Editors Note: We’re honored at The Florida Squeeze to have this contribution from one of the deans of soccer journalism in the United States. Jeff Rusnak has covered men’s and women’s soccer at all levels from the 1980’s onward and was for years my window to the world’s game through a south Florida lens when he was writing for the Fort Lauderdale-based South Florida Sun Sentinel. Meanwhile I have written a piece for The Yanks are Coming on the cultural and pride aspect of Miami teams playing in Fort Lauderdale.
by Jeff Rusnak
Founded in 1915, Broward County has a relatively brief history. A meaningful part of that history can be traced to the 64-acre parcel of recreational land in Fort Lauderdale that houses Lockhart Stadium built in 1959, and the adjoining Fort Lauderdale Stadium (1962).
At varying times, the Lockhart site has hosted New York Yankees and Baltimore Orioles spring training baseball, a lineage of professional soccer teams dating back to the original Fort Lauderdale Strikers (1977-83), and high-school football games featuring scores of players who became stars in the NFL and at major universities.
In their present state, neither stadium hosts anything.
The baseball stadium has been dormant since 2009, when the Baltimore Orioles last played spring training in Fort Lauderdale. (save one soccer match played by Miami FC at the stadium in 2010). Lockhart Stadium’s once immaculate playing field now resembles a wildlife preserve, with native shrubs rising untamed where soccer legends such as Pele, George Best and our own Teofilo “Nene” Cubillas introduced Broward to the world game.
From abandoned property comes opportunity for revival and so it is for the Lockhart site. At present, two entities – Inter Miami SC, the David Beckham-backed Major League Soccer (MLS) team set to debut in 2020, and the newly incorporated FXE Futbol – are appealing to the Fort Lauderdale City Commission to remake the land. Each has submitted a formal proposal with the required $25,000 application fee, along with slick computer-generated video renderings (embedded below) that show what they’d do if they win the bid.
Inter Miami CF proposal video
In its proposal, Inter Miami intends to build a year-round training site for its MLS team and youth academy, with administrative offices, 10 practice fields, and a new 18,000-seat stadium that would replace the existing Lockhart structure. The team would play its 34-game MLS season in Miami at the yet-to-be-approved 25,000-seat stadium planned as part of Freedom Park, a 131-acre mixed-use development being bankrolled in part by majority owner, Jorge Mas. Mas is committing $75 million to re-landscape the Lockhart site.
FXE Futbol’s proposal creates a mixed-use venue in which a team from the second-tier United Soccer Leagues (USL) would play in a refurbished Lockhart Stadium. The property would have 11 soccer fields, a Topgolf entertainment facility, and commercial space for shops and restaurants. At this time, FXE is not contracted with USL or Topgolf, though its CEO, JP Reynal, says such deals are contingent on the City of Fort Lauderdale choosing FXE’s site plan. He estimates the cost at $100 million.
Both proposals show open-access park space at the entrance to the property, a politically necessary concession in seeking public land for private gain. And, both proposals would be supplemented with up to $25 million in City funds should a $200-million bond referendum for park space be approved by voters on March 12.
It’s a crucible moment for the Lockhart site and a fairly stark choice for the Commission. Inter Miami brings Mas’s wealth and Beckham’s soccer cache to a fully-scaled, year-round training facility that could rival any in the hemisphere, with enough fields and a new stadium to also host visiting teams from the U.S., Europe and the Americas. FXE plays the role of the spoiler, a mostly unknown soccer entity that envisions a team in a second-division league, plus Topgolf, retail, and a community park.
Lockhart is in its current abandoned condition, more a refuge for birds and woodland creatures than people, because every business model for soccer up to now has failed, and because baseball spring training moved elsewhere. The choice for City Commissioners is which plan provides an economic model that can sustain the remade property for the next 10, 20 or even 50 years, or until rising tides chase us all to higher ground.
This is where the headwinds favor Inter Miami. Mas, the majority owner, is CEO of the global company MasTec, which reported a record $6.6 billion in revenues in 2017. His ownership group includes Beckham, Jose Mas (Jorge’s brother), English music mogul Simon Fuller, Marcelo Claure (telecom entrepreneur), and Masayoshi Son (founder/Chairman, Softbank). Their combined net worth is in the billions.
They will compete in a first-division league with 24 teams currently in the U.S. and Canada, increasing to 26 in 2020 with the addition of Inter Miami and Nashville SC. Average MLS attendance in 2018 was 21,875 per game.
Inter Miami plans on fielding a secondary team in USL League 1 at Lockhart, effectively a reserve team for the MLS side. The reserves are a player development cost, as is the free-to-play youth academy, not a source of revenue. However, Broward County has a history as a fair-weather training destination for national and club sides, and a host for matches featuring teams from the Americas. Inter Miami’s business model views Lockhart similarly as a year-round training attraction, with soccer friendlies and tournaments, and American football (high school and university) to be played in the new stadium, as well.
Activity generated by Inter Miami at the Lockhart site would more likely benefit the tourism, restaurant, and entertainment industries financially from hotel stays by visiting teams, and soccer events held at the stadium. The other impact is the media coverage that Inter Miami and visiting teams would originate almost daily from Fort Lauderdale, replicating the attention the New York Yankees brought to Broward by holding its spring training base there from 1962-95.
FXE has a less convincing business model for soccer, as shared by Reynal at a recent town hall for local fans in Fort Lauderdale. Reynal said the USL club would partner with major South American clubs to develop and sell players in Europe. He added further that FXE expected to absorb operating losses for the first three seasons before seeing a profit. Inter Miami is also likely to absorb losses in its start-up.
Reynal went on to outline how such iconic Argentine clubs as Boca Juniors and River Plate would send their “best talent” to play for his USL team in a partnership to develop players’ career prospects in Fort Lauderdale. It’s well known in soccer circles that Boca Juniors and River Plate have produced many of the world’s best players. It remains to be seen why either team, or any other major South American side, would break with a proven development model to send their “best talent” to play for a second-tier team in the U.S., then share the proceeds from multi-million dollar transfer fees paid by European clubs.
Reynal also indicated he wanted to have “10-15,000 people at [Lockhart] for USL” games. At its peak in 1980, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers averaged 14,000 fans per game. There is no record of a second-division team, especially one that would compete with a Beckham-backed team one county away, ever averaging more than 4,500 fans a game at Lockhart. It’s a leap of the imagination to expect a second-tier team in any sport to pull those numbers in Broward. It suggests that FXE’s USL team could suffer the same fate as the five previous soccer franchises that tried and failed at Lockhart.
We know this much: The 64-acre recreational wasteland the City of Lauderdale has today at Lockhart will be bulldozed and remade in due time, with soccer at the epicenter. The Fort Lauderdale Commission may hear the arguments and make its choice as early as its March 19 meeting.
The brief histories of soccer teams at Lockhart Stadium:
- Fort Lauderdale Strikers 1977-83 Moved to Minnesota
- Fort Lauderdale Sun 1984-85 Disbanded mid-season 1985
- Fort Lauderdale Strikers 1988-94 Disbanded
- Miami Fusion 1998-2001 Disbanded
- Miami FC 2009-2010 re-branded as Fort Lauderdale Strikers 2011
- Fort Lauderdale Strikers 2011-16 Disbanded
Jeff Rusnak wrote about soccer in South Florida from 1985-2011, including more than 700 columns for the Sun-Sentinel.