The fans, from dignitaries and VIP’s to delirious supporters and players, moved like a purple tide towards the site of the groundbreaking for Orlando City Soccer’s new stadium. Reminiscent of the clans of a highland army marching towards battle, they donned the regalia of soccer enthusiasts, including scarfs and jerseys, accompanied by drums and chants, as the procession moved from Church Street, to where they sank their shovels into 24 tons of purple sand.
Not since Orlando landed the Magic has there been such excitement. But this is the culmination of one of the most ambitious public/private partnership ventures between the city, the county and the owners of a sports franchise in the area’s history.
Teams are usually known for their marquee players and enthusiastic fans, but before a team can become part of a city’s identity there has to be the individual businessmen and women who have the acumen to turn the dream into reality. What is more, before there is even a dream, it is the entrepreneurial success of the owners that is the catalyst for such an ambitious and transformative project.
Phil Rawlins made his entrepreneurial debut building a successful technology marketing company in the UK, which moved to the U.S. in 1994. By the turn of the millennium, they had a successful liquidity event and Rawlins was able to turn his attention to giving back to the community he had once called home. Helping the team he grew up rooting for, Stoke City Football Club, make its way back into the upper echelons of England’s Primer Leagues, was just the beginning of his foray into the professional soccer world.
Soon, his entrepreneurial spirit was once again stirring and he returned to the U.S. to ride the growing wave of excitement about Major League Soccer. Beginning in Austin, Rawlins saw Orlando as an ideal location to make a bid for an MLS position. It was the perfect blend of local soccer enthusiasm, along with South American and European international visitors who often adopt a second club for their fan support.
As Rawlins put it, “First of all, it was the age demographic of Central Florida and particularly Orlando, with an average age of 34, which is right in MLS’s wheelhouse. Then we looked at growth trends and how fast the economy was rebounding compared to other areas. Next was the focus of the fan base; were there multiple other major league franchises that we would have to compete with? Finally, the region is a hotbed of youth soccer, so there was a growing fan base that was being organically nurtured.”
It was this convergence of factors that Rawlins and his partner, John Bonner, saw with clarity and soon convinced other major stakeholders as well. Mayors Buddy Dyer of Orlando and Teresa Jacobs of Orange County worked together to persuade leaders and constituents that this was a narrow window of opportunity that had to be seized or lost.
“We were able to make a very good business case that Orlando City would have a massive economic impact on the community; that it would elevate the quality of life and be another attractor, especially among the young creative class.”
One of the early supporters was Brazilian entrepreneur Flávio Augusto da Silva. He recalled his initial encounter with Rawlins and his lasting impression, “When I first entered Orlando City’s old office meeting room in 2012, I spent a few minutes scanning the photos from players, fans and trophies won so far.
“Within minutes Phil came, followed by his partner, John Bonner. It didn’t take me long to realize that I should invest in the club in order to help fulfill the dream that those crazy guys had just a couple of months before. And from that day on, it became my dream as well.
“From my end, I was already convinced to invest in U.S. soccer. I had researched the growth of the world’s greatest sport in the biggest sports market on the planet a year before. However, with his vision, his passion and leadership, Phil made me believe that I should be in Orlando and with him. Today we are a team. I rely entirely on his competence and leadership, and furthermore, consider him a friend.”