Commentary

Thoughts on civic identity while standing in line at Wawa

Photo: Earl Gardner

I lived in Florida for a few years. Granted it was Miami, and Miami is so culturally distant from the rest of Florida that it makes the difference between “Philadelphia” and “Pennsylvania” seem quaint. But I spent enough time in Tampa, on the Space Coast, and points in between that I feel comfortable saying I’ve seen Florida, at its most beautiful and its most bizarre.

That includes the sports culture down there. Essentially empty stadiums for the Marlins or Rays. A love of football paired with an inability to decide between the professional or the college game. A basketball team that somehow eclipses the popularity (and success) of all other teams in town. Florida sports are weird. Between the lackluster performance of teams not named The Heat, and a population that features a large number of external and internal immigrants, you just don’t see the same generational sports fandom from Floridians that you see in other areas. People will talk about the interesting things on their local teams as they happen, but by and large it doesn’t engage the general population the way sports do elsewhere.

But that’s not how things felt in Orlando on Friday. I was there meeting some of my Miami friends to watch the U.S. face Panama in a very important World Cup Qualifier. Of course, international competitions bring a bit more attention than club, but this went beyond that. I’m not talking about the banners all over town, welcoming U.S. Soccer and their fans to “The City Beautiful.” That kind of engagement says more about U.S. Soccer’s marketing budget than it does about the interest the city has in soccer.

I’m talking about a specific experience I had the morning after.

Before hopping back on I-4, we stopped at a Wawa for breakfast, because Orlando has Wawas. If it’s 3 a.m. and you want macaroni and cheese, there’s no hope for you between Orlando and Richmond. But Orlando gets it, and those four red letters serve as an island of comfort in the middle of that sweltering peninsula we call Florida.

I noticed something as I was standing in line waiting to pay for my sandwich and two half gallons of lemonade tea.

There was a lot of purple in line with me. And not coincidentally, there were three people there wearing Orlando City gear. Two shirts and a hat. Nothing outrageous about that really, but that is without a doubt more support than I’ve ever seen for the Union during a morning Wawa rush.

And it’s more than just that. Billboards around Orlando for things products than soccer featured Orlando City or its players. A Chevron nearby had a lion’s head on a purple shield displayed prominently in the window. It wasn’t even using it to sell anything; they were just saying “we like this team too so you should like us.”

The city was paying attention to its team in a way that I’ve never seen Philadelphia even approach with the Union.

Part of this is, of course, competition. The Union have to contend with running up against the Phillies for most of the season, while Orlando only has to worry about the Single-A Florida Fire Frogs. In fact, the only top-league competition in central Florida is the Orlando Magic, whose schedule doesn’t overlap nearly as significantly. Location is worth mentioning as well, as we all know what Chester is at this point, while Orlando enjoys a location central to downtown and within comfortable walking distance of plenty of eateries and bars.

But there are more similarities between our two teams than might be immediately apparent.

Both teams have small-time owners. This isn’t about whether Sugarman needs to spend more or better. It’s about the financial realities both Orlando and Philadelphia face. Neither ownership is going to spend like Toronto or Atlanta. So both teams have to be careful with how they spend, and spending the wrong way has much higher consequences. And both teams have failed to find “small market” success through on-field performance like Sporting Kansas City has. Both teams entered the league with a lot of talk about fan support.

So what’s the difference? Why has Orlando embraced the Lions in the exact way Philadelphia hasn’t embraced the Union?

I’d argue part of it is Orlando’s relatively “new” population, being both young and significantly from somewhere else originally, leaves them open to picking up teams in their new home without violating previously-existing “Big Four” sports loyalties.

But I think this goes deeper than that. The Orlando City crest in the window of that Chevron wasn’t an ad. And the guy wearing the hat in line in front of me at Wawa wasn’t affiliated with the team. I asked.

Somehow Orlando City has convinced their neighbors that MLS isn’t supposed to be a punchline. It isn’t a consolation prize since you can’t get “real” soccer in the States. It isn’t something you do ironically or so you can pretend to be European. Orlando City has convinced people to be their fans because it’s a part of their civic identity, much like if you live in Eastern Pennsylvania you’re probably a Phillies fan. That level of engagement is something the Union, and MLS as a whole, should be studying and attempting to replicate if they don’t want to get left in the dust as more money comes into the league over the next few years.

32 Comments

  1. and Kaká

  2. How can you compare the owners when Kaka gets paid nearly the entire Union team salary?

  3. I guarantee you this: If Philly spent $8 million, or even $4 million on DPs this off season, the team would get a lot more popular. Philadelphia will support a winner, but fans here don’t have a lot of time for yet another mediocre sports franchise. Get a striker, a #10 and you’d see the region respond positively.

