfortable.
- Exploria Stadium typically has a great atmosphere even when only half full.
This was a fan-friendly move by Orlando City and one that should be rewarded. It’s the second time the club has been responsive to fan desires this season, with Orlando City opening up a home preseason match after initially having all of them behind closed doors. This is the kind of decision that fans should reward by buying a ticket, so that they will continue to have the ear of the club in the future.
By changing venues, the club removed a big obstacle for most of the local fanbase. But it isn’t the only thing Orlando City is doing in an effort to entice fans to come out and support the Lions in the continent’s longest-running soccer competition.
Another potential barrier to entry is cost. Fans struggling to make ends meet, and who have already shelled out a lot of dough for season tickets, are sometimes hesitant to pile on more expenses, particularly for matches early in the competition. Add to the extra cost the fact that the game is during the work week, and it’s easy to blow off a match like this. However, Orlando City has made this an extremely affordable option. Season ticket members can pick up tickets to the match for just $10 and the general public can get in for just $15. That price should be sufficiently affordable, given that this is a professional sporting event with the excitement of a knockout competition. In addition, a club spokesman indicated to me that there will also be some specials at the concession stands on Wednesday night.
Getting back to Wednesday’s on-field match, it has been several years since the Lions and Rowdies met in anything other than a preseason friendly, so those who became Orlando City fans when the club joined Major League Soccer may not be fully aware of the Lions’ history with the Rowdies or how contentious those early games were. Longtime fans and supporter groups have been vocal on social media about their hatred for the Rowdies, but will they put their money where their mouth is and show up for the match? I expect that many Tampa Bay fans will buy tickets and make the trip across Interstate 4.
This is a good opportunity for longtime supporters of the team to bring friends to the match and explain the rivalry to them, while turning them into new fans. But if even the regulars don’t show up, it will be an opportunity for Tampa Bay’s fans to be just as loud in the Lions’ den as Orlando’s home support.
The above is a longer read than I intended, but what it boils down to is that Orlando City fans need to replace talk with action. While a midweek, early-round Open Cup match isn’t likely to produce a sellout, or even close to one, it’s not unreasonable to expect 10,000+ to show up for reduced price tickets to a historic, knockout competition. Anyone can claim to love the club and support the team. Anyone can tweet how disappointed they are with the home attendance. Anyone can say they are an original fan who really hates the Rowdies. But who is going to show up and prove it?
For those of you who do, I’ll see you on Wednesday.
Reflecting on Eight Years with The Mane Land
A look back over my time with The Mane Land (so far).
As of last week, I have been a contributor at The Mane Land for eight years. That’s longer than I’ve ever been at any of my actual jobs in my life. There are literally only a couple of people who have been with the site longer, but I’m still amazed at how long it’s been. This is not to say I’m going anywhere, but rather I wanted to take the opportunity to look back at the past eight years, and look ahead to the future.
Unlike some, I didn’t come to be a supporter of Orlando City until it was announced that the club was joining MLS. At the time, I was contemplating picking a club to follow in MLS, but being in Tallahassee, there were no nearby options at that time. I considered FC Dallas and D.C. United, given the two were geographically closer in proximity to me than any others. Fortunately, it was literally while I was considering my options that the announcement was made regarding Orlando City’s jump to MLS. It was an easy decision.
As I do in many aspects of my life, I immediately started researching my new club, which led me to the content being produced by The Mane Land. There was also an article on the site titled “Join The Mane Land Staff.” I had often over the years internally bemoaned that I rarely used my Bachelor’s degree in English, and the desire to write welled up in me so much that I emailed the staff.
In response, one of our former editors, Andrew Marcinko, contacted me and said “I think your voice would be a great fit on TML.” He asked me to submit a Fan Post (those went away with our presence on SBN), and then another piece for review. Following that, our founder and managing editor, Michael Citro, emailed me to welcome me to the staff. I had no idea at the time how big a part of my life this blog would become.
I started out writing Monday’s Lions Links — often one of the more difficult days to write — and a feature piece. It’s been many years gone by now, but there was a time when the feature piece was “Pride Pub,” an ongoing series that paired craft beer and good food based on Orlando City’s opponent. I can tell you that the research for that was very enjoyable, and I still use some of the recipes I found to this day.
