Five Minutes with Dr. Panos Iakovidis
Published by: The Winter Haven Sun
(As a thoracic vascular surgeon, and President and Board Chairman of the Bond Clinic, Dr. Panos Iakovidis was already a busy man. So what was he doing in St. Louis when the Sun Central Media Group caught up with him? He was attending the owner’s meetings for the Major Arena Soccer League of course. Iakovidis probably never imagined adding “soccer team owner” to his resume, but about six months ago, that’s exactly what he did, becoming the majority owner of the MASL Florida Tropics who play their home games at the RP Funding Center – formerly the Lakeland Center – and the Lakeland Tropics, currently in the middle of their first season in the USL Premier Development League. Lakeland’s next game is a biggie, a rematch with FC Miami City, who beat the Tropics 4-0 in Miami in the team’s first ever outdoor game. However, after that loss, the Tropics reeled off six straight wins to put them in serious playoff contention even as an expansion team. That game is Saturday, June 24, at historic Bryant Stadium. Kickoff is 7:35 p.m. For information on the team, and to buy tickets, go to www.lakelandtropics.com. But as you’ll find out, in viewing the Tropics, Iakovidis sees more than just soccer.)
SCMG: Were you even aware of arena soccer before the Tropics came along?
PI: “I was aware of the old times (the Major Indoor Soccer League), and I’d seen videos in the 1980s. I never watched it, and I knew that arena soccer was very popular in the United States. But me watching it in person, no, I never did that.”
SCMG: So that Major Arena Soccer League home opener against the two-time defending western division champion San Diego Sockers last November, who were a huge favorite against you guys, was really something then for you, coming back from a 4-1 deficit in the fourth quarter to win 6-5 with the winning goal coming with just 31 seconds to play.
PI: “I was ecstatic. Within the first 10 or 15 minutes, I felt that the intensity of the game would make anybody, even non-soccer fans, want to watch it. Because of the constant action your attention to the game is always focused on what is happening. That is a significant change from outdoor soccer where you just watch the big picture. In arena soccer, you have to focus on where the ball is, and what is happening because you can miss a great goal or a great save or great attempt for a shot. The end of the game, it was something of a movie. My favorite picture in our office – I will always remember 50 years from now it was something that stays with you – is a picture of our players celebrating the winning goal with our fans, just jumping with happiness and excitement and joy. That’s the idea, those people having the great pleasure of victory in the last second. You could not have had a happier opening.”
SCMG: What does it mean for Polk County to have now two soccer franchises to call their own?
PI: “I think it’s an important step forward for our community, another step towards what our capabilities are. We have a large number of individuals at games that enjoy soccer and take pride in the community. Those two teams will be part of them. And we’ll take great pride in who we are, where we live. My hope is this will become a tool that will bring all of us together.”
SCMG: You’ve been a soccer player most of your life. Are you a better player or owner?
PI: “I was a recreational soccer player. I spent my time going to school, so I chose medicine as my first love. But I always enjoyed playing soccer at the level that my time would allow me. As an owner, my goal is to bring a team not just on the field but off the field, and at the same time connect with the community. I depend on many other good people to do the work and focus on our goals. I give guidance , but the success depends really on them.”
SCMG: You had thousands of fans at the Lakeland Tropics home opener on May 20, a thrilling 4-3 win over The Villages SC, who are the defending southeast division champions. What were you’re emotions at kickoff?
PI: “That was exciting for me personally because it involved all of us. Having 6,100 people or so was something that was unique. I don’t think anyone thought that number of people would come and watch a first-time team, and at the same time, expect to see such a quality and exciting game. Winning it of course topped everything, especially when you were against last year’s champions. It’s something that will stay with me.”
SCMG: And what were they at the end of the game?
PI: “Happiness and excitement. I had fulfilled a goal of my life that I didn’t even know I had. During the game, the emotions went up and down, which is part of the game, the excitement and the disappointment. That’s part of the experience of being a fan of the team.”
SCMG: You’re kind of in a soccer cradle, with Orlando City to the east having great success in Major League Soccer, and Tampa Bay to the west, having great success in the Division 2 United Soccer League, with hopes of joining MLS in a few years. What does that mean for the Tropics?
PI: “It means that we have a higher chance for success. There’s no question when you’re alone, chances for such a success are limited. The population we have here is drawn to soccer, and they would travel an hour and half each way to watch a game. Now they have the opportunity to watch their sport in their town with their own team. That brings a local flavor to their favorite sports.”
SCMG: After decades of talking like it would happen, do you think we’ve finally turned the corner on soccer in the country as a whole?
PI: “I think we took that turn some time ago, but we did not notice it, with our busy every day lives. With the new technology, with entertainment at our fingertips, not just a few hours a day but pretty much every second, it came but we did not notice it. It’s definitely here. How many new teams are coming to the market? How many new leagues? Everywhere you turn there is soccer. We’ve made the turn, and looking forward, over the next 10 to 20 years you’ll see further growth not only of the sport but of our lifestyle and businesses getting around this sport too.”
SCMG: Community is big, you’ve mentioned it a few times. What do you want a family to think once they’ve attended an arena or outdoor Tropics game?
PI: “I think the most important message we have is that we are here to be together. Soccer is just a venue for us, getting to know each other, supporting each other. Soccer may be exciting, it may be entertaining, but it’s just one small step for the community to come together. We have many, many difficult tasks that we have to solve, and none of us can solve them by ourselves, no matter how much power we have, how much money, all of us as a community have to come together to solve those problems. This is part of what my fortunes in life have brought me to.”