Meanwhile a cue of interested USL teams with strong fan bases from Sacramento, St Louis, Cincinnati and San Antonio among others have expressed a strong degree of MLS interest. On Friday, Pedro Heizer of The Boca Raton Tribune reported that Beckham has moved on from Miami and is now focused on Las Vegas.
— Pedro Heizer (@pedroheizer) December 9, 2016
While my Las Vegas based sources cannot confirm that Beckham has shifted his attention to the Nevada city, it is likely that the former Manchester United star is either close to giving up or has given up on Miami. MLS has been focused recently on TV market size and based on that metric, Las Vegas isn’t an attractive proposition but unlike Miami, the area does have some political will to push for a club.
One of Miami’s biggest drawbacks is the lack of vocal support for the MLS endeavor beyond a handful of fans, many of whom don’t respect or appreciate any dissenting opinion. While recent expansion team launches like Philadelphia and New York City have been met with a mass of supporters lobbying for the club BEFORE it was awarded or the promotion of established lower-division teams such as Orlando, Portland, Seattle, Vancouver and Montreal, Miami provides a window into what MLS and soccer were like 20 years ago – disparate bases of support, a fractured soccer community and no strong supporters base or organization to put pressure on politicians or community leaders to make the dream of an MLS team a reality. Miami and Fort Lauderdale both tend to draw well for friendlies (or contrived tournaments) involving big European clubs such as Chelsea and Barcelona or national teams from Latin America/Caribbean. But those numbers have never translated to local pro club soccer over the course of several decades.
Recently, MLS Commissioner Don Garber visited Cincinnati home of the successful lower division side, FC Cincinnati. Garber arrived to massive fanfare including supporters showing up at the airport and several events that were jam-packed with people. Similarly, supporters in Sacramento and San Antonio have rallied when Garber has come to town and demonstrated clearly to local elected officials and community leaders that they want an MLS club. In Miami, no such events take place – in fact many who have pushed for MLS to Miami view it as a sense of entitlement, acting as if Miami is New York or Los Angeles and is owed a team.
It should be recalled that MLS previously was in the market with the Fort Lauderdale-based Fusion FC, who drew poorly though not much worse than most other MLS teams at the time. But the Fusion had less of a local a buzz around the club than the rest of MLS even at that early stage of the league’s development (1998-2001) and while attendance figures are one metric of support, how a community and the leaders in an area embrace a soccer club is another metric and southeast Florida consistently fails by this standard.
Next season, Minnesota United FC, an NASL club begins play in Major League Soccer . Minnesota has had a professional soccer team for more continuous seasons than any other American market and MLS made an effort to court the Minnesota Vikings to own a club. But the lower-division club had such a strong long-term fan base, built organically that Garber felt it best to promote the NASL team and keep the current colors, branding and club culture in MLS. Since southeast Florida has had lower division teams as well for over a decade, promotion of either Miami FC or the Fort Lauderdale Strikers to MLS could be an option for Beckham, but those clubs like south Florida in general suffer from indifference, fragmentation of the market and little in the way of relationships with community and political leadership.
Sacramento has followed the Orlando model with a minor league team that was well supported and one which actively fostered the engagement of local elected officials. The California capital city would be a worthy addition to MLS as it would provide a seventh Pacific coast team for the league, creating even more local rivalries. Sacramento could easily be the next MLS team rather than Miami who has had a place held for it now for many years.
It is important to note while arguments can be made for Miami as an important MLS market, the Tampa/St Petersburg TV market is actually larger than Miami/Fort Lauderdale. It is also critical to note that between 1975 and 2016, the Tampa Bay area and Miami/Fort Lauderdale areas have had pro teams in the same soccer leagues for 25 seasons. In that period only three times did the southeast Florida team boast higher attendance than the Tampa Bay-based one. This includes four seasons in Major League Soccer (1998-2001), where Tampa Bay led Miami in attendance three of the years, and nine seasons in the NASL (1975-1983) when Tampa Bay led Miami or Fort Lauderdale every single season.
Miami is more of a global branding opportunity than a soccer-crazed market. Major League Soccer has survived for years without a Miami team, and now is thriving despite the debacle taking place under the palm trees in southern Florida. But Tampa Bay’s stadium plans – a waterfront vista in St Petersburg probably represents something far more “Florida” than anything Miami can conjure up.
While the Tampa Bay market “failed” once before in MLS, that was a different time. A fear about cannibalization of the audience from Orlando which is nearby could be real, but the rivalry implications (Orlando City and the Tampa Bay Rowdies already have a robust rivalry fostered at the lower-division and US Open Cup level) probably offset those concerns. A “war on I-4” rivalry would be far bigger for MLS then an organic club like Orlando City battling a manufactured and largely plastic club like Beckham’s Miami entry promises to be.
Sacramento is also a surer bet than Miami would be. An adolescent metropolitan area trying to escape the shadows of larger and more glamorous in-state locales, Sacramento has a healthy combination of Orlando, Columbus and Portland in it. Most logical and objective people would look at these elements that present in California’s capital city and opt for it in a heartbeat over Miami.
Indifference and fragmentation make the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market a difficult one to ever make American club soccer work as effectively as possible. The time has come for MLS and David Beckham to move beyond this unwilling and unwanting market.