The 2017 North American Soccer League (NASL) schedule was released on Monday and conspicuously absent was the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The date February 6 was ironic as it was three years to the day from David Beckham’s MLS announcement in Miami, a press conference that occurred at a time where it appeared the Strikers were flying high.
The disappearance of the Strikers, one of the league’s flagship clubs from the league’s 2017 schedule culminates a long drawn out process where the club’s profile slipped and following largely dissipated. Multiple sources tell us that the Strikers ownership had agreed to sell the club to the owners of PDL club FC Miami City, but that the initial offer was rejected by the NASL Board of Governors. A second offer we are advised was either made or is in the process of being made. Even if this offer is (or has been ) approved and the club’s ownership is transitioned, the Strikers will not play in the 2017 NASL Season. Several sources close to the club insisted in January that the public perception of the club does not match reality and that what was being reported publicly and echoed privately by league sources to me was not true. However, with this week’s schedule announcement from the league we can close the door on the “she says, he says” period of this story and analyze how we got here.
While it has been convenient to scapegoat current ownership and management, the problems with the club and the market it occupies are deep and predate the 2014 sale of the club to the Brazilian ownership group led by Paulo Cesso or the 2015 installation of Luis Cuccatti as Managing Director of the club. That’s not to exempt the Brazilian ownership group from responsibility for the club’s (perhaps temporary) demise as mismanagement was a clear issue in 2015 and 2016, but the fundamentals of the club were have never been right even in the best of times.
The club’s previous owners Traffic Sports, an entity later disgraced in the FIFA scandal never quite had the patience to let the brand organically grow or took the time to understand the market. The momentum of 2011 was lost in 2012 then regained with a new logical community-oriented philosophy in 2013 only to suffer due to budget cuts in 2014. Then the team was sold.
Rewind back to February 17, 2011 – an event on the beach in Fort Lauderdale christened the rebirth of the legendary Strikers – a historic club that between 1977 and the early 1990’s played host to some of the biggest names in global football and was a recognizable community institution. While the spring break parties of the 1960’s may have put Fort Lauderdale on the American map, it was the Strikers that made the city a recognizable global locale – separate, distinct and unique in many ways from the more glamorous and better know neighbor to the south.
In 2011, Traffic’s overall business needed a viable Fort Lauderdale or Miami club as an anchor on greater national and international ambitions for the company. Traffic was in the international sports marketing business with a particular focus on the Caribbean and Latin America – this made having a visible presence in southeastern Florida critical. The current incarnation of the club was founded in 2006 as Miami FC and moved north in 2010. After playing a year in Fort Lauderdale under the Miami FC name, re-branded. Traffic which had restarted the NASL needed a certain degree of legitimacy to use the name of the legendary 1970’s league that went defunct in the mid 1980’s. But the new Strikers of Traffic with the exception of Tim Robbie, the club President, the links to the original Strikers are non-existent.
In fact, this club is the fourth different professional soccer team to play at Fort Lauderdale’s Lockhart Stadium and call itself the Strikers, and third to feature in the historical alphabet soup of American minor league soccer. The original Strikers were a massive team, operating in an era before the European Union (EU) allowed the free movement of players within the continent (and until Brexit is finalized, in and out of the United Kingdom) and at a time when South Florida lacked big-time professional sports beyond the Miami Dolphins. Recreating anything like the original Fort Lauderdale Strikers, which were a global brand of serious note is nearly impossible in this day and age, though that reality wasn’t often articulated in a way that could strengthen what never could be more than a nice local niche club in this era. In the pre-EU era, domestic leagues in Europe were just that – chances are if you wanted a challenge abroad you went to the United States.
Despite this reality, the actual success of the club in the local market didn’t matter a great deal to Traffic, though with the late 2012 hiring of “Soccer” Tom Mulroy as team President, an effort was made to engage soccer fans and youth clubs from Homestead to Jupiter. Mulroy’s community work was only piece of what the Strikers needed to do to be successful, but it was something that was executed beautifully, temporarily papering over the cracks that all over the club. In 2013 and 2014, the Strikers engaged locals effectively, growing attendance, interest and media coverage while attempting to create a positive atmosphere at the stadium.