Eventually, I started contributing more match coverage and analytical pieces. Staff came and went, but I never thought to leave since I was enjoying myself. Sometime after that, I was promoted to senior columnist, for which I’m grateful. I can without reservation say that I’m a better writer thanks to my time with the site, and from working with such excellent staff.
In November of 2016, Michael asked if I wanted to give co-hosting The Mane Land PawedCast a try. My first recording was for Episode 71. We just recorded Episode 354, and with the exception of maybe two or three episodes, I have been on every single one of 283 episodes over the last six plus years. Michael and I have spent a lot of time talking on and off the podcast over the years, and I’m proud of what we have produced and to call him my friend.
We recently added an Orlando Pride-specific podcast called Skopurp: An Orlando Pride PawedCast. For years we wanted to give the Pride the time and attention the club deserves. Now, it is a reality, but one that I ask you to listen to and share. I’ll even put out that although Michael and I are the current hosts, we merely consider ourselves stewards and are hoping to get others to come onboard and eventually take it to the next level.
When I started with The Mane Land, the site had just made the move from a free WordPress site to the SBNation network. It was a big deal, and for many years it was a good partnership. Of course that all came to an end not too long ago, and our blog went the independent route thanks to the incredibly generous support of our readers and listeners. In fact, if you want to be one of those supporting our efforts, please go to our Buy Me A Coffee site to become a member. The move has allowed a flexibility we didn’t have before, but I really want others to have the same sense of joy and accomplishment that I have as a member of our staff.
At one point we had nearly twice the staff that we do now, and as you know, many hands make light work. The opposite of that is also true. I genuinely believe that there must be others out there with the same passion for Orlando City as I have — with the same desire to have their voice heard, whether through the written word or on a podcast. I promise you there is an opportunity to contribute here with us. Our internal discussions are informative, engaging, and often funny. Please consider joining us, as I did eight years ago. I haven’t regretted it and I know you won’t either.
I want to thank all of those who contributed to The Mane Land over the years. There are many that I am still in touch with, though they are no longer a part of the staff. Of course, the current staff are a pleasure to work with, and I appreciate their dedication to what we are trying to do.
Finally, I want to thank the readers and listeners over the years. From those who regularly comment on our articles, to those that I’ve personally met at matches or even randomly on the street, you are a big reason that we do all of this. You are a big reason why I’ve been doing this for the better part of a decade. it is always a genuine pleasure hearing your thoughts or simply sharing a moment of joy together — U.S. Open Cup final, anyone?
So, thank you. I look forward to many more years of this journey together.
The Mane Land Announces Membership Program
Maximize your Mane Land experience with our new TML membership program while supporting our independent efforts.
Hello, readers of The Mane Land and listeners of our podcasts. Before you start reading this, please note that the most important part of this post is at the end. So, don’t stop until you get to the bottom.
You may recall that when we left SBNation to become independent, we really weren’t sure the best way to go about that. Many of our readers and listeners generously offered to help us make that transition, but we still weren’t sure the best path forward, so we took a poll.
The poll was pretty much split down the middle between those who preferred a one-time, Kickstarter-style campaign (which we did, and those of you who stepped up to help completely blew us away!) and those who favored a Patreon-style, subscription-based membership with extra perks. In fact, the member subscriptions option got a few more votes in our poll.
The folks who took part in our GoFundMe fundraiser were fantastic and are now immortalized on this very site on the “Our Founders” page. But we had always planned to give folks the option to choose whichever method of support they preferred and we tried to communicate that throughout the process. It took a little longer than expected to get up and running, but our membership subscription program is now in place! (You may notice the fancy new banner ad about it on the home page, echoed below.)
Part of that delay was thinking up something that didn’t encroach on the benefits we gave our Founders. Those folks helped us get started and deserve the exclusivity of the perks they got. The other part of the delay is that there just aren’t enough hours in the day. (However, for you guys, I’m willing to be cloned.)
