Wednesday, May 16, 2012

MLS Expansion: Miami


Downtown Miami Skyline
(Courtesy of Destionation360.com)
With all the Major League Soccer expansion articles I have been writing over the last few weeks (Atlanta, Charlotte, Orlando) you knew I would eventually get to Miami.

The gateway to South  & Central America and the Caribbean, Miami has the cultural diversity to make an expansion franchise a truly unique experience.

I'm not going to get into the whole, MLS failed in Miami before discussion, anyone with half a brain understands the league that contracted in 2001 is not the same as it is today. I'm sure if you told someone back in 2001 that Portland would have a franchise in 10 years they would think you were crazy too, again the league has changed in a decade. Instead I am going to apply the 3 MLS standard criteria for expansion (fan support, stadium, and ownership) to Miami and see where they fall in the race for an expansion franchise.


A lot of people point to the issue of fan support right now for the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers of the NASL and say if they can't draw people, what makes you think an MLS team will do any better? Even though Lockhart Stadium is a great place to watch soccer, it is still a football stadium adjacent to an airport and away from downtown foot traffic, about as close to Miami as Gillette Stadium is to Boston; not very. The fan support is there as is evident through the Miami Ultras and their quest to get a MLS team back in South Florida. Add to the fact that just about every South & Central American along with Caribbean nation is represented in the area, you have a core base of fans that support domestic and international teams. Summer tours almost always come close to selling out Sun Life Stadium such as Barcelona/CD Guadalajara last summer and Chelsea/AC Milan likely will this summer. However, Miami, just like Tampa and Orlando suffer from the uniquely Florida problem of too many entertainment options. The reason attendance is low for baseball in Tampa and Miami with competitive teams is because there are so many other options outside for entertainment. MLS will have to create a unique experience that will draw fans in during those hot summer nights on a consistent basis.


Livestrong Sporting Park placed over
the Amphitheater at Bayfront Park
(Click to Enlarge)
I mentioned that the Strikers play at Lockhart Stadium which really doesn't meet the criteria of a soccer-specific stadium by MLS standards. For a franchise to be successful in South Florida it will have to have a marquee, downtown location. While Ft. Lauderdale has a rich soccer history, people think Miami when they think of South Florida, so the team really should be downtown in MIA. One location that came to mind from my many trips to the city was Bayfront Park located just south of AmericanAirlines Arena and the causeway to Dodge Island. The current amphitheater at the park has nearly the same footprint as a newer 20k seat MLS stadium and the location would be incredible. The stadium would also allow the site to be used for concerts, but with more seat, luxury boxes, etc. There are plenty of other locations around downtown as well that have been mentioned including FIU's expanded stadium or Miami Marine Stadium with a floating soccer field, but none seem to meet the characteristics of a MLS SSS like the Bayfront Park location.

Ownership is a bit of an issue right now as well. Traffic Sports currently own the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, and they do have a fairly strong resume of organizing South American soccer tournaments like Copa America. What they don't have is a long history of franchise ownership, which might be why they decided to get their feet wet with the Strikers and NASL. In my opinion, Miami is similar to NY2, if the stadium deal can be reached, MLS will have no problem finding an owner willing to fork over $80-100M for an expansion slot. Unlike Orlando who have a proven owner in Phil Rawlins or  Atlanta with an NFL owner like Arthur Blanke, Traffic Sports are the new kids on the block, but with a big name/money partner there is no reason they couldn't afford a team.

Don Garber has always said that it isn't a question of if, it was a question of when MLS would return to South Florida. Although the competition is strong from Orlando, Atlanta, and Charlotte, it is hard to believe that an MLS Southeast expansion plan does not include Miami.

8 comments :

  1. You point to Fort Lauderdale Strikers attendance as if it is bad, yet they were the second best in attendance in the NASL last season, only Montréal was better. And the Strikers are drawing better than Seattle did when they were in D2.

    And you left out that the same team, as Miami FC from 2006-2010, playing both in Miami proper and at Lockhart, routinely drew no better than 500 people to games(that's actual attendance, not reported). Also, the Fusion never played one game at Joe Robbie, they played all but two of their games at Lockhart(the other 2 at the Orange Bowl as part of doubleheaders). Their problem was an ownership group without the necessary resources to be in MLS at that time, and the fact that they disrespected the Fort Lauderdale fans and their tradition/history by calling the team "Miami".

