As the dust settled from last Wednesday’s announcement that the North American Soccer League, which is the second tier of the game in the United States and Canada will put a new club in Miami, the fallout on the local scene became apparent. Miami FC will begin competitive play in early April 2016 just under ten months from now. My initial views on this issue were articulated on World Soccer Talk last week.
This past weekend, I have been on numerous radio shows throughout North America discussing this issue which has political implications in south Florida, as well as major ramifications in the soccer world. Miami is a sexy market globally and given the recent runaway success of Orlando City SC (MLS) and the moderate successes that Tampa Bay and Jacksonville have had this season in NASL, Florida is very much front and center in the thoughts of the soccer world.
Of greatest interest to most of the public was the impact this would have on David Beckham’s plans for his MLS side in Miami. The answer is very little thus far. MLS Commissioner Don Garber has continued his intense lobbying of politicians and local officials in Miami. Last week, The Miami Herald reported that David Beckham has spoken with outgoing University of Miami President Donna Shalala about a possible ground share with the UM Football team. Shalala is a board member of the United States Soccer Federation (USSF). The USSF is the governing body for all soccer leagues in the United States and both MLS and NASL are sanctioned under the USSF due to FIFA rules.
It is worth reminding our readers at this point that while NASL has made noises about competing with MLS, the league which was formerly based in Miami remains sanctioned as a second division while MLS is a first division. For some this might simply be semantics as the United States unlike European countries do not have promotion and relegation. The difference between the two leagues in terms of quality of play is minimal – MLS is certainly of a higher-caliber but is not substantially better playing quality wise and the gap between the top European leagues and MLS is greater than the gap between MLS and NASL. However, the distinction between NASL and MLS is very real when it comes sponsorship dollars, and the ability to influence politicians for tax breaks of handouts to build stadiums.
The local impact on fans of the announcement was underwhelming. With many of Miami’s leading soccer supporters still largely focused on MLS, if Beckham brings his team to Miami chances are quite good he will retain the support of everyone who matters. Some supporters were unhappy that they were left in the cold by the abruptness of this announcement which is in contrast to the aggressive outreach Beckham’s representatives have made over the last two years. Still when the Miami FC side in NASL begins play, chances are many committed soccer fans locally in Miami-Dade County will at least nominally support the club. However, the short ramp up period for the NASL team combined with the failure to reach out to leading local fans before the team was announced paints a very poor picture of how the club might do business going forward. Even while Beckham’s bid has stalled due to political issues, his representatives have stayed in regular touch with the Southern Legion, a local supporters group.
Miami remains the trickiest of American soccer markets, a place quite frankly where I believe MLS would be best served leaving the area to lower-division clubs. With little margin for error, Beckham’s Miami plans might have become slightly more troubled with this NASL move, but certainly nothing catastrophic has come from it. However, if Beckham does get his team off the ground in Miami, chances of Miami FC in NASL surviving are minimal. MLS wanted back into the Miami market long before they elevated third-division Orlando City SC to the top division this past year. However, Miami is a market that has not proven mature enough to sustain pro soccer if it is not of the highest caliber (ie. the level of a major European league) so if MLS needs a Florida rival for Orlando City SC, I believe they would be better served looking at NASL clubs in Jacksonville and the Tampa Bay market.
How the Miami NASL team will impact the Fort Lauderdale Strikers is also becoming clear. Last season, between 20% to 25% of the Strikers crowds were estimated to come from Miami-Dade County per the former team management. Data is not available for this season, but with new ownership and an increased focus on the areas closest to Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium, that number is assumed to have been reduced. Still, no question exists the Strikers draw fans from areas close to where the new Miami FC will likely play. But a feeling has begun to circulate that the Fort Lauderdale-based club under ambitious new ownership led by Ricardo Geromel will use the local derby aspect to their advantage. Many fans in Broward and Palm Beach counties might see a Miami club as a natural rival (even though those who follow other sports likely support clubs in Miami and drive down to Miami on a regular basis for games, concerts and other entertainment) and it might grow local spirit. The Strikers almost without question will lose some fans due to the new team, but also now have the opportunity to tighten their marketing strategy locally. The Strikers could also play the card of being an underdog in a media market AND reemphasize the tradition of the club and it’s historical legacy. The #builtnotbought hashtag that Orlando City SC fans have directed at Miami and New York City soccer supporters is apt in this case and should be adopted by the Strikers supporters group Flight 19 which itself recently undertook an ambitious effort to recruit new fans.
However, from a media standpoint the Strikers will likely be hurt. Sharing a TV market with a likely better funded Miami FC side, which might boast bigger name players, local TV news and sports reports might ignore the Strikers, especially given the media ties of new Miami FC owner Riccardo Silva. So in all likelihood will The Miami Herald the local paper of record which covers the Fort Lauderdale Strikers sparingly as it is. Fort Lauderdale remains one of two NASL clubs without a local TV deal, but under Geromel’s leadership the club is making significant inroads both in the local business community and in local media. It will be critical for the Strikers to secure a TV deal before Miami FC begins play in 2016.
Southeast Florida is already considered a fragile pro soccer market by many outsiders. As someone who resides in the state I believe it is without question the weakest market of the four major metropolitan areas in the state. Unlike those areas which have just one professional team each to get behind, South Florida will have two teams in 2016 and perhaps as many as three by 2018.
In 2013, USL, the third division where Orlando City SC played at the time attempted to challenge NASL in the Tampa Bay market only to have their entry fold after one season despite being decently funded. While the Strikers and Miami FC are likely to coexist in the market without thriving, if Beckham’s team does get off the ground it would not be surprising to see one or both clubs face severe difficulty in a fight for survival.
Disclaimer: Kartik Krishnaiyer served as the Director of Communications for the NASL from December 2009 until May 2013. From June until November of 2013 he served as an independent contractor for NASL.