Editors note: This is a special column from Derek Reese, the President of Flight 19, the soccer supporters group of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers who currently manage Himmarshee Football Club. In the interest of full disclosure I sit on the F19 board. Earlier this week I penned this story for The Yanks are Coming on the battle between Miami and Fort Lauderdale in terms of culture, stereotypes and branding. We also had the analytical observations about the Lockhart Stadium site and the competing plans from Jeff Rusnak, the dean of south Florida soccer writers.
By Derek Reese
I was born in Hollywood in 1985. I’ve spent my entire life in central Broward County, most of it just off Broward Blvd in Plantation, a stone’s throw from the city limits of Fort Lauderdale. This is my home, someplace I’m proud of.
But here, we don’t have much that has a history of even ten or fifteen years, let alone before I was born or even further back. Any and everything around these parts seems to be at risk of fading away, casualties of the ever-constant march of progress and development.
But there’s someplace still standing that’s soaked in tremendous history, a spot where wonderful memories have been made for so many local residents over the years. That place is Lockhart Stadium, and we have a chance to save it.
Everyone pretty much knows the history of the venue by now. One of the true bastions of soccer in the United States, home to over four decades of terrific teams, championships, and some of the greatest players to ever lace up their boots and play the game. Beyond soccer even more sporting legacy permeates the field, with countless local high school football clashes and the birth of the FAU football program in the early 2000s.
I could go on for days re-hashing familiar stories about the legends that have played at Lockhart over the years, so I’m going to start by telling you a different story. The story of how Lockhart changed my life.
In late 2010 I had the honor of being one of the people who helped bring back the Fort Lauderdale Strikers name to the field, while I was doing freelance work for the then-Lockhart-based division 2 team Miami FC and they were considering rebranding ahead of the launch of the new NASL.
In anticipation of this, myself and a few other Broward-based supporters broke off from an existing group and founded our own, that we called Flight 19 (in honor of some of our local history). We thought the return of such a historic part of our local identity deserved dedicated support, not the placeholder club status that some of the existing supporters were giving it while they campaigned for MLS to return to south Florida.
Throughout the last three Miami FC years from 2008-2010, my disappointment of MLS not returning to the area quickly faded away as I fell in love with the club I already had. And the adoption of the classic Fort Lauderdale Strikers name – the only local sports identity that actually represented my community, my hometown, only strengthened this feeling of pride and purpose.
As the seasons went on, our group grew, and we had countless amazing experiences – both at Lockhart for every home game as well as plenty of unforgettable road trips to places like Atlanta, Tampa Bay, Carolina, New York and San Antonio. We hosted our popular tailgate parties, hand-painted giant messages of support for our players and our city to display at the games, even started a radio show. Heck almost all of my current friendships and professional relationships come from my involvement with my local soccer club.
The biggest joy of all came when I met my wife, Tara, at a Strikers game in 2014. I’ve had the five most amazing years of my life (and a lifetime more ahead of us) thanks to a chain of events and connections that all started because I had a local club that drew me into a historic stadium. I’d love the chance to someday take my children to the same place their parents met, so they could enjoy this wonderful place like we have.
While we never had terribly massive crowds or huge local relevance, it certainly would have been nowhere near as big of a cultural touchstone and brought many less people together if we were just a farm team with no identity of our own. I know I certainly wouldn’t have started a supporters group and spent countless hours of my own time and thousands of dollars supporting something like that.
Lockhart is a special place for us, and I know we aren’t the only ones who had our lives positively influenced at Lockhart over the years, so that’s why I’m fighting, and willing to take another leap of faith, to save it.
There are two proposals vying for the Lockhart site. One of them is the FXE Futbol group, who I support and is seeking to totally renovate Lockhart into basically an entirely new 10,000 seat stadium, saving the historic field itself and whatever little of the original structural core of the facility is still useable. The competing Inter Miami group is proposing knocking down Lockhart and replacing it with a modular 18,000 seat stadium elsewhere in the complex. Both plans call for a nearly identical mixture of park space, community soccer fields and retail/dining, with the notable differences beyond the stadium plans themselves being FXE calling for a USL Championship (division 2) pro team as main tenants vs Inter Miami proposing a USL League One (Division 3) reserve team, as well as FXE’s inclusion of a TopGolf interactive driving range facility.
I’ve seen some folks making comparisons between the FXE Futbol group to recent pro soccer regimes in this city – notably Traffic Sports (2006-2014) and the cohort of various Brazilian investors including Ronaldo that took over in 2015 and steered the Strikers almost immediately into oblivion.
As someone who’s involvement with the club went from supporter, to freelance graphic artist, to part-timer and eventually a full time staff member, I had a front row seat to a sprawling range of incompetence and mismanagement over the years.
Should we question FXE Futbol? Absolutely, I know better than perhaps anyone the sting of grand promises that go undelivered. Is there a risk in our city partnering with them for such a large, long-term project? Of course, just like a partnership with any other private entity would be. But in my opinion I believe any fears based on experiences we’ve had with prior soccer enterprises are unfounded.