    Miami FC rebranded in the 2010/11 offseason to the Strikers, and instantly they quadrupled attendance and moved from 2nd worst in that regard to 2nd best. All while playing in the same stadium with mostly the same players. Then you can look at the Miami Gatos/Toros(who moved north to FTL in 1977 and never again saw crowds as low as they had in Miami) and Miami Sharks/Freedom(who drew 300-500 people per game in the APSL at the same time the Strikers were drawing 3-4,000) as other examples of why Miami is the wrong location for a team in South Florida.

    And that's not even mentioning the total lack of an acceptable place to play in Miami(FIU has plastic grass and is far from everyone, Sun Life is too large and would be controlled by the Dolphins). Plus with the recent Marlins boondoggle, there is ZERO chance for public funding for a new SSS in Miami.

    Upgrade Lockhart(which was basically rebuilt for MLS in 1998, the first modern SSS), like Portland upgraded PGE, and you'd have a perfect stadium, loaded with soccer history, in a location that is centrally located in the South Florida metro area. And with a team, that every historical instance has shown, draws the most support from local fans.

    It doesn't matter what people outside South Florida think of when they think of the region. What matters is who actually will be buying season tickets and going to games, and the majority of those people have always been fans in the Broward/Fort Lauderdale area, even when Miami FC was playing at FIU and Tropical Park.

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    1. Flight 19, you bring up strong points as would be expected. The rebranding move for FTL was exactly what the team needed to shake off some of the bad taste from Miami FC. You can't just say you were second in the league last season, the numbers don't lie, FTL is averaging 3,483 after three matches this season, half of what USL PRO Orlando City is drawing. Lockhart is a great facility, but as I said in the article it does not meet the downtown/urban center criteria established by MLS. It doesn't matter if the fan support is there, MLS won't put a franchise at Lockhart, period.

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  2. "Downtown/Urban Center" criteria? There is no such criteria. MLS wants good ownership, solid support and a MLS-friendly stadium situation(not necessarily an SSS - see Seattle). LA, Colorado, Dallas, Columbus, KC, Salt Lake, Chicago, Philly, NY, NE, Montreal - they all play in the suburbs/non-downtown areas. And all control their stadiums(all of them soccer specific except NE). Sure they would like downtown, but it's not necessary so long as the team controls the revenue at the stadium. And MLS already put a franchise at Lockhart, the Fusion. And location had nothing to do with what happened to that team. Terrible branding decisions aside, had Hunt, AEG or Kraft decided to take ownership of the Fusion, it could just have easily been the Quakes, Wizards, Metrostars, Crew or Dallas that got the axe(same goes for Tampa Bay, they got screwd over too) and the Fusion could be thriving today, we'll never know. The old NASL Strikers in the 70s/80s had no problem drawing great crowds at Lockhart. It's been the destination for high level soccer for nearly 40 years now. People know it, it's easy to get to.

    Downtown would be nice for SoFla but there is no realistic location available, in either Miami or Ft. Lauderdale. And the political support is simply not there and won't be anytime soon in Dade county for a new stadium. Lockhart could easily be upgraded to current MLS standards, and for a fraction of the cost it would take to fund a totally new building. Plus the Strikers now operate the facility. They have a relationship with the city, and a foot in the door should any future chance to buy the facility/land outright arise in any renovation/MLS scenario.

    And you are right on attendance, numbers don't lie. Is Fort Lauderdale better than Orlando? No. But it is better than Seattle's performance in D2. Now look where they are. And more importantly, FTL's performance is miles better than anything Miami was able to draw. And it's not just sheer numbers, it's the quality of support. I attended tons of games at Tropical Park, FIU and even Lockhart when the team was MFC, and there was little enthusiasm from the few fans that were there. Now with the Strikers, there are 20x more season ticket holders, people are buying team merchandise, there is more media support, more sponsor support, in every facet it truly feels like a team the community cares about now.

    The seemingly soccer-friendly Latin demographic in Miami has shown little to no interest in supporting the domestic (USA) game. They all follow their clubs and national teams from back home and Eurpope, and considering most of those clubs are better than even MLS and are easily watchable these days on TV and online, it's not a surprise that these folks won't follow a local team in NASL or MLS.

    If MLS ever does come back to South Florida, they need to do their research. It's easy to blame the Fusion failure on location, or be sucked in by the allure & glamour of the "Miami" name. But if they go into Dade County, they will end up with a temp situation and crummy lease at FIU or Sun Life, with no long term SSS solution, support will lag after a few years, and they'll be looking at moving out of the market entirely, or as 2 teams before them have, moving north to Fort Lauderdale to increased fan support and stability.