    • They will spend $2 mil and only up to $2 mil. All that league funny money will inflate it but they will not spend over that.

  4. Orlando is the 3rd highest payroll in MLS ($13,219,199.70) and the 24th largest metro population (2.4 million). Philadelphia is the 12th highest payroll in MLS ($7,117,010.10) and the 7th largest metro population (6 million). Note Toronto is also a smaller metro population than Philadelphia.

  5. To echo others: $$$$$$$$$$$$$$$$

  6. Orlando has Jason Kreis, a proven MLS coach. We don’t.

  7. John Harris says:

    I think the comments blew up the subtle no-spend apologetics of this piece, and the whole website in general. Sugarman is cheap; no spending on offensive talent because it is expensive; no spending on a legitimate coach.
    .
    Philadelphians are right not to embrace the Union. We would all be better off if we could get the law firms and corporations to stop buying season tickets as a form of civic pride, and a right-off. Buy a subscription to the Kimmel Center for crying out loud. Buy anything but a season ticket to the Union.
    .
    Do anything to get Sugarman out. He is the personification of why Philly does not embrace the Union. He does not embrace Philly. The sooner we stop enabling these owners the better.
    .
    #SUGARMANOUT!
    .

  8. Adam Schorr says:

    While money is definitely a factor, I spoke to somebody yesterday about the Union who lives in Philly. He was like “I was flying home and flew over the stadium on my way home this weekend. It’s a really nice stadium, it’s a shame it’s so far from Philly and really in the middle of nowhere”.
    .
    There’s no civic engagement with Philadelphia because it’s not a Philadelphia team as far as many Philadelphians are concerned. To them, it may as well be Reading or Lehigh Valley or Trenton or any other minor league city that’s near Philly but is not Philly. I understand why they put the stadium where they did, but in all my conversations with people, the fact that the Union don’t spend money doesn’t come up because they don’t recognize it as a Philadelphia team to begin with, so they don’t even know that the Union owners are cheap or that the team isn’t good.

    • John Harris says:

      More apologetics. If the Union had proper investment and won more, and still had a lack of engagement, I’d listen. This is just excuse making. The Galaxy are as far from LA as Chester is from Philly. Green Bay is 118 miles from Milwaukee. Guess who Milwaukee roots for – different sport I get it but the point is clear there can be some distance with a credible product.
      .
      For the sake of your credibility and that of the site (which puts out typically a better product than the Union on a similar budget haha) please stop trying to defend the indefensible.
      .

      • Adam Schorr says:

        See, it’s not apologetics though. You’re a Union fan. You follow the Union. Do you live in Philly? Talk to people who aren’t Union fans and who don’t follow the team. Ask them why they don’t follow the Union.
        .
        The most common answer you’re going to hear is “I’m not a soccer fan/I just don’t like soccer.” Ask them if they’ll give it a try, and the most common answer you’ll get is “nah, I’m just not interested”, followed by the second most common, “I would, but the stadium is just so far away” or “I would if the stadium was in Philly”. It’s not apologetics, it’s talking to people who aren’t already following the team.
        .
        I understand that you’re frustrated with the Union, but the people who I know who follow the Union and go to Union games often go regardless of whether they’re good or not, and the people who don’t go don’t go for reasons that also have nothing to do with the Union.
        .
        Basically, in the minds of many, the Union are as relevant as the Soul. A cool little team that you may hear about on occasion and might even go to a game once but nothing more than a kid-friendly curiosity. Philadelphia is different than LA, not to mention that Carson is 3x bigger than Chester and is an actual town/city and not just a place you go and leave ASAP. Comparing soccer to the NFL is a fool’s errand.
        .
        Would the Union draw more if they had a higher priced roster? Sure. But they’re still close to selling out every game. They haven’t needed to invest more to get more people to games. In my experience, talking to people who don’t follow the Union and asking them why, “they’re not good enough” is just rarely the reason (outside the context of Eurosnobs who think that even Toronto is a bad team nobody should watch).
        .
        It’s not defending the indefensible. It’s doing legwork instead of assuming everybody thinks like you and me.

    • In an ideal future Chester is home to a 2nd division squad while the Union occupy a downtown (or south Philly) stadium.

      • Or Union sold and move to another city and Steel move into talon.
        Then you have academy and usl team that serve as development farm for real soccer teams that have VPP.
        UnionGoal

  9. j_andrew_h says:

    Orlando City fan here. A number of the comments above mention salary and I will absolutely concede that Kaka’s presence on this team make a huge difference in the attention and attendance this team received the first year in MLS (2015) so they are absolutely right there. I would also say that the writer is correct that the Club has tapped into the community here in a great way. When the team won the USL title in 2013 we had 21K people in the old Citrus Bowl and that at the time was the largest attendance for any minor league game. It came at a time when the talk of Orlando to MLS was building and the entire city jumped on board. So many of us here are from somewhere else in the country or even the world; but OCSC can be something that we share as residents of Orlando while people still support team from another sport from where they are from; they have OCSC to support here and it really has brought us together.

