While much of South Florida is fixated on the Miami Heat’s attempt to repeat as NBA Champions, another story that could impact the sports landscape has slipped under the radar. South Florida, and specifically Miami, might be getting a Major League Soccer (MLS) team courtesy of recently retired soccer star David Beckham.
“I think bringing an MLS team here to South Florida would be exciting,” Beckham told WFOR-TV in Miami a couple weeks back. “I think Miami fans are very passionate about the sport and about winning and of course, it would have to be success but it’s definitely exciting.”
Beckham’s involvement is particularly powerful.
His presence brings some legitimacy not just locally, but internationally to the entire endeavor. Allegedly, Beckham’s MLS contract also had a clause that would allow him to own a franchise for $25 million. Manchester City and the New York Yankees recently collaborated to purchase the 20th MLS team for $100 million. The deeply discounted rate that Beckham’s contract grants him would make putting a team in Miami with Beckham involved in ownership financially tantalizing.
South Florida, of course, has experimented with MLS before, with the Miami Fusion playing four seasons from 1998-2001. The main culprit behind the Fusion’s failing was the lack of a stadium and a failure to make a dent in the crowded South Florida landscape. Can a new Miami soccer franchise succeed where the Fusion failed?
House Hunters: Miami.
For those in South Florida that never followed MLS or stopped following MLS when the Fusion was contracted, they might be surprised to know that a relatively stable, healthy and growing league has developed. The standard for success will be high, and that starts with securing a stadium. The home of the Fusion was Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, which was just not viable.
First things first, we all must acknowledge that a new stadium, built specifically for this franchise is just not happening. After the disastrous Marlins experience, even franchises that are viewed positively like the Dolphins are striking out on public money. Ironically, when the Florida Legislature refused to take up that stadium funding bill, they also dealt a blow to Miami’s chief “local” rival for an MLS team, as Orlando did not get money for a soccer stadium.
Also, it is important to note just how advanced the stadiums in MLS are. Out of the 18 (Chivas USA and LA Galaxy share a stadium) stadiums in MLS, 14 are soccer specific. Since Miami, especially initially, will be sharing a stadium with someone else, that automatically puts them a bit behind the 8-ball. Out of the 4 that aren’t soccer specific, only 2 (Gillette Stadium in New England and CenturyLink Field in Seattle) don’t have the MLS team as the primary tenant. In terms of playing surfaces, only 4 use some sort of artificial surface, with the rest using the natural grass option which is preferred so much so that stars such as Red Bulls’ striker Thierry Henry have denounced the use of turf.
With the new stadium option removed, it would appear that there are 3 options in Miami that have hosted major international soccer:
Sun Life Stadium: The current home of the Miami Dolphins and Miami Hurricanes is actually a multiuse stadium, which would hold up well compared to most stadiums internationally. The stadium is massive, and will clearly be the largest in MLS holding upwards of 75,000 spectators. The Miami Hurricanes cover portions of the upper deck during home games, and it is conceivable that a potential MLS franchise would cover the entire upper deck.
Ironically, one of the renovations the Dolphins wanted to make that will now not be happening actually makes Sun Life Stadium more hospitable to soccer, and that is the distance of the seats from the playing surface. The large sidelines that were created to fit a baseball diamond will now allow for a soccer team to play on a wide field (which is what teams want) and address the concerns of a narrow field that often come up when a football stadium is used for soccer. It is these advantages that resulted in Sun Life Stadium being chosen as the host for the final round of the International Champions Cup, which will bring several of the biggest clubs in the world to South Florida.
The problems with Sun Life Stadium are primarily the location and venue overuse. It is hard to imagine fans flocking to the county line on a consistent basis to watch games at Sun Life. But the main problem will be sharing the stadium with both the Dolphins and Hurricanes. MLS season runs from March to November, with CONCACAF Champions League and other competitions occurring over winter. That means there will be significant overlap. Which means the MLS team will not only have difficulty scheduling since they will have to work around both football teams, but will also be subject to the viscerally assaulting prospect of playing on a field full of football paint, like Houston had to prior to getting their own stadium.
FIU Stadium: As the name implies, FIU Stadium is home to several athletic programs for the FIU Panthers, most notably the football team. The stadium has recently undergone renovations, making it basically a new venue. The capacity of the stadium is currently 20,000 and set to be further expanded. Even if it remains at 20,000, that capacity will be right in line with a majority of MLS and actually might be preferable to the larger Sun Life Stadium
The location of FIU Stadium is also preferable to Sun Life Stadium. Located in West Miami, the stadium will be much easier to get to for a majority of fans. It also can’t hurt to be located on a campus with 50,000 students, a mere fraction of which can help boost attendance. And with that large student population comes ample parking. When FIU recently removed the track surrounding the field, they became FIFA compliant and hosted matches in the 2011 Gold Cup (although 2013 Gold Cup matches will be at Sun Life Stadium).