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  3. The "downtown/urban SSS" criteria has been established for the last several years with MLS. Example, Portland's original bid to join the league was with a stadium outside of Portland, that got shot down quickly. The last four teams, Seattle, Portland, Vancouver, and Montreal are all in downtown stadiums. Houston just opened it's downtown stadium. And the focus on NY2, from Don Garber's own mouth is that the league is looking for "10 acres in Manhattan or Queens" for an SSS. I was clear in my article that Lockhart is a great soccer stadium, but it is not an MLS location.

    You can't time travel and say that a team was there at one point so they could play there again. Look at Washington DC in baseball, they had two expansion teams that left and they are working with their third team now. I agree that the population of South Florida is focused in a bunch of different areas, FTL included, but I don't believe MLS will go back if it isn't to downtown Miami.

    One point you make, and I agreed with strongly in the article, is MLS' ability to attract regular fans considering all the other options. Miami got stiffed on the AmericanAirlines Arena deal with the Heat and are luckily to get a repeat with Marlins Park. The city and Dade County don't have the resources in place now or for a while for a SSS at the price of $150-200M. This reason alone might be why Miami won't be the first team back in the Southeast and a smaller market like Orlando or Charlotte might jump in first.

    You are also right on the hispanic connection to domestic teams/leagues veruses teams from their native countries. The marketing would have to be very well crafted, I think the Marlins are running into this issue right now with their stadium and manager. If done correctly, the team's presence could stretch well beyond South Florida.

    In any event, I appreciate your comments and thanks for keeping up with our blog!

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  4. Stat I feel is important - 52% of Miami-Dade Country residents are foreign born (From other countries probably with ties to their home clubs or feel that American soccer is not up to their level) and 17.5% were born in other states (Either don't care, or tied to their home club). Also 23% of the total population of Miami-Dade county are Cuban (Not really caring about soccer at all). It's a nice mix of nationalities down there but that doesn't mean that it's a good spot for soccer.

    Also I don't see why Lockhart is such a bad spot. They renovated Lockhart when the Fusion moved in and I don't see why they can't do it again. It's about 5 minutes from Downtown Ft. lauderdale and with a 35-50 million dollar renovation it could easily be up to par with BBVA, Redbull, or Livestrong. With possible support from Schlitterbahn Waterparks, the site could be a travel destination for people from all over the country. I have also read proposals for the South Florida Sports Hall of Fame to be built on the site as well.

    Being centrally located between the 3 counties I think it would be a great place for soccer, especially with all the Palm beach Marlins fans with nothing to do these days... It's far enough from the AAA and the new Marlins Park to draw a different crowd. I hope that the interest in South Florida increases because right now the closest Div 1 team we have is in Mexico and that is unacceptable.

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  5. Miami the right city to bring MLS. FT Lauderdale is to far north. Miami is where the soccer fans live.

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  6. Look Miami is a great city for Mls team, but the stadium need to be hear in Miami area not in ft lauderdale because is to far and people who likes soccer is in miami so I think if Mls bring a team to MIami would be a great succes but in MIami area

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  7. Miami will never support a soccer team, they had their chance and blew it in so many ways. They can barely support and show up for the Miami Dolphins, Marlins or Heat(wait..only if they win then dade county will show up)...

    Face the fact that Miami will never get into the MLS...you have a better shot with Broward/Palm Beach County or Orlando...Lockhart stadium would be nice but it has past its prime and that area isn't appealing for any sports facility.


    And for the person who stated "people who likes soccer is in miami" has no clue and should do more research on where the number of fans existing in South Florida. To you aware, there are more soccer fans residing in Broward and Palm Beach County than in Dade County...go check your ticketmaster & Sun Life stadium venue numbers to see where fans come from. Everytime you buy a ticket with a credit card, they record from what region/area you are coming from and this includes studhub and other vendors who sell sporting event tickets. I would know since I work for the company that pulls all that information and give it to sponsers, sports arenas, venues, etc,etc...they are always looking to see where to spending advertising dollars and where they can increase their fan base.

    So far from the numbers, fans wouldn't mind the drive to broward county if its close to Sun Life stadium(10 miles north from Sunlife) near Hard Rock, Airport and Sunlife is the ideal spot. access to the turnpike and 95...east or west...

    To the comment about the "Downtown/Urban Center", you are correct to a point...only the last 4 teams placed their stadiums in a core downtown city...there are 10 teams who are in suburbs...

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