The North American Soccer League (NASL) announced a Miami entry to the league in May. Today at FIU Stadium, the league had a press conference announcing the stadium its home venue and that they will begin competition in the league this Spring. Miami seems an odd place for a new club to many since the NASL has an established club in Fort Lauderdale less than 30 miles down the road and Major League Soccer (MLS) the current first division and established market leader in the men’s pro soccer business is actively exploring placing a team in the city with an ownership group led by David Beckham. The MLS team may also have the services of one of the top sports executives in the country, Tim Leiweke per the Miami Herald. Unlike Central Florida, where the domestic soccer market is proving to be strong, Miami seems a risk for MLS and for NASL. The former league is an established global player while the later league is not, so a failure in Miami for NASL could be a very damaging prospect.
Miami-Dade County has never proven to be a strong market for domestic club soccer. In fact, its pro soccer teams in the past have all folded without anyone noticing or moved to Fort Lauderdale after realizing the market was stronger further up I-95. The most recent team known as “Miami FC” played in front of sparse crowds from 2006 to 2009 despite the best efforts of Traffic Sports USA the now disgraced sports marketing firm that owned the club and were the driving forces behind NASL’s formation. Traffic spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on marketing and attracting name players to the team but ultimately failed and moved the team north to Fort Lauderdale before the 2010 season. They now compete in NASL as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers.
Regardless of how NASL tries to represent itself, the league is still a second-tier entity which has hard time convincing most soccer fans represents a high level of play. NASL is a minor league and this past season despite rhetoric about challenging top-flight MLS, the league lost 6 of 7 competitive matches (the seventh was a draw the NASL club lost on penalty kicks) to the third-tier league USL. Miami is a proven difficult market for domestic soccer having never supported a club team to acceptable levels of the day – be it in the 1970’s with the Miami Gatos and Toros the 1980’s with Miami Freedom the 1990’s with the Miami Sharks or 2000’s with the previous Miami FC. The large attendance numbers for international games in the market have zero relevance to a domestic club team, particularly one playing in a minor league.
When compared to the rest of the nation it is difficult to find a more apathetic marketplace than southeast Florida. It is a market where those who claim to love the sport will always find excuses not to support local or domestic soccer. Sure most organizations in the past such as the Fusion of MLS (one of only three MLS teams in history to fold) or the current Strikers organization have made mistakes. But the Strikers have done far more right than wrong through the years as did the original Miami FC, but it’s tough to invest big money in promoting a product when many locals seem so dismissive of it.
While Tampa Bay and Jacksonville embrace NASL and Orlando embraced USL, a division lower than NASL and now has one of the most complete football/soccer clubs in the country with a women’s pro team (NWSL) and a B team/development team in USL, south Florida won’t support the local game. Sure when Real Madrid plays Chelsea or Brazil plays Colombia, Joe Robbie Stadium is full, but the market has proven time and again to be elitist when it comes to this sport.
Miami FC faces the same hurdles as the Strikers with even more skepticism and obstacles such as a large stadium with turf and no natural fan base. Best of luck to Miami FC and the club’s ownership. They like everyone else who has invested big bucks in the pro soccer wasteland of southeast Florida will need it.