We have utilized the popular Buy Me a Coffee platform to run this program. You can find the basics here. The Mane Land premium membership program includes three tiers of membership, as well as the option to click on the “Support” tab for those who just want to help us out whenever, without joining the program or adding any recurring “appointment-based” payments to their budgets. We love that feature of Buy Me a Coffee (or “Buy Us a Beer” in our case…you drink what you like).
For those who do choose to become members, we hope we have provided value and we are planning to add benefits along the way, in addition to providing special giveaways, events, etc. (more on that below). We have also provided subscription options — with monthly or annual memberships. The annual cost essentially gives you 12 months for the price of 10.
The current membership benefits depend on which level of support you choose — Homegrown Player, TAM Player, or Designated Player level. Each level includes all benefits from the lower tiers, with additional benefits for each higher level.
Homegrown Player: This is a basic set-it-and-forget-it level of support for The Mane Land, providing a way for our readers and podcast listeners to contribute to the success of TML‘s independence goals. We want to compensate our current volunteers, replace lost income of those who previously received small stipends from being part of the SBNation network, add photographers, attract new writers, and expand our coverage. Additionally, each Homegrown Player Level member will be recognized in a Lion Links column, which is still typically our most widely read post of each day and one of the top daily links columns among soccer sites. Homegrown Player Level members will also be included in any future prize drawings we have or events we host and may be subject to future benefits as they are added.
TAM Player: In addition to Homegrown Player benefits, TAM Players will receive a new weekly e-newsletter in their inbox (unless you opt out…some people hate email). These will be informal missives from myself, other TML writers, or a combination, discussing what’s on our mind regarding Orlando City, the Pride, OCB, or soccer in general. Think of it as an extra post from our site that may cover multiple topics. Additionally, you’ll get a 10% discount from our web shop items that we control (presently, that means everything except our listed MLS Shop items). We will definitely have more benefits coming for this level soon and will look for opportunities to include additional benefits as they become available.
Designated Player: This limited availability level of support includes all perks from the Homegrown and TAM levels, but it goes beyond. Your discount at our webshop (for items we control) will be 15% off. Additionally, we’ll send you Zoom links to watch us “make the doughnuts” whenever we record the podcast. This includes when we interview guests. You’ll see how the sausage is made behind the scenes and everything that we say, some of which will end up on the cutting room floor before the final podcast is sent out. This includes both The Mane Land PawedCast and SkoPurp Soccer: An Orlando Pride PawedCast. And after two months of membership you can commission a bonus episode of either podcast simply by letting us know what topic you want us to cover. Think of this as an extended Ask Us Anything. We’ll do a whole show about your topic and you can even join us to discuss it if you wish.
The DP Level will certainly have additional benefits tacked on as we move forward. It is currently limited to 40 members but could be expanded slightly depending on demand and our Zoom attendance.
Future Benefits / Benefits Under Consideration
While we won’t be able to schedule these due to the random nature of items falling into our hands, there will be periodic prize giveaways in drawings that include all of our members, regardless of level. The catch is that you get one entry per level of support, meaning Homegrown Player Level members will get one entry per prize drawing, TAM Player Level members will get two entries per drawing, and Designated Player Level members get three entries for prize drawings. Some of the kinds of items we have come across in the past include match tickets, trinkets, posters, scarves, and so on.
We are planning to add a message board to our website, well…soon-ish is the word that comes to mind. The plan for the message board is to build our community and further the discussion about the club. As part of this, we’re planning an exclusive, members-only area of that message board that TAM and DP members can access. This will be a place our staff can share informational nuggets we can’t necessarily write stories about for various reasons and interact with our members on a daily basis.
Other things in the works include meet-and-greets/watch parties where you can chat with TML staff members and catch a road match with a bunch of like-minded Orlando City/Pride fans while we all cheer on the team together. There may also be other informal outings with one or more members of the staff, organized fantasy leagues, random Zoom calls for Q&A sessions, and perhaps even some organized group outings for Orlando City / Pride matches, national team games, etc.
The Most Important Part of This Post
Remember at the top of this post, when I said the most important part is at the bottom? Well, that seems like a long time ago, now, so it’s OK if you’ve already forgotten.
