Four years ago, David Beckham attended a Miami Heat playoff game with future-Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure. Beckham who had just played his final professional soccer match with PSG was looking at cashing in on a provision to own a team. This item was placed in his MLS contact which was signed in January 2007 . In 2008 and 2009, Claure had led a bid to bring an expansion team to Miami in conjunction with FC Barcelona. But the great recession hit Claure, then the CEO of Brightstar harder than most and as it appeared Miami would be awarded a team to begin play in 2010, he pulled the plug. Southeast Florida has been without MLS since 2001 when the Miami Fusion, based in Fort Lauderdale folded despite being in the middle of the pack in attendance that final season. Miami Beckham United (MBU) in early 2014 announced that they were seeking a spot in Major League Soccer but almost immediately hurdles appeared. The hopes for a waterfront ground were dashed as were later proposals for other downtown sites. For a long while political and community support was found wanting. Now MBU is finally close to locking things down in Overtown on the west side of I-95, outside of but within view of Downtown.
As someone who has worked with the area’s soccer leadership closely through the years I remain skeptical about whether or not the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market deserves a second bite at the MLS apple – but that’s really not the point any longer. While few people have publicly expressed as skepticism about the idea of this club Major League Soccer NEEDS to be in southeast Florida for its international profile and relevance among Latino fans. Despite the recent runaway success of MLS’ in medium-sized places like Portland, Seattle, Salt Lake City and our own Orlando City SC, MLS hasn’t conquered the big markets or the consciousness of the media internationally – Miami with Beckham as the face of the club can change that. The fourth largest urban area in the nation,, the third largest Hispanic TV market in the country and one of the most cosmopolitan places in the western hemisphere make Miami a must for a league that unlike in 2001 has a chance to be a global player. This was MLS’ thinking behind second clubs in New York and Los Angeles and going into Philadelphia with a pure startup in an era when every other new MLS clubs was promoted from the minor leagues.
Miami’s stadium proposal will move forward this week after finally obtaining the political and community support that MLS finds much easier to obtain in smaller markets. This locale many feel isn’t ideal but indulge me for a moment while I make the case that it’s a better deal than many might think. The stadium can help revive the portion of Overtown cut off from the heart of the community thanks to the building of I-95 right through the urban core in the early 1960’s.
Much of the criticism of this proposal is that it doesn’t have car parking – well neither do most of the real intimate grounds in England, grounds that Americans flock to the TV sets every weekend to watch games from on NBC. The (English) Premier League gets on average higher viewership numbers in the United States than MLS does, something boosters of the domestic game hope changes in the near future. Venues like Orlando City SC’s new stadium help to create the type of on-air ambiance that those who watch the Premier League will hope to find in MLS. For all the highfalutin talk that Americans watch the Premier League in great numbers because of the perceived quality on the pitch, a factor as to why many watch it for the ambiance and atmospheres at the grounds. MBU’s ground potentially will be intimate and acoustically pleasing enough to help try and move MLS’ TV numbers, which is after all the whole ball game now. For years MLS’ has focused on attendance, but TV numbers have been relatively stagnant despite expansion and the exponentially growing footprint of soccer in this country.
We’ve heard lots of complaints about the stadium location and lack of parking, largely from people who probably won’t attend a game anyway. Those elites from parts of southeast Florida who don’t want to use public transit or go to Overtown can be safely ignored at this point and perhaps mocked in the future if this club draws well. Ridership on Metrorail and Metromover has increased by 72% since 2001 and Tri-Rail ridership has increased 67% in the same period. While southeastern Florida has never given up love of the car mass transit is making more and more of a dent in the region’s transportation culture. It’s worth noting Metrorail and Tri-Rail have have not since 2001 had a “destination” for sports and entertainment linked to the system outside of the University of Miami’s basketball arena.
At this point, it’s worth noting soccer has never been treated with a level of fairness by some in the local media – this is a problem MLS has run into time and again in big markets where entrenched media elites thumb their noses at the world’s game. This summer’s El Clasico Miami, might for a time dampen those attitudes and perhaps win some converts – so while the game being hosted by the Miami Dolphins and Relevant Sports, a competing outlet to MLS’ Soccer United Marketing may on the surface not help MBU, it may soften some local media attitudes toward the sport.
