The reaction to the first two parts of this series has been varied and demonstrates the massive rift between contingents of Fort Lauderdale Strikers fans. On one side you have die-in-the-wool club supporters who have given the benefit of the doubt to the new ownership and who believe other fans are overreacting to recent developments. Many in this group had a negative view of former owners Traffic Sports and believe that any other ownership group is an improvement.
On the other side of the divide are fans who have determined quickly that this ownership group has either tossed away the good work of the previous regime or simply have not kept the promises they made including investment in the club.
While nothing is absolute and I firmly believe young Managing Partner Ricardo Geromel and his fiancée co-Managing Partner Madison Stanford are competent and trying very hard, the reality is somewhere closer to the naysayers view of things than that of the eternal optimists. As we discussed in Part II, Geromel and Stanford get abuse because they are the public faces on the organization. But the issues regarding this ownership group run much deeper than Geromel and Stanford.
When the new ownership group acquired the team, vague promises were made about resources and spending. The fans in the naysayer camp feel that they were misled by the club and have openly expressed their displeasure. Were this a court of law, the Strikers would be found innocent. The Strikers never gave any specifics about the plans the owners had, but assumptions were made that the player budget would increase, coaches would be retained, marketing would be aggressive and the team would be active in the community. In retrospect, the Strikers owners never said anything in the media or to fans absent of over-the-top hyperbole that meant anything. The reality with hindsight was that the owners never promised anything beyond keeping the club in the Fort Lauderdale area.
The offseason has not unfolded quite the way many fans thought it would. The team’s stellar play on the pitch during the last two months of the 2014 NASL season complicated things. If the ownership’s plan was actually to trim budgets and consolidate before implementing a grand vision, the Strikers eight game unbeaten run which led the team to the NASL final in San Antonio was a complicating factor and one which the owners can be excused for not planning for.
It is obvious from what has transpired that the ownership group has a tight player budget, perhaps the lowest of any NASL club outside of league-owned Atlanta. The increased value of the core players the Strikers had on its 2014 roster made it impossible under the budget confines to retain most players. Head Coach Günter Kronsteiner, rightly one of the highest paid employees of any NASL team based on his pedigree of success in Europe and in the USA was let go and a far cheaper option was procured. Fort Lauderdale has gone from having arguably one of the three best professional coaches in North American professional soccer to hiring someone who will split time with his local youth side, Weston FC (who boast a similar budget to the Strikers, by the way). But again, direct promises were never made about players budgets or marketing budgets. Assumptions were made wrongly by fans and some observers, myself included.
This all having been said, nobody can credibly argue that after the first few months the new group was adequately prepared to do this job – it is obvious they were not sure what they were getting themselves into. Within weeks of the takeover, we heard rumblings that the new owners wanted to “make a profit” in year one, something nearly impossible to do at the lower-division level in the USA. Ricardo Geromel made a number of ill-advised press statements which we chronicled in part I. Players were mis-communicated with and many felt after the title game in San Antonio that their careers with the club were over because they had been so misled. A player deserves the right to make a living wage especially after accomplishing what the Strikers players did in 2014. No player can be faulted for leaving Fort Lauderdale and moving to greener pastures. The Strikers have through the years been able to offer lifestyle – South Florida’s greatest asset to players, even when offering less money. But when the offers become so insultingly low and below market value, those same players have no choice but to move on even if they love the area.
Some of the core veteran players from last year’s squad were made contract offers by the Strikers which would be equivalent to a “paid internship,” in the real world. Players from other clubs that the Strikers have approached have also spoken to me on background about the shockingly low salary figures cited to them. Sadly this “paid internship” model applies to much of the staff as well. My sense is that Geromel and Stanford felt more money would be available from the club’s owners and have had to put a brave face on the financial austerity of the organization. That is why, among other reasons I feel both should be cut some slack. That having been said, when multiple players as well as former coaches and staff tell one story and the ownership tells another, sheer numbers and the established credibility of the people telling the story mean that the players, coaches and staff must be believed.
As has been pointed out in the previous parts of this series the group did very little due diligence when compared to other NASL owners before purchasing and assuming control of the team’s operations. The entire process was conducted in 2014 and the one team that was “shadowed” per Rafael Bertani’s comments on the January 8th 2015 Tailgate Show was Phoenix FC. We are now aware that Andre Chaves with Ricardo Geromel’s involvement attempted to buy the USL PRO club but were unsuccessful, so whether that can be counted as “shadowing” to learn the soccer business is very questionable.
