The Queen, aka Kay Rawlins speaks to The English Lion
Kay Rawlins is someone who needs no introduction to Orlando City supporters. The team's co-founder is the undisputed Queen of Orlando City SC. Kay was pivotal in pioneering the team's move from Austin, and has been omnipresent during the club's rise from USL to MLS. We caught up with Kay to talk City and Pride, and also to speak about her incredible work in the community with the Orlando City Foundation.
Hi Kay, thank you for catching up with us. It’s well known that you were a Stoke City supporter growing up. What were your earliest memories of following Stoke, and what made you fall in love with the game?
I went to my first Stoke game with a school friend and her parents when I was 11 years old. Her mum was a well-spoken, seemingly-refined lady so I was shocked to hear her swearing in very colourful language at the opposition players! I loved the atmosphere and became a season ticket holder myself from the age of 20 onwards. I loved being in the old Boothen End, all standing, and the back and forth banter and songs with the opposing fans. I traveled to loads of away games too, that was always such a great day out with all my friends.
You were a huge part of Orlando City SC’s inception, just talk us through the thought process surrounding the relocation of the Aztex to Orlando. And what did you see in the City Beautiful that made you think it was the ideal location?
We tried very hard for 3 years to make things work in Austin but we were losing lots of money and there was no help from local government or business community so we made the very hard decision to move. We had some potential new investors and they were the ones who encouraged us to look more closely at Orlando. USL had announced a team at the beginning of 2010 and then the backer dropped out so they were keen to have us move there too! We looked at the diversity of the population, the fact there was only one other Major League sports team in Orlando and the ease of access - everyone flies to Orlando! We were welcomed with open arms in Orlando and the rest is history!
The partnership with Stoke City has been well publicised. As owners, building the club up, how important was it to have a partnership with a club as well established as Stoke City which is one of the oldest league clubs in England?
I think in the beginning, as we were establishing ourselves, it was important and we were able to learn from them, as they did from us! Relationships with other clubs around the world are always good to have, especially from a scouting point of view.
You’ve been heavily involved at the club on a number of levels, you’ve been there for every major highlight. What, in your opinion, has been the highlight of the club’s existence at both USL and MLS level? Either of the USL Championship wins? Our MLS debut? There are certainly plenty to choose from.
So so many highlights! The first was our USL Championship in 2011, the game that had everything! Our goalie (Miguel!) being sent off, Harrisburg equalized in the dying minutes to force overtime, penalty denied, penalty given then it went to penalties, finally winning 3-2! That was the beginning of the passionate support that we still have now. The party at Cheyenne Saloon when we were announced as a Major League team was so much fun, and the groundbreaking when we marched down Church Street! The first game in MLS in front of 62,500 purple people was truly amazing - standing on the pitch that day and looking around and realizing a dream had come true - so many tears that day! The club response to the Pulse tragedy is one that still brings me to tears, the outpouring of love from our supporters for our LGBTQ community was overwhelming and I love the rainbow seats in our stadium to show that we are all about inclusivity. The first game in the new stadium was so special - the supporters invited me up into the capo stands - such an emotional moment! I also always love visiting during a game to play the drums or wave a flag!
You had your start in banking, before working with children focusing on helping other professionals to recognise signs of child abuse. As somebody who works in the field, I know how stressful this can be. How do you think this experience has shaped you professionally? And more specifically how do you think those early experiences helped you learn how to help run a successful football club?
During that time of teaching at a local college, I was also an owner and manager of children’s pre-schools and a mother of my own kids so I learned how to multi-task! I learned how to be a good leader, how to influence and inspire others and to use my time wisely; how to be a good listener and recognize all the different ways people learn. I learned about running a club from the ground up - in the early days, I washed the kit, ran the ticket booth, organized the volunteers so it gives me a good understanding of other staff members.
The club has developed a strong UK-based supporter base with groups such as Orlando City UK currently flourishing. As a native Brit, how does that make you feel? And just how important is for the club to continue to grow its international supporter base?
I LOVE that we have supporters from all over the world, especially the UK! Technology makes it possible to interact, we have some great banter on #OCTwitter! Signing some prominent players helped put us on the international stage and being in a city that everyone comes to visit helps spread the word. You can buy our jerseys everywhere, including the airport!
Women’s soccer is on the rise, both in the United States and globally. How proud are you of the work the Orlando Pride (pun intended) does in the local community, where interest in women’s soccer continues to go from strength to strength?
I’m happy to see the women’s game growing, we have new teams being added to NWSL that have celebrity backing which should help elevate and encourage other new teams. It’s great seeing it grow in the UK too - one of my regrets is that football wasn’t an option for girls at school when I was growing up. I represented my school in track and field, hockey, swimming and tennis and like to think I may have been a decent football player too!
On the Pride, players like Carson Pickett and Dani Weatherholt in the past, are well known for the work they do in the community. Just how important is it for young girls and boys in the community, to have such strong role models as visible presence?
One of our jobs as a club is to help the players grow off the field as well as on it and it is something we have always encouraged. Players don’t always realize the effect they can have on youngsters in our community - they can be such great role models for health and wellness, working hard in school and staying out of gangs - kids listen to them. The pandemic has actually meant that player appearances can be via Zoom and easier to organize!
Your work with the Orlando City Foundation has become the envy of both the MLS and NWSL, as such you’re now a massive part of the local community. What’s been your proudest accomplishment with the foundation so far, and what’s next?
Youth sports in the US can be very expensive and as such, a barrier to many kids. We build safe places to play - mini-pitches - and then bring free programs and equipment, including footwear, so any child that wants to is able to join in. We teach nutrition and so added in community gardens so the kids can experience planting, growing, nurturing and then eating fresh, healthy food. We also recently completed a garden that is used as therapy for victims of human trafficking and have been asked to partner with a juvenile detention center who are teaching new skills to young offenders.
The Coronavirus pandemic has taught us all how important it is to look out for one another, and to look after our communities. How do you think the pandemic will affect (if at all) the way the foundation works in the future?
It has affected the program part of what we do as we aren’t allowed to be with the kids in person. We delivered soccer balls and activity sheets instead and started a Kicking It back Corner on our website with resources people can access from home. Our fundraising has changed too - we had an online event and also launched our Kicking It Back Club - there’s lots of levels but you can join at $10 per month and you get Foundation swag!
Lastly, Oscar Pareja’s team have made history by reaching their first MLS Cup Play-Off. How far can this team go? For me, there’s no reason why they can’t win MLS Cup. That has to be the aim right!?
MLS Cup is obviously the aim, don’t want to jinx anything! I have loved watching this team grow this season, they are a joy to watch and they are playing with an awesome winning mentality. Huge kudos to Oscar and his team and our inspirational captain Nani!
Thank you, so much Kay. It's been an absolute privilege!
To find out more, and to get involved in the Orlando City Foundation head to https://www.orlandocityfoundation.org/