What about the local minor league teams in the region? We’ve spent a lot of time on this site discussing the demise of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. We haven’t spent much time on Miami FC, the Strikers (former?) local NASL rival, but MFC is a club that can be more or less ignored with regards to the MBU and MLS discussion.
Miami FC has nothing near the community or political support that Orlando City SC had at the same point in its existence despite reporting similar second year attendance. The club has done well to stay afloat in a tough market but has relied on postgame concerts and massive ticket giveaways to bolster numbers and unlike Orlando in 2012 as they were making an MLS push, the supporters group remains small and many fans are disengaged except on game days. Miami FC is the odds-on favorite to win the second division NASL this season, but does that make a difference?
The Fort Lauderdale Strikers in six seasons went from NASL’s top drawing team (minus Montreal who had already announced a move to MLS for the following season) in 2011 to its worst draw in 2016 and on indefinite hiatus in 2017. The Strikers’ forerunner Miami FC once in 2009 in the heart of the ESPN branded “Summer of Soccer” had a grand total 44 people in the building watching a game at FIU. It’s plainly obvious minor league soccer doesn’t work in south Florida in terms of moving the local needle.
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. Neither Miami FC with its pricey roster made up almost entirely of players from outside the area or the Fort Lauderdale Strikers at the end of their most recent run (The Strikers have existed in four different iterations in the past) really captured the local imagination.
The evidence at the division 2 level in American pro soccer points to attendance having little to do with winning. After all, 90%-95% 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. What does help is having strong community bonds with local organizations, youth clubs and a roster with many local players.
Also importantly attendance doesn’t translate to fan intensity necessary to sustain a club in difficult times or to represent a base for an MLS bid. Orlando City SC’s impressive numbers when in third division USL was not necessarily the attendance though it was certainly decent. It was the intensity of the support, the amount of chatter about the club that would sustain itself during the week and the growing interest in watching away matches as well as the strong supporters culture that was built. It was how soccer got the attention of local political leaders and community institutions. Orlando City SC provided a model for how to build a club into a power off the field at the minor league level and attendance numbers were just one piece of a complicated puzzle which southeast Florida’s local sides have never figured out (in fairness, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers under former President Tom Mulroy were getting there when he departed the organization after the Braziian takeover in November 2014).
It’s also worth noting supporters groups in southeast Florida have been consistently weak. Part of the difficulty MBU had politically and community-wise is that the organized efforts by fans to promote the MLS bid were weaker than in any other city seeking MLS in recent memory. That might be an indicator of the types of tribal turf wars that plague southeast Florida’s soccer community, an area that currently has a total of SEVEN teams competing in the two national leagues representing the fourth division of American soccer. A fragmented soccer community never seems to be willing to come together behind minor league products, so we can hope MLS MBU is different. But even the allure of MLS didn’t tempt some fans with tribal or other considerations to jump into bed with MBU (on this score, I plead guilty myself).
But even if it isn’t different, I have come to the conclusion that for the sake of American soccer’s global footprint, its TV presence and the health and perception of the domestic game with Latino audiences having a top-flight team in Miami is essential. Many of the local considerations I have applied in the past to critique this bid I have come to the conclusion simply don’t apply to Miami the way they do to places like Cincinnati, Sacramento, St Petersburg or Nashville. Miami is a global city and MLS needs to be in the market. In David Beckham, they have the best possible public face to put on a startup in choppy waters.
A word on David Beckham’s cut rate $25 million dollar entry fee for his team, a figure which is one sixth of the $150 million which now represents the going rate for MLS franchises, even those existing clubs like the Tampa Bay Rowdies that seek to move up from the second division USL. It’s easy for johnny-come-lately’s to forget where MLS was when David Beckham took a massive career risk and signed to play in the United States at the age of 31 (not 35 or 36 like many of the recent “big name” signings). MLS’ is where it is today, in a position to charge $150 million for a team because Beckham signed in the league – nobody will convince me otherwise. Many around MLS’ constantly talk about the sacrfices the early owners in the league made and how they are now owed the money they receive in terms of expansion fees from other clubs and Soccer United Marketing. I would hold Beckham to the same standard, and state in my opinion he is OWED a cut-rate entry to MLS.
The time is now for Miami Beckham United to seal the deal. Whether it’s the most viable plan or the best open market for MLS in terms of local support no longer matters. It’s the bigger picture macro considerations that make this move critical.