Let’s review where the organization’s structure stands. The team’s day-to-day administration has been put under the control of a 27-year-old Managing Partner who has never worked in the soccer business before. As I have said above and in Part II, the vitriol directed towards Geromel is unfortunate, but the fact remains he was not prepared to hit the ground running with this job. The team named a Director of Soccer who has no experience in the game, no natural scouting network on which to rely on and few contacts in the sport domestically. The General Manager, Amaury Nunes is a journeyman former player who has never negotiated player contracts from a team perspective before and while he does know enough people in the domestic game to find players on a limited budget, he would likely need a stronger Director of Soccer to sell truly exceptional players on joining the club. Nunes is also connected to the celebrity world in Brazil but that is probably irrelevant to the Strikers short-term plans (though might have a long-term upside) so we can save this discussion for another time.
Losing Tom Mulroy set the organization back two years as far as community outreach is concerned. The bridges that had been painstakingly built with local youth clubs, public schools, non-profits and community organizations went out the window with his departure. The Strikers are now trying desperately to piece back together some semblance of the infrastructure Mulroy built. The decision to allow Mulroy to leave was not only ill-advised, it was smacked of ignorance and arrogance on the part of the new owners. Allowing Mulroy to leave clearly demonstrated that the new owners had not done their homework about the local market and that they did not anticipate the type of backlash his departure would create with fans, media and the soccer community in all three south Florida counties.
The Ronaldo hand was badly overplayed by the organization. While bringing in a celebrity owner of Ronaldo’s stature certainly elevated the visibility of the club, the ownership and staff were completely unprepared to continue typical offseason work at the same time. Ronaldo’s treatment of fans and potential team sponsors proved to be more than Geromel and company bargained for. If Ronaldo was supposed to be the closer on deals that Geromel, Stanford and the Strikers staff painstakingly put together, he in reality moved the ball back to square one in some critical cases. Questions also have to be asked whether Ronaldo is committed to the Strikers as an entity or simply to Fort Lauderdale/Miami as a region because he can build a soccer academy and play poker in the area.
Ultimately, the elephant in the room is David Beckham and MLS. Many supporters and NASL Commissioner Bill Peterson have engaged in wishful thinking claiming Fort Lauderdale and Miami are somehow different markets. This is a complete canard – No professional sports team has EVER survived more than a season or two in South Florida without drawing support from both Dade and Broward counties. Most teams have drawn lots of support from Palm Beach County as well. Should Beckham’s stadium be built in downtown Miami, it would be accessible to much of the Strikers fan base. For a basis of comparison, downtown Fort Lauderdale is closer to downtown Miami than the bulk of Chicagoland population is to Toyota Park, most of Metro Philadelphia’s population is from Chester, downtown Boston is from Foxborough, the traditional Galaxy fan base in the northern part of LA County is from The Home Depot Center and either downtown Dallas or downtown Fort Worth are from Frisco. Simply put Fort Lauderdale and Miami are virtual twin cities separated on weekends when traffic is relatively light by only about 30-45 minutes of driving time. Fort Lauderdale would actually be closer to Beckham’s stadium than many core MLS markets are from the stadiums in those areas.
Broward County cannot support a team that aspires to compete on a high-level on its own. Nor can Miami-Dade County. Beckham will take Broward fans no doubt if his MLS-entry is even close to what potentially it could and should be. This leaves the Strikers in a pickle whether they publicly admit it or not.
That’s where the Strikers Brazilian strategy comes into play. Now while the overly aggressive courting of Brazilian fans with the limited marketing dollars the Strikers have has seemed distasteful to some, it might actually be quite logical. Despite the rhetoric about competing with David Beckham and MLS, perhaps the Strikers owners know better. Maybe they know they need to create a loyal niche following, and as a Brazilian run local business with Ronaldo among the owners, they can lock off this community and survive as an independent team with the loyalty of this group plus assorted other fans and those who want to support a local Broward product. While this might seem overly ethnocentric for some idealists, it is actually quite savvy if you separate emotion from the discussion.
The Fort Lauderdale Strikers sleepwalking winter of discontent has shown signs of abating recently. But it could be too little, too late to make the type of impact fans want to see. Or it simply could be a sign that the ownership realizes they have made multiple mistakes and are ready to awake from a post-takeover hangover.