The FXE group is making no ridiculous claims of immediate profits on a lower league American soccer club alone, or of “innovation zones” and beer-delivering drones at the stadium. They aren’t affiliated with some famous former out-of-shape footballer with hopes that it will make them relevant.
While bullish on the future prospects of USL as a league, they aren’t taking potshots or threatening litigation with US Soccer or MLS. While FXE is a soccer promotion company, something Traffic Sports was, they are entirely based in southern Florida and have actually brought (and successfully run) several international soccer events to the area over the last 4 years. During their stewardship of our local club, Traffic brought just one such match that I can recall, a Strikers friendly vs Cruzeiro in 2013.
FXE has mentioned bringing in and developing/showcasing young talent at the club and then moving them on to higher level teams, which is uncommon in practice in the USA, but is that not how every lower league club around the world operates?
Their commitment to this community shouldn’t really be a question, as they’ve been working on this project in Fort Lauderdale for nearly 2 years, originally as part of the second abandoned waterpark proposal for the Lockhart site. They are saying all the right things in regards to valuing and truly embracing the actual Fort Lauderdale community where they would play, which no group since the Robbie Family in the 70s/80s has had the courage to properly do. And as a local company whose primary business is bringing in and managing soccer events, they have a vested interest in making the stadium complex and team successful.
And just by virtue of putting in the time, effort, and money required to even make this bid to the city in the first place, you have to give them credit for being committed to making the project happen. This is a robust proposal including what is basically a new, permanent stadium at the historic Lockhart site (not unlike what the Miami Dolphins have done, just on a smaller scale). This isn’t just sweeping up the current mess and slapping on a paint job, and they aren’t asking for public funding either.
Over my 8+ years of involvement with the previous regimes, there was never anything seriously considered that was even remotely close to this, let alone actually brought forth as a legitimate proposal. Even behind closed doors, the only thing we ever saw in regards to stadium development was a phony re-skinning of the San Antonio Scorpions’ Toyota Field stadium renderings for theoretical sponsorship purposes and a hypothetical rendering commissioned by someone who wasn’t even part of the ownership group. The closest thing to stadium development that we ever got was the Ronaldo-affiliated group’s groundbreaking 21st century additions of cupholders, poorly-repainted plywood (plastic if you were lucky) seats, the conversion of part of the press box into a “luxury” suite, and a rented video board that wasn’t even turned on half the time.
Yes the FXE group should be asked tough questions. Where is the money coming from? Do they have agreements with a pro league and construction/retail vendors?
But those same types of tough questions should be asked of the Inter Miami proposal. Upon seeing their proposal I certainly have a few:
Why are they proposing a massive complex and an unprecedented secondary 18,000 seat stadium before their main stadium and bid for over 70 acres of public land in Miami is even approved?
Why such a big capacity for a 3rd division reserve team that nowhere in the country averages more than 3,000 people (and in most cases it’s more like 500-1,000 per game if you’re lucky)?
Why would anyone build a second stadium and push marquee events such as international matches away from a 25,000 seat stadium they completely control?
Why, if they truly are committed long-term to the Fort Lauderdale community, are they seeking to construct a modular, temporary-style venue (conveniently when they are now under a year away from kickoff and have yet to secure a place to play in Miami)?
Why, after nearly a decade of MLS completely disregarding Fort Lauderdale (or anything at all north of the Dade-Broward county line) in their quest to return to south Florida, have they coincidentally put in a massive flashy bid for the Lockhart site just as an unrelated group was preparing to make their efforts public?
Not much about the Inter Miami bid adds up at all, unless you connect the dots and come to the conclusion that they are either A) trying to use the Fort Lauderdale project as leverage in their quest to secure a lease for Melreese in Miami, B) frantically scrambling with under a year to kickoff and no home venue secured, C) attempting to block soccer competition in the south Florida market, or some combination of the three. Either way none of these most logical reasons for wanting to build at the Lockhart site line up at all with what they are publicly stating at this point. Even the most ambitious, biggest clubs on the planet don’t go out of their way to build extra stadiums over 30 miles from where their actual home base is. The whole thing seems incredibly suspicious.
At the end of the day I think Fort Lauderdale deserves a project that’s the best deal for the community. And I don’t think the best deal is the reserve team and pop up stadium that the Inter Miami group is proposing. All of their proposed benefits – the youth academy, soccer jobs, B-team and so on, will all happen somewhere in the region no matter what. After the absolute grind Major League Soccer has put up with to put a team back in this market, they will not let it fail. FXE winning this battle is a net gain for the soccer community in the region because it adds even more soccer jobs and infrastructure on top of what MLS is bringing.
I fail to see the negatives in leaving Lockhart to the actual locals. Putting a team in place that Fort Lauderdale can really be proud of (and one that itself is proud enough to wear the city’s name) and saving one of the few truly historic places we have left has tremendous value.
What’s wrong with letting this community have its name in lights once again as part of a growing and dynamic ecosystem of professional and amateur soccer clubs throughout south Florida? Truly elevating the game in this country starts with every community having a club (or clubs) they can really get behind. If we want to catch up to the rest of the footballing world, we have to be more like the rest of the footballing world. And to me giving near-monopolistic control of a vast, diverse region to one single entity is the exact opposite of that.