Earlier this month with the debate raging about Miami vs Fort Lauderdale in terms of where David Beckham’s MLS entry Inter Miami CF should play I penned a piece on the competition between the locales for The Yanks are Coming. But events move quickly and that piece, less than two weeks old already seems dated, so an effort to give more context and clear up some persistent myths is provided in the narrative below.
On Thursday, at a Press Conference at Lockhart Stadium, David Beckham and Jorge Mas announced that Inter Miami CF will begin its MLS life in Fort Lauderdale pending city approval (Another proposal for Lockhart Stadium submitted by Miami-based John Paul Reynal and his FXE Futbol group will also be considered by the city. That proposal is worthy of discussion and comparison to what Inter Miami offers. But this piece is not meant to make that comparison. For discussion of the proposals in front of the city click on the linked articles). This would make Inter Miami CF the fifth professional soccer team since the 1970’s to either begin play or attempt to begin play in Dade County, but eventually gravitate north to Fort Lauderdale.
My personal Lockhart history
It’s important before we dive too deeply into this, for me to preface this discussion by saying Lockhart Stadium is the closest thing in my life to a home away from home. As many readers know, I fell in love with soccer as a ballboy for the Fort Lauderdale Strikers in the early 1980’s in Lockhart’s glory years. I went to game throughout the 1980’s with my parents watching the Fort Lauderdale Sun and second version of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers win titles.
When the Miami Fusion of MLS came to Lockhart in 1998, I was so sucked into professional soccer that eventually, I more or less eventually gave up all other sporting interests beyond the beautiful game. In 2009, I was lucky enough to be a broadcaster for (the previous) Miami FC when they played at Lockhart. By 2010, I was the Communications Director for the league Miami FC was a member of and that year worked on rebranding the side as the Fort Lauderdale Strikers whom I worked on and off for between 2010 and 2017.
So now let’s clear up some myths and discuss some realities
The myth of the Fusion demise due to playing in Fort Lauderdale
Most current fans of domestic soccer weren’t fans in the late 1990’s or early 2000’s so it’s been simple for both MLS and Miami-based fans to create untrue myths about the Fusion in Fort Lauderdale.
Here is the reality. The Fusion struggled just like almost every MLS team at the time with the exceptions of DC United, Chicago Fire and LA Galaxy (ironically today the former two are considered among the weakest links in MLS’ single entity). MLS in 1999 wasn’t MLS in 2019 – not even close. It was a league struggling for mainstream acceptance among BOTH casual sports fans that were hostile to soccer AND core soccer fans who questioned its quality of play, structure and rules. The media never embraced MLS in those days and would often take pot-shots at it when given the chance.
To say the Fusion failed in Fort Lauderdale so another MLS team would is absolutely idiotic given the context of time. I personally have zero time for such myopic, lazy arguments often floated by people from Miami-Dade County without any thought or actual knowledge of the past. It’s even more a fallacy to assume the majority of soccer fans that would be attracted to a professional American-based club are in Miami-Dade County. They’re not, and never have been. We will get to that in a minute.
It’s worth noting the Fusion’s final season they averaged over 11,000 fans a game at Lockhart finishing ahead of multiple teams that were not contracted in attendance- including the club that won the MLS title, San Jose. The Earthquakes won the title thanks in large measure to some very odd officiating over the two legs of the semifinals vs the Fusion. But we won’t get into that today, but it’s a bitter pill that still sits in my stomach how that season and ultimately the Fusion’s existence ended.
The myth of Miami as a great soccer town and what that really means
Miami is a great soccer town. But it is a great town for international football and the game at the highest level. As noted above American club soccer, a more community-oriented game with a lower level of play than let’s say Real Madrid or Liverpool has always found a stronger home in Broward County.
MLS these days has become a more compelling and competitive league for spectators. It’s likely to be successful wherever it is played in 2020 – however given history it’s more likely to do well in the center of a massive metropolitan area that lacks the sort of transport links of traditional urban centers than in one corner or another.
