BRADENTON, Fla. - Controversy has erupted in Florida after Atlanta was awarded a Major League Soccer franchise without having to build a soccer stadium.
Orange County Commissioner Ted Edwards said he felt misled by MLS officials who required that Orlando build a soccer-specific stadium with under 25,000 seats and a grass field in order to get a franchise.
Orlando will join MLS next year.
An $80 million soccer stadium is being built in downtown Orlando. Some $20 million of the cost is coming from contract tourist development revenue bonds sold by the city this year.
In April, the league sold an expansion franchise to Arthur Blank, owner of the National Football League Atlanta Falcons, who will have his soccer team play on artificial turf in the Falcons' stadium.
"I am concerned about the league's apparent double standard on stadium requirements and am worried that they may have conducted stadium negotiations with us in bad faith," Edwards said in a memo asking for the board to discuss the issue May 6.
At the meeting, Edwards said that he was told by MLS that a new stadium was necessary because the Citrus Bowl football stadium would not meet their standards today. The Citrus Bowl is undergoing a $200 million reconstruction that began with demolishing everything, leaving only two outer sides and upper seating area.
"Recently it was announced that MLS was awarding a franchise in Atlanta and they are going to be playing in a football stadium," Edwards said. "Evidently, the standards we were told may not be true."
Edwards also said he was told verbally that retrofitting the Citrus Bowl for soccer would be too expensive. He has asked for documentation supporting that claim.
"The reason I brought this up is I thought we were misled by Major League Soccer," he said.
Most commissioners agreed with Edwards' understanding. One board member said it even seemed as if MLS was negotiating with Orlando and at the same time talking with Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank about a franchise that would play in the new $1.2 billion football stadium.
Commissioner Tiffany Moore Russell said the board should talk with city officials about the information that was received about the soccer project.
"It looks like we don't do our due diligence - that we didn't do enough of a good job to protect the citizens of Orlando and Orange County when other cities are getting better deals," she said.
Commissioner Fred Brummer recalled being told by MLS that there could "absolutely be no artificial turf" though Atlanta's new stadium will have that.
"I realize when you have a big-dollar show talking like the Atlanta Falcons operation, and a big market like Atlanta, for the MLS that the story changes, let's say it that way, the story changes," he said.
Edwards said that commissioners need to be more skeptical in the future when approached "by our partners" with the city and organizations that want funding for programs.