Traffic’s goal with the Strikers was to maintain a viable and legacy-driven presence in a critical market for its business. It was also determined to prop up a league in the NASL that despite being a second division had delusions of competing with Major League Soccer (MLS) the designated first division in the United States. Traffic was invested in the league to such a large extent that they were involved in propping up several other struggling clubs and pushing an NASL vision based almost entirely on deluded hubris and tired nostalgia.
Lack of consistency in focus and philosophy
Traffic Sports in 2011 was committed to a big budget advertising campaign and a high player payroll by D2 standards In 2012, this budget disappeared. In 2013, outside consultants were hired to manage the ticket sales side but were not retained for 2014 when the focus was exclusively on sending staff out to make community appearances. The infrastructure created in 2013 and 2014 by these community appearances was washed away by new ownership in 2015 who had one half-baked and untested scheme after another to draw fans to games and in the process destroyed established community and youth club relationships. In 2016, fiscal austerity on the Greek model was pushed in terms of outreach funding with the ownership foolishly determining that spending more money on players and technical staff was the route to success.
The Strikers appeal based on nostalgia much like that of the New York Cosmos and NASL in general was limited beyond a small niche of fans – and constantly mistook winning for success.
The Strikers management both under Traffic and the more recent Brazilian-based owners overrated the importance of the Strikers legacy to anyone beyond a niche of fan in southeast Florida. This however was not simply a Strikers mistake but one made league wide by the NASL, most notably by the New York Cosmos. In contrast, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers, legacy brands from the original NASL have staked their own claim as vibrant clubs drawing on the historic legacy as a facet of marketing, not counting on it as the primary driver.
Additionally, winning has virtually no correlation to attendance at the lower division level in the United States. Fort Lauderdale is one of only three NASL clubs to have made four postseason appearances, yet attendance and the signing of big-name foreign players never did any good for the club’s bottom line. The ambiance, experience and local ties are what bind fans and a community to a lower-division club.
The evidence at the D2 level in American pro soccer points to attendance having little to do with winning. After all, 90% of the players at this level are not particularly well-known even to hardcore soccer fans. While some names like Joe Cole or Raul may move the needle ever so slightly for a few games at a time, by in large signing expensive, higher-profile players makes no difference in terms of crowd building.
For example, Indy Eleven’s attendance was down this year as the club was better than ever and was within a penalty kick shootout of winning the NASL title. The New York Cosmos struggles at the gate have come despite winning the NASL title three of the last four seasons. Tampa Bay’s worst-ever NASL finish was also their best-ever attendance year. Fort Lauderdale’s best attendance year (in terms of actual turnstile count) was the season the club finished dead-last in the league – every other season the club finished in a postseason position or in the top half of the league. FC Edmonton’s attendance never got an uptick from winning. This is a trend over many years that Tom Mulroy understood and appreciated but the new Strikers’ owners didn’t which led to a record number of people passing through the turnstiles for this version of the Strikers.
A slashing of marketing budget to increase the player and technical staff budget
In the Traffic era, cuts to budgets were felt relatively equally across departments. Budget slashing became an annual rite of passage in-house for Strikers personnel to deal with. But the Brazilian owners did something odd after 2015. The club slashed the front office budget while increasing the funds available for player salaries and scouting. What resulted was a season full of late payments, bounced checks, a midseason stadium move and the lowest attendance in the history of the NASL. Head Coach Caio Zanardi remarkably kept the club competitive and they almost made the postseason finishing with the highest standing of the four Florida clubs that competed in NASL during 2016. But the increase in player budget put a team that was suffering from the lowest attendance in the history of the league on the hook for supporting internationally recognizable stars that did nothing to drive the audience to see the Strikers play. The days of cultivating young local players one of the chief functions for any minor league club had passed – the continued flow of local players or those with ties to Florida through the Strikers was one of the reasons the club drew fans.
This is what many NASL teams have backwards, blowing money on sexy player names (many of whom are 30-something journeymen) thinking that changes perceptions and drives interest but it just does not. The Strikers are the most glaring example south of the New York Cosmos (who had its own flirtation with disaster this offseason ) of a league that just didn’t understand or accept its place in the soccer landscape.