    • John Harris says:

      That’s another common argument – xyz city has a young, newcomer population so they adopted the club. I’ve seen people say the same about Atlanta. Philly, with it’s size and diverse, dynamic economy, probably has more new comers than Orlando. In fact, I’d bet on it. If you are actually an Orlando supporter, it comes down to you have a more credible ownership group that feels that it must compete. Philly does not. Philly’s ownership group doesn’t care and the season ticket buyers and Sons of Ben enable it.

      • Um, John, Philly may well NOT have more newcomers than Orlando or Atlanta, both of which are booming Sun Belt cities. Philly, like the rest of the Northeast, has been pretty stagnant in its growth. Sure there’s all the population churn of any major metro, but growth is key, and we don’t have any.

      • I’m with you except for the dynamic economy part. It isn’t. We don’t have it. Hence 5e push for landing the Amazon deal. We get dribs and drabs, NYers amazed by cheap(er) real estate. The big companies in Philly (Comcast,Aramark) don’t drive new growth of employees here. Orlando is a huge bustle of tourism.

      • What do new people have anything to do with it. We have 3 times as many people who are mostly Philadelphia sports team fans. The team has been bad and not marketed well. We seem to have interest in the National Team when they play here.

    • Welcome to PSP come back soon

    • Thanks for weighing in. Great insights. Thanks for sharing.

  10. el Pachyderm says:

    It’s all so dissatisfying and disappointing I’ve stopped commenting. My words and thoughts and their absence the only way now to consistently voice discontent.
    .
    You win. I’m apathetic. Only you don’t win. You lose. Shrug.
    .
    It wears me out It wears me out.

  11. OneManWolfpack says:

    I am of the belief that if the Union increase their spending, while also spending properly… pretty basic NON-ground breaking stuff there… they will attract more fans and become relevant. To me, it’s really that simple. Build a winner and people will pay attention. If you can still draw a minimum of like 15k for every game and you suck… imagine what a real team would do?
    .
    I also believe this team completely missed their chance to establish themselves as a relevant Philly sports team and will pay for it for years to come. As stated many times, the “core 4” Philly sports teams haven’t been very good, but now are all looking to be very good, very soon.
    .
    I am a full season ticket holder, have been since Day 1. I re-upped for this coming season, but my breaking point has arrived. The opportunity to improve this team exits on multiple levels – be it: money, cap room, turning guys over, coaching change, etc. It’s MLS. It’s parity league. This team can compete next year, if ES makes the proper moves and puts a real team on the field. We shall see.

    • I agree except they didn’t miss a chance. If they get good people will start coming even if other teams are good. If they got good when the Phillies were bad that would mean people would choose the Union over the Phillies once the Phillies got good again.

  12. Neal Simpkins says:

    I don’t know where most of you are coming from with regard to Philly. Over three hundred years of history. Tons of culture. Growth on a number of fronts unless your from Kensington. Be patient its coming your way. There is too much to do in this area. Screw the thought that the stadium is too far from Philly. I bring people from the shore. Sit next to someone from the Delaware shore. If you have fun at the game bring like minded people. I have fun almost every game. As far as spending we have a couple players who haven’t contributed in two seasons. I would imagine their salaries will be gone for next season. Now drink a beer, chant loudly and f%&k Orlando.

    • 300 years- No Cups

    • Be patient? Tell that to my 74 year old father who has never seen the Eagles win a Super Bowl, and may not, before he passes. Be patient? Go pound sand with that sh*t. Phillies are the franchise with more losses than any other team in any other sport in any country in the world. Be patient? Take that and shove it so far up where the sun don’t shine. The Sixers and Flyers both only have two titles. The Sixers last in 1983, 34 years ago. Be patient? The Flyers haven’t won since 74-75, 42 years! Be patient? I have no clue where YOU are coming from with “Be patient”. Companies must love you. Someone willing to piss their money away for years with little return? Awesome. How do we get such a customer? They must be laughing all the way to the bank.

    • MarylandUnion says:

      My brother and I have a 9 game package. We have driven up from central Maryland 8 times (9th will be v Orlando) this year to watch the U and have a fucking blast every time. The atmosphere is incredible and the stadium is beautiful.

      The main problem with Chester, though, is any potential fan with just a casual interest in soccer is not likely to make the trip just to “check it out”. Not unless the product makes it worth it. Without knowing how great the atmosphere and stadium is, those fans are not going to come unless brought in by their friends who are already invested in the team.

  13. Still kills me that we don’t have Wawa in the D.C. area. Some way out in the exurbs, but that’s it.

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