By Eric Michael, ’96
On March 8, the Orlando Citrus Bowl became a sea of purple.
The inaugural home match of the Orlando City Soccer Club attracted a sold-out crowd of 62,510 fans outfitted in the team’s signature color to cheer on their Major League Soccer debut. In MLS history, the attendance feat was second only to the 1996 league opener of the LA Galaxy, which drew 69,255 spectators to the Rose Bowl. For the rising Central Florida franchise, which launched in the third-tier USL Pro league in 2010, the landmark match versus the New York City Football Club represented an ascension into the big leagues of professional soccer.
For longtime supporters, the traditional international term for soccer fans, the game was a coming-out party — especially to the many involved in Orlando City’s two organized supporter clubs, the Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm.
“The whole experience was surreal. The visual spectacle alone gave me goose bumps, knowing the humble beginnings from which we came.”
“Everything that we had done in the past was magnified tenfold at that game,” Iron Lion Firm co-founder Jared Ambrose, ’15, remembers. “Hearing more than 60,000 people singing a chant that I started was overwhelming.”
For Orlando City vice president of marketing Teresa Tatlonghari, ’95, the sight was a satisfying confirmation that the three years of work she’d invested in building a community around the club was paying off — big time.
“I broke down in tears,” she acknowledges. “The sense that everyone was here for the same purpose — and being a part of it personally — was a very emotional moment.”
Driven by a media campaign dubbed “Fill the Bowl,” the massive show of support for the team was the result of Orlando City’s grassroots strategy for growing its fan base. With the assistance of Julio Lima, ’83, of Orlando’s Say It Loud! advertising agency, Tatlonghari and her marketing team have helped nurture the growth of the club’s passionate supporter community organically, because in the world of soccer, the traditions, rituals and spirit of the supporter clubs create the culture of the team. “Soccer fans are more passionate than many other sports fans,” says Lima. “There’s no fooling them, so we have to understand their wants and needs and give them something real.”
But what have been the keys to this success? Here are three ways they’ve built an army of support:
Preserve the Flavor of “Football”
Instead of trying to Americanize the fan experience by interrupting the action on the field with halftime shows, cheerleaders and T-shirt cannons, the City club has been careful to preserve what has made soccer one of the most popular sports globally. “We have to be aware of other clubs from around the world in order to stay relevant to the game and to our audience,” says Lima. From the group chants that engage entire sections to the drum corps that play in the stands, they encourage the established rituals and customs from Europe, South America, the Caribbean and other international hubs of the sport’s culture. “We have fans from all over the world here in Central Florida, so we pay respect to their rich traditions,” says Tatlonghari. “There is one American part of our experience — tailgating.”
Give the Fans What They Want
According to Tatlonghari, giving the supporters a voice — and listening to it — has been instrumental in the growth of the City supporter community. The club’s fan advisory council, which offers direct feedback to the team, is made up of volunteer season ticket holders from every section of the stadium and age segment. And to allow the fans to create their own traditions organically, her team closely monitors social media, blogs and the reactions of gameday crowds to tweak their strategies. “We’re very in tune with how our fans are engaging with us,” Tatlonghari says. “It’s part of our culture as a club.”
Keep it Local and Give Back
Keeping the supporters at the center of their focus, Tatlonghari says the club creates opportunities to interact with — and benefit — the Central Florida community. It’s not uncommon to see Orlando City president Phil Rawlins mingling with supporters during the pregame tailgate scene. The club’s street team attends multiple events weekly, from farmers markets to outdoor festivals. They recruit new fans and pass out the purple lion logo magnets that have helped spread awareness of their brand via automobiles throughout the region. And the club’s nonprofit, the Orlando City Foundation, develops youth soccer programs in underserved areas and supports children’s initiatives combating childhood obesity, abuse and homelessness. “Community service has always been ingrained in the club’s culture,” Tatlonghari says. “It’s a huge part of what we do.”
How to Man the Wall
What to expect in the loud and rowdy supporter section of an Orlando City Soccer Club match.
The supporter section of an Orlando City Soccer Club match, aka “The Wall,” might be unlike any American sporting event you’ve ever experienced. “If you [go] there expect your view to be obstructed because of flags or people jumping and chanting,” says Ruckus president Jerry Updike, ’01. “Singing and chants all game long — 90 minutes, no sitting.”
Blending international traditions from around the globe with a burgeoning American enthusiasm for the game, the Ruckus and Iron Lion Firm supporter clubs incite fan fervor in the south end zone of the stadium to inspire the team to victory. “It’s a unique experience unlike any other sporting event in the U.S.,” explains Iron Lion Firm co-founder Jared Ambrose, ’15. “We’re all here to support and push the team, and with every race, creed and orientation singing together as one — it’s a really beautiful thing.”
Escorted by a corps of drummers, the supporter clubs gather in the tailgate area before kickoff and march into the stadium in a raucous display of solidarity.
Led by supporter group leaders called “capos,” spirited songs and chants are choreographed to the action on the field. And it’s an all-hands-on-deck endeavor in the supporter section.
To add a heart-pounding cadence to the chants, drummers keep time for the supporters and increase their amplitude in hopes of bringing the rest of the stadium onto their bandwagon.
A special privilege afforded to the supporter clubs is the use of smoke from designated (and safety-conscious) positions at strategic points in the game.
Photos courtesy of Orlando City Soccer Club