The business of soccer is making strides and the Florida Tropics don’t want to miss out on a surge in popularity.
Under the umbrella organization Florida Tropics SC, based in Lakeland, it continues to expand the brand. The most recent addition to the fold is an outdoor soccer team, under the Tropics name, which will play at Lake Myrtle Sports Complex in Auburndale. “To play at Lake Myrtle is a prelude to bigger and better things,” says Tropics COO Chris Economides, who adds that the professional soccer organization has grown exponentially since it began three years ago. “Lake Myrtle is a beautiful complex and we want to try and transform the main field into a nice venue. We want to make it a festive night out.”
The organization now consists of its flagship team, the Florida Tropics, which plays at the RP Funding Center and is part of Major Arena Soccer, an indoor league; the Lakeland Tropics, an outdoor team in USL League Two, formerly the Premier Development League, with games at Bryant Stadium in Lakeland; and the latest entry, which plays in United Premier soccer League, an amateur adult organization.
Even with a trio of teams competing at various minor league levels, the organization has a lot of ground to cover. “Sports at this level isn’t financially viable,” says Economides, a prominent soccer executive who spent 20 years with the Rochester Rhinos, of the original USL, and also worked in the league central office for a time. “It takes three to five years to build these things so hopefully it will be self sustaining eventually.”
‘It takes three to five years to build these things so hopefully it will be self sustaining eventually.’ Chris Economides, Florida Tropics
Economides says the biggest challenges in growing the Tropics, all three teams, is simple: getting butts in seats. To generate interest, and sales, the team has advertised in various outlets, and gone grassroots, attending community events such as First Fridays and youth soccer. The team occasionally gives away tickets, paid for by sponsors, to help score new fans. Says Economides: “We want to have a presence in the community.”
Parallel with tickets is finding business partnerships for season tickers, group tickets and sponsorships — another challenge. “It's the chicken and egg theory. Sponsors want to see people in the building,” Economides says, but without sponsors it’s harder to get people to come to the building. “We are putting a good product out there and we’ve made good strides. It’s a numbers game.”
Economides, in one way, has been here before, in trying to build a sustainable soccer organization. He founded the Carolina Railhawks, a former USL First Division team, and he left a big mark on the Rochester soccer scene with the Rhinos: the team, under his leadership, led the league in attendance from 1996 to 2004. Street & Smith’s Sports Business Journal named it one of the top five minor league sports franchises.
While Polk isn’t soccer-crazed like Rochester was in the mid-1990s, Economides works off one advantage, in the sport has room to grow. “Soccer is the number one participation sport and is finally booming,” he says. “Soccer is here to stay.”
Some Lakeland officials also see big potential for soccer. The city commission, for one, is currently debating whether to build an $8 million soccer stadium next to the RP Funding Center.
Nicole Travis, Lakeland’s community and economic development director, says that part of town can use more economic development. “People are unified by sports and the stadium would help strengthen other local businesses,” she says. “As people attend the games, they’ll want to get lunch and dinner at downtown restaurants. Look at other areas, like Channelside, and the development it has had around Amalie Arena.”
The city’s plan would also call for several more parking garages downtown. Funding hasn’t been established, however, and options, beyond sponsorships, include public/private partnerships and higher taxes — not an easy pitch.
Economides agrees a new stadium, which would seat 3,500, would be a big step in the right direction. The flagship Tropics team currently draws 2,000-3,000 people per game at the RP Funding Center.
Another plus: Florida Tropics majority owner and CEO Dr. Panos Iakovidis, a cardiothoracic surgeon, is passionate about soccer, says Economides. Iakovidis, with some partners, bought the franchise three years ago; officials decline to disclose what he paid for the franchise. “He’s done a wonderful job having a vision,” Economides says. “This is his way to give back to the community.”