The most important part of our membership program is you. We want your feedback so we can make this program something that interests and excites you. We want to know what you like and dislike about this program. We want to know if there are some things we didn’t think of that interest you. If you like what we’re offering, tell us! If you hate what we’re offering, we want to know what you’d prefer instead or in addition. If you want to go drinking with Dave, we can probably arrange that, but it’ll be a unique tier and we’ll have to figure out the cost of that.
No idea is too crazy to suggest, even if it’s too insane for us to actually offer. Let us know what you want from your subscription and we’ll see if that’s something we can do. We’ll make it easy for you by putting the form right here below this post, which is now concluded.
Where do I even start? When we were told in January that SBNation was pulling its support of The Mane Land and other MLS and NHL blogs — and many podcasts — I was devastated. The site had become my new baby in September of 2014 and after eight and a half years, I wasn’t ready to let it go.
I was in a pickle. I couldn’t afford to lose the monthly stipend I had been getting from SBNation to manage the site and provide a steady stream of content. It wasn’t that it was a huge monthly sum, but it mostly covered my car payment. That car was purchased when my salary was higher. The pandemic hit my day job like it did to many, and after a four-month layoff, I got my old job back but not at the same rate. So, imagine taking a pay decrease at work and then, on top of that, losing the amount you spend per month on your car payment. There was simply no way to launch The Mane Land independently, I thought, because I simply couldn’t cover the startup costs. Even with some generous offers from the staff to pitch in, there simply wasn’t a way.
Once we took the news public, there was an outpouring of support on social media. We appreciated both the pledges to help out that we got from the community and the signal boosting that the national media gave blogs like ours. Those national folks rely on local reporting for background.
Encouraged by this outpouring of public support, I met with the TML staff and we threw some ideas around. We polled our Twitter followers to see how our community would prefer to show their support. We got pretty close to a 50/50 split between those who wanted to provide a one-time donation via a Kickstarter or GoFundMe crowdsourcing effort, and those who would prefer some sort of premium subscription add-on service like Patreon or Buy Me a Coffee.
We didn’t get a lot of responses to that poll, but we decided as a group that since the results were so similar, we would offer both and let the public choose one path, the other, or even both. (Stay tuned for news soon-ish on the premium subscription level, but rest assured, everything you’ve been getting for free at TML will remain free!)
I was, admittedly, skeptical that we could raise enough startup money to create a private business, pay for hosting a new site and two podcasts (having long wanted to give the Orlando Pride their own unique show), registering a domain, paying for some design work and consulting, and any unexpected expenses that might come up. However, I thought we’d at least give it a try.
Then the amazing Orlando City, Orlando Pride, and TML community got involved. You guys pushed us past our bare minimum goal in just four and a half hours when our fundraiser went live on March 1. We reset our goal and you met that by midnight. We reset our goal again, to the dream total we discussed on our initial staff Zoom chat and you met that by that first weekend.
Stunned. Humbled. Amazed. Touched. All of these words apply to how that made us feel, but they don’t quite cover it. I think we all felt an enormous responsibility, as well. We felt a mandate to provide you the best site and the best coverage we can.
We got everything we needed to run the site for two years, even if we don’t earn a penny after our launch — and we plan to try, via advertising, a Patreon (or similar) program, an online shop, affiliate links, and anything else we can think of. But we decided to leave the GoFundMe open through the end of March, just in case there were folks who wanted to contribute but needed to wait for payday, or if more people wanted to become founding members of this new site.
Now, here we are. You guys did this. We’re here because of you. And this site isn’t quite what it will become. I’m still learning my way around WordPress, after being away from it for years. There’s more to build, and some of the things you’re seeing on this site now will be improved in the future. We’ll continue to tweak it, add things, and upgrade as we go.
For now, I just want to welcome you to your new online home. On behalf of our entire staff, I thank our founding members, who are now immortalized on this site in our founders section. If you weren’t able to contribute to our transition from SBNation’s network to an autonomous and independent, new version of The Mane Land, you can thank the folks on our founders page, because without them, we wouldn’t be here. And if you still want to help out, we’ve got more things on the way.
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