Orlando is a sports destination, but its marquee teams are struggling to break through

ORLANDO, FL - JULY 26: Orlando players huddle during the soccer match between the Orlando City Lions and New York City FC on July 26, 2018 at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
ORLANDO, FL - JULY 26: Orlando players huddle during the soccer match between the Orlando City Lions and New York City FC on July 26, 2018 at Orlando City Stadium in Orlando FL. (Photo by Joe Petro/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images) /

But right now, Orlando fans have very little to cheer for from their big-name teams. Even as big-name events come to Orlando.

The MLS completed its All-Star celebration in Atlanta on Wednesday with an exhibition between its All-Stars and Italian team Juventus. The game was a showcase of a growing league arriving in a market that has quickly embraced soccer in its second year with a MLS team.

The Atlanta fans filled the Mercedes-Benz Stadium with more than 70,000 fans like they do almost every weekend for games.

MLS knows it is having a moment of cultural currency, trying to push baseball out of the way in some markets for the summertime sports pages.

It has been this way for years in Orlando where Orlando City has been a dominant sports force throughout the city. Gamedays at Orlando City Stadium have a college football feel to them. They are as much events as anything with the whole city dressing up in purple.

In the last four years Orlando City has been in MLS, it has shown that Orlando can be a major sports town. It has embraced this growing sport — a millennial favorite — and made Orlando the self-proclaimed soccer capital of the South. Atlanta may yet have something to say about that.

Orlando will get its chance to reclaim that crown and welcome the MLS into the city. Orlando is set to host the MLS All-Star Game next year. Like any major All-Star Game, that will come not only with the game but plenty of other events before the All-Star Game, including concerts and community events in addition to the game.

But while Orlando is bringing in some major one-off, national events to the city, cementing its reputation as not only a great tourist destination but a sports event destination, its local teams are struggling.

The Magic have missed the Playoffs the last six years and still seem mired in a rebuild. Things might be heading in the right direction again. But the Magic still seem like they have a long way to go.

And Orlando City, despite its runaway success culturally, has found itself in a similar losing streak. In four years in MLS, the Lions have yet to make the Playoffs. And a long losing streak has the team six points (two wins) out of the final playoff spot. This in a league where teams routinely go from worst to first.

Orlando City has lost 13 of its last 14 games. The has struggled to break through.

So while exciting things seem to be happening in and around Orlando, fans for both the Orlando Magic and Orlando City are left wondering when their teams will give them something to cheer about day to day.

In Orlando’s sports landscape, it is the one thing that is missing. The marquee teams from the major sports leagues are struggling to make any impact in their leagues.

Of course, they are not the only games in town. The UCF Knights continue to keep winning (national championship anyone?) and the Orlando Solar Bears have made the Kelly Cup Playoffs the last two years.

The Orlando Pride are perhaps the best professional team in the city having made the NWSL playoffs last year and in position to do so again with international superstars like Marta and Alex Morgan on the roster. Somehow being third in the league in attendance and fourth overall in the standings is causing a stir and disappointment (as it should for such a strong team).

Rightly or wrongly, the Magic and Orlando City will always get the majority of headlines over those teams. But they are all evidence of Orlando’s growing sports profile as a city. And Orlando undoubtedly can host these major sports events.

The city hosted Copa America a few years ago. The major pan-American soccer tournament chose Orlando for its first tournament hosted outside of South America. Despite some less-than-stellar matches and less-than-ideal field conditions at Camping World Stadium, the event was largely a success.

On the soccer front too, the city is in the running to host World Cup games with the U.S./Mexico/Canada World Cup in 2026. And the city will surely get some U.S. soccer World Cup Qualifying Games in the run up to the 2022 World Cup.

On top of this is Orlando’s usual run of college football games. That includes the Citrus Bowl and Camping World Bowl (and Cure Bowl). But now also the Camping World Kickoff Game which will feature the No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide taking on the Louisville Cardinals on Labor Day.

The NFL Pro Bowl has taken up residence at Camping World Stadium too, giving Orlando some taste of the NFL.

The Magic hosted the NBA All-Star Game in 2012 and they have put in bids to host future All-Star Games. They likely will get another one in the 2020s once their entertainment complex is complete (and probably once I-4 Ultimate is done).

The events will keep coming to Orlando because it is such an easy place to get to, has the hotel space to host them and has the facility to host major events.

But Orlando is coming into its own as a city too. It is becoming a place people not just want to visit, but live. And the city’s population and identity have grown tremendously in that vain in the last decade.

Like the Magic in the early 1990s, Orlando City’s arrival was a measure of the city’s growth in identity. It was something that belonged wholly to the city. Maybe even in a different way because very few people probably had a MLS team before the Lions in the same way someone might have had a NBA team before the Magic.

But like everything else, Orlando’s entertainment options are growing. And a discerning dollar will not invest in a product that is struggling on the field or court.

Orlando Magic
Orlando Magic /

Orlando Magic

Neither the Magic nor Orlando City is hurting much for attendance. According to Basketball-Reference, the Magic were 16th in the league in total attendance. Impressive for a team with such a poor record. And according to Soccer Stadium Digest, Orlando City is fifth in MLS in total attendance.

Fans are still engaged with both of these teams. It is safe to say that this town would come alive if either one made any serious Playoff run. And that is probably in a way that would be different and bigger from the Magic’s 2009 Finals run.

And fans in the city have supported the major events that have come here just as much as the tourists have that come here. Sports is a major part of the quality of life for people in the city.

That quality of life would be made so much better with an improved Magic and Orlando City team.

This is the last piece missing to the city’s sports scene. A team to galvanize around and be proud of.

It is clear the city is thirsting for something like this. Sports are a huge part of the culture of any growing city. They help define a city’s identity and do a lot to bring the whole populace together.

Orlando City games remain an event — in a way Magic games cannot because they happen so frequently. And the city comes alive for them.

Next. Mohamed Bamba a long-term investment for Orlando Magic. dark

But right now, Orlando fans have very little to cheer for from their big-name teams. Even as big-name events come to Orlando.