How is it that after a mere six seasons of professional soccer being in Central Florida that Orlando City Soccer Club owns the heart and soul of this community? The astronomical growth of the sport in this city is partially due to macro trends across the United States which point to the growth of professional soccer as a whole. The true secret ingredient to the success of the Lions is Phil Rawlins. In this your day of resignation as President of the club and your end of involvement from day to day operations, we thank you for having changed our community for better on most every level.
OCSC came to Orlando at a time when the only professional sports side in town was the Orlando Magic. The Lions were rightfully met with skepticism from The City Beautiful as countless other minor league teams had met their quick extinction in the 407 as exampled by the Florida Blazers, Orlando Renegades, Orlando Thunder, Orlando Rage, Florida Tuskers, Orlando Lions, Orlando Sharks, Orlando Seals, Orlando Rays and of course the Orlando Miracle. There was little to no reason to believe that the ‘Orlando City Lions’ would be any different.
The spearhead to the instant success OCSC had in Orlando back in 2011 was Phil Rawlins. Mr. Rawlins was a breath of fresh air in Orlando. Phil truly cared about the fans who supported his modest club. That first season many of us who were season ticket holders, both supporter section enthusiasts who belonged to the Iron Lion Firm or Ruckus and regular fans who sat throughout the stadium, knew Phil Rawlins personally. He was easy to find before, during and after games. Rawlins made fans feel appreciated with his humble approach, sincerity and affectionate mannerisms. Rawlins was a straight shooter who spoke his mind and shared the same passion for the sport as we did as supporters. Phil loved talking footie and while this was a business, it was also his love.
In the forthcoming seasons Rawlins remained a steady hand who you could always bank on shaking hands with fans before matches during tailgates, working with Iron Lion Firm and Ruckus officers as he met with us personally to see what the club could do to help in our operations without ever wanting or asking us to violate our independence as a supporter group which allowed us continued growth. Phil would routinely be seen those first few seasons in the supporters section of matches chanting songs of support for the team with the supporters all the while from time to time turning a blind eye to our benign tomfoolery as the occasional smoke bomb would be lit off in the south end of the Citrus Bowl. Phil was proactive in creating events where the supporters could interact directly with Coach Adrian Heath and leadership at the Front Office. Rawlins communicated as clearly as he could, or better yet as he was allowed to based on outside variables with the fans. When we faced challenges from Walt Disney World and the Wide World of Sports facility in our fourth season which led to heated times between the supporter groups and the front office, Phil sincerely tried to bridge the gap between us in achieving our mutual goals. With Rawlins, while we might not have seen eye to eye every time, we always knew that with him we could assume positive intent.
Phil and Kay very early on made it a point to serve our community even with the limited resources of essentially being a startup business. The work the Rawlins family has done with the Orlando City Foundation as well as numerous other projects too many to mention in a blog article is eye brow raising. Kay Rawlins is active in our city throughout the entire year making it her job to improve and make better the community that has given so much to her family. The community sees this. It does not go unnoticed and further strengthens the bond between OCSC and city.
Compare this to Rich DeVos, the owner/president of the Orlando Magic. DeVos is the antithesis of Phil Rawlins. In the Orlando Magic, our community has a basketball team that while has given Central Florida a fair share of special memories and put Orlando on the map from a sporting perspective, is a professional sports club with zero soul whose owner in Rich Devos many of us feel total apathy and are lethargic about. The few who do feel strongly about Mr. DeVos in Orlando tend to have a negative impression of him.
The Orlando Magic are the epitome of the American pro sports machine which only care about television deals, playing in super arenas which cater to premium seating, special access to clubs (The Mercedes Lounge) inside the facility which give their highest paying patrons luxury in stadium amenities and box seats a plenty where they can charge premium prices. Not only did the Orlando Magic make us as residents fork up millions of dollars to pay for the building of this arena under threat of abandoning Orlando for another market should they not get their way as is now routine among billionaires to hold cities hostage in getting their greedy way, Rich DeVos than made Buddy Dyer look foolish by also negotiating control of the arenas advertising rights for ALL events in the ‘Amway Center’ despite already having had the stadium built at the tax payers expense and having negotiated a sweetheart rent deal with the City. Think about that for a minute; the Orlando Magic control primary advertising rights for ALL events at the Amway including concerts and sporting events that have nothing to do with the Magic. That man thru his sports team controls primary advertising rights for all Arena events inside the arena City of Orlando residents and our tourist tax dollars help built. Rich DeVos bent over our community, put no lube on his shaft and fucked the city of Orlando over.
In Rich DeVos we have an individual who is a Michigan man through and through who still makes his residence up there. DeVos has never cared about our city outside of making a profit and using our tax dollars to build his team a new money making arena. Rich frankly cares much more about funding his ultra-right wing political causes which include promoting anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage legislation, the latter in particular most of us here in Orlando find wildly offensive. DeVos has made millions and millions taking from this community every chance he has gotten which as a consequence has never allowed the team to capture the hearts of Orlando residents. As a result, the Orlando Magic has no soul. They are devoid and passion. The Amway Center has no character. Fans don’t have that connection with the blue as they do with the purple.
As the writer of this piece, I can assure you I am no idealistic romantic. I see Phil for who he is. Phil Rawlins like Rich Devos is a capitalist and a businessman whose goal is to make a monetary profit. Rawlins came to Orlando not because he loves Central Florida. Rawlins came to Orlando because he felt this was the market he could grow his minor league soccer club from Austin Texas to someday be a part of Major League Soccer. Phil is an intelligent man and had the vision to see the coming explosion in popularity of soccer in the United States. He thought Orlando was the market he could best exploit this growth and build a soccer club which would be known around the globe, achieve the pinnacle of American Soccer by playing in MLS and of course make a strong profit. Phil succeeded and met all his goals. He did business the right way. Mr. Rawlins did not cut corners and built real relationships throughout Orlando from the politicians to the random ILF member struggling to make ends meet making $9 an hour who spent his limited leisure funds in coming to the stadium to support his soccer club. There is a real connection between the fans and the club for all the aforementioned reasons described in this article. So much so that many of us take ownership of Orlando City Soccer Club as we love what the team represents. Orlando City is the antithesis of the Orlando Magic. That right there is the key to his success and the success of Orlando City Soccer Club.
Today Phil Rawlins resigned from his role as club President and involvement in day to day operations. As a die-hard supporter of OCSC, I saw this moment coming a mile away. After the changes made in the off season last year, it was clear our club was headed in a different strategic direction on every level from where Phil had led us. Flavio and his new leadership team believed the team should be managed differently now that we were in MLS. Time will prove them right or maybe will prove them wrong.
I challenge Alex Leitao and Flavio Da Silva to not ignore what made Phil so successful. Follow his lead. You are now the care takers of this beautiful soccer club we are now all emotional stakeholders in.
Yes, Orlando City had early success in USL on the pitch. Those USL trophies however were not the reason why OCSC continuously led the league in attendance or were near the very top. We did not attract the attention of MLS and Don Garber because Miguel Gallardo was the second coming of Iker Casillas or because Inchy was more comedic in the coaches’ box at times than Jose Mourinho. Led by Phil Rawlins, what got Flavio involved in OCSC and what got us in MLS is that deep bond Phil built with this community. Despite his capitalistic end goal, Rawlins came to genuinely love Orlando. It showed with his actions. Please take Phil’ example to heart. Don’t follow the lead of Rich DeVos who just takes from our community while giving to causes that don't represent the values of The City Beautiful. I challenge you to respect us as fans and respect our City. In turn you have our unconditional support. In the good and especially the bad.