A weak/fragmented market where selling tickets was difficult
Southeast Florida is arguably the single worst market for American pro club soccer. Sure, Joe Robbie Stadium can be filled when Barcelona or Chelsea come to town, or can even draw 50,000 fans on two days notice for a Liverpool-Manchester United game (which happened in 2014). But when it comes to the domestic game, teams have come and gone, flopped and failed. Meanwhile the local scene is dominated by match promoters and strong youth clubs who have a larger footprint than the local pro clubs can ever hope to achieve. Market fragmentation occurred rapidly in the region. From having a single team in the top four tiers of American Soccer in 2010 (Miami FC which was playing in Fort Lauderdale), the region in 2017 will have NINE clubs playing in the national leagues associated that represent the top four tiers of American soccer nationally and that does not include the Strikers.
For years, the Strikers gave away tickets hoping to capture audience share. The giveaways were so extensive under Managing Director Ricardo Geromel in 2015 that one Reddit poster referred to attendance markups that couldn’t be backed with empirical data as a the “Geromel ratio.” Enter Luis Cuccatti, Geromel’s replacement who realized the value around town of a Strikers ticket was $0 and resolved to fix the problem by ending the giveaways and freebies. Unfortunately for Cuccatti and the Strikers, NASL had admitted in 2016 a new club down the road in Miami, oddly called Miami FC (which remained the legal name of a Strikers-associated LLC…confused? So is everyone else). This new Miami FC gave away tickets at Geromel rate, essentially cannibalizing the market and forcing Cuccatti to eventually relent and give away tickets toward the end of the season. But by that time those accustomed to the freebies had defected to the new shiny object down the road.
It is also true that for the six years the Strikers have played in NASL the hard-core fan base was one of the smallest in the league, even if the club’s official attendance was somewhere in the middle of the pack until this past season. With the club clearly failing, fans weren’t strong enough or organized enough to engage in the types of efforts that contributed to saving fellow NASL clubs that had ownership questions in North Carolina and New York. The reality of this is that the Strikers by 2016 just didn’t have enough committed fans to engage in the types of campaigns that bring public awareness to failing clubs.
The Strikers are no longer a global brand – and even if they were how does that drive local interest?
The Strikers global cache has been much talked about. Traffic Sports openly boasted about the brand as being global, but in the period where Tom Mulroy ran the club, a local emphasis was delivered. But under the Brazilian ownership, the marketing of the club abroad, using World Cup legend Ronaldo (the other one…) took priority over anything local. The Strikers traveled to China in early 2016 for no apparent reason other than to secure a sponsorship deal- which never materialized. The team then sent a cobbled together group of youth players to China many of which were not even from Florida over the summer. This was taking place while employees were being paid late if at all, vendors were being stiffed and players checks were bouncing. Meanwhile the clubs rhetoric was about the branding and global relevance.
The whole notion of the Strikers being a global brand is so absurd and thus no need exists for it to be further debunked on these pages.
The Strikers are a lower league club (albeit with a historic name) that thought they were something bigger and better while operating in a terrible local pro soccer market. The club never understood that very few outside hard-core supporters know any of the players or opposing teams. The atmosphere, the ambiance and marketing are what really matter, and drive fans to the venue for an evening out. Several examples of smallish lower division clubs around the country understanding this can be witnessed – The Kingston Stockade FC, Detroit City FC and Chattanooga FC are among the examples to emulate. If shooting for the stars is your goal, you need have a clear plan and final destination in mind as Phil Rawlins did with Orlando City SC just a few hours up the road from Fort Lauderdale – but the Orlando example wasn’t followed either. If turning nostalgia into a modern contemporary and hip event was the goal, the Rowdies have done it far better than the Strikers (or New York Cosmos) and could have provided a model – but that playbook wasn’t followed either.
But the Strikers aren’t dead yet. In part two which will run next week, we will discuss where the club can go from here.
Disclaimer – Kartik Krishnaiyer worked with the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in 2009 (as Miami FC), 2013-2014 and 2016 as well as for the North American Soccer League from 2010 to 2013. He currently works as the VP of Communications with Boca Raton FC.
In part two, we will discuss where the club goes from here both in terms of ownership and in repairing local relationships that have been damaged.