It’s worth noting the West Palm Beach media market which is to the north of Fort Lauderdale generally enjoys higher TV ratings for soccer matches of both the domestic and European club variety than the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market. Lockhart Stadium at the northern edge of Fort Lauderdale is FAR more accessible to Palm Beach County residents than any facility in Miami-Dade would be.
Should we feel sorry for Miami-Dade fans?
Yes we should but we also must accept the reality that their just isn’t that much support for domestic club soccer in Miami-Dade County. The pockets of rabid support for the game generally is in the southwest corner of the county.
Reality is nobody is going to build a stadium in Kendall even though it might actually be more logical if capturing a fan base rather than sponsors was the priority. My experience informs me the heartbeat of soccer in Miami-Dade County is in Kendall with pockets of rabid support elsewhere. But geographically these fans are disconnected from the center of the metropolitan area.
It’s unfortunate that once again these fans are seeing what appeared to be a team that would play near to them head north but it keeps happening for various, irrefutable reasons.
I should also note the smallish number of vocal Miami-Dade based American soccer fans and the unwillingness of those to either work together, build a larger coalition and also to force a degree of ideological purity on others has created a toxic atmosphere in the supporters culture and done Inter Miami CF no favors. Unlike Orlando or Tampa Bay where supporters enhance the club’s leverage and profile, in Miami it’s been quite frankly the opposite.
What the (previous) Miami FC experience taught us about Miami vs Fort Lauderdale
I was involved heavily in the thought process,planning and execution of the move by the original club named Miami FC (not to be confused with the current club I now do some work with) to Fort Lauderdale between 2009 and 2010. This might not only inform the decision of Inter Miami CF to move north but also why the Miami-based FXE Futbol group is so gung-ho on getting hold of Lockhart and setting up shop 25 miles to the north in Fort Lauderdale.
Miami FC, a USL club had played three years at Tropical Park off Bird Road in western Miami-Dade. Attendance wasn’t awful, but ticket sales were and merchandise sales were non-existent. in 2009, the club decided to split its home games between FIU and Lockhart. Not only was attendance significantly higher in Fort Lauderdale, but merchandise sales were far greater than at FIU (even for a club called Miami), which charged the club triple the rent. In 2010, the move was made permanent and in 2011 when the club was rebranded the Fort Lauderdale Strikers as part of a new NASL, attendance was higher than any other US-based team in that league.
For me personally, my heart supports FXE Futbol (my experience in independent soccer with local clubs dicates this emotion) but my head says Inter Miami CF (Fort Lauderdale gaining a lucrative asset from Miami again is logical from a business perspective) in the city’s battle for Lockhart. But it’s not my decision – despite my long standing historical ties to Lockhart, I have never lived in the city of Fort Lauderdale, and have no intention to do so. I have lived in Broward County for 31 years (most of my life) but have been in either Coral Springs or Coconut Creek. Therefore, it is up to the City of Fort Lauderdale, the commissioners, the residents and local businesses to make this call in the coming days I will respect any decision they make.
However, I will state here unequiveqly if the decision is in favor of Inter Miami CF, they have been handed a lifeline, a gem of a location and should stay there, abandoning the idea of playing in Miami gracefully when it makes the most sense publicly. I understand the need to placate MLS given the ignorant statements made in the past about Fort Lauderdale to justify pulling the plug on the Fusion and the quick desire to return to the market (MLS Commissioner Don Garber began his campaign to marginalize Fort Lauderdale at the 2007 State of the League address, because MLS was at that time wanting a quick return to the Miami market) but at this point, after six years of false starts the race is run in Miami-Dade.
Inter Miami CF should they win the bid from the city needs to think about a long-term permanent facility that seats between 20,000 and 25,000 while maintaining the promised academy and public access fields at the facility. The idea of a permanent stadium with a decent capacity, capable of hosting friendlies and other events is the primary reason FXE Futbol remains an option for the city, though FXE would not be able to guarantee the level of soccer a long-term commitment by Inter would.
Miami-Dade based fans may not like it, but it’s always been more logical to embrace the areas further north. Fans of domestic soccer who are more willing to spend money and time on local club teams exist in all parts of south Florida but tend to be more numerous further to the north – and it’s important any pro soccer club that seeks fans from the entire region connect itself closer to those fans.