The major downside to FIU stadium is the playing surface. FIU plays on an artificial turf field. While Miami wouldn’t be the only team playing on said surface, they would be in the minority. Now, FIU Executive Director for Sports and Entertainment Pete Garcia has said that FIU would be willing to switch the field to grass in order to attract an MLS team. This is good and bad. It would make the playing surface much better, but it would then have a similar problem that Sun Life Stadium will in terms of playing on a field with football lines painted on.
One advantage to the turf option is that it can be swapped out easily, so a different field can be used for soccer, which would allow Miami’s soccer team to have its own field. It would also be much easier to schedule around 1 team (FIU) versus 2 teams (Hurricanes and Dolphins).
Marlins Park: The reasons to not do this are endless, which is why Beckham didn’t even bother visiting it. Still, it is worth considering since the current tenants aren’t getting much use out of it. The stadium has actually hosted soccer before.
And, it would be nice for Miami’s taxpayers to get more return on their investment in the stadium. But this isn’t a serious option. First, the schedules almost directly overlap, and with the frequency of Major League games, it would be very difficult for Miami’s soccer team to schedule games. Second, the seating will be horrible, as this seating chart shows.
They would also need to figure out a way to cover the dirt and restore it efficiently since you can’t play soccer on an infield.
Most importantly, we wouldn’t want to insult the Marlins franchise by putting a professional franchise in their stadium, and cause them problems when the Marlins’ players get jealous of those lucrative MLS contracts.
Out of the 3 options presented, Marlins Ballpark can almost immediately be eliminated. So it really comes down to Sun Life Stadium versus FIU Stadium. Out of those 2, I would say that FIU Stadium is the preferred choice. Other than the playing surface (which can be replaced with grass), it ticks off all the boxes in terms of needs for an MLS team. I would also suggest purchasing a turf field only for the MLS team, that is similar to that which the Portland Timbers’ use and that has received positive reviews. That way, the team can play on a decent surface without being forced to play on a field sullied with football lines.
If they start it, will anyone come?
Once the Miami soccer team has a venue, the big question will be who will support this team. Miami has a somewhat deserved reputation as a bandwagon sports town. The Dolphins are engrained in South Florida culture. But the other 2 teams in Miami (The Panthers are in Sunrise) have dubious attendance histories. The Marlins play in a very expensive, empty mausoleum. And the Heat only draw fans when the team is great. To put things in perspective, the Heat in 2009-2010 (the year before the Big 3 coalesced) were 16th in NBA Attendance percentage. And that is with Dwyane Wade being one of the best players in the NBA. If a single superstar in a more popular sport can’t fill an arena, what hope does a soccer team in a league that is clearly nowhere near the world’s best have in South Florida?
When the Fusion existed, they averaged 9,403 fans per game over their 4 years of existence. That is nowhere near good enough. For the 2012 season, the average attendance league wide was 18,807, double the Fusion’s average attendance. Right now, the franchise in MLS in the most trouble is Chivas USA, who is drawing a paltry 8,045 fans a game. Serious questions about whether that franchise will be sold and moved are being raised. Miami certainly does not want to be the home of 2 failed soccer franchises. As much as David Beckham brings star power to the ownership group, it’s hard to imagine a Miami fan base used to glitz and glamour piling into a stadium to watch the team based on that.
There is some reason to be optimistic, however. Miami is actually a strong soccer town; it just isn’t a strong American soccer town. Much like MLS as a whole is often struggling to convert soccer fans into MLS fans; Miami’s soccer team will face that same challenge. But there is a foundation in place to do that. Miami is often used as a city to host international friendlies as well as matches in the Gold Cup. Furthermore, the North American soccer federation (CONCACAF) is actually based in Miami. There are soccer fans, but will they watch MLS?
One of the theories being brought forth is that the Hispanic population in Miami will embrace the new MLS team. Pete Garcia pointed out that many FIU students are Hispanic. If that argument doesn’t sound familiar to you, it should. The Marlins made the exact same argument when politicking for a new stadium. The reason no one was at their games was that Sun Life Stadium was in a terrible location, but when they put the stadium in the middle of Little Havana surrounded by baseball loving Cubans, surely the attendance figures would rise. That, obviously, like much of what comes out of the Marlins’ propaganda department, turned out to be complete crap.
But interestingly enough, the underlying point was actually true. There are a lot of baseball fans in Miami, they just aren’t Marlins fans. For the 2013 season, the Marlins are 27th in attendance percentage (which seems to be inflated to me, I don’t think there is any way that the Marlins are averaging over 17,000 fans a game, which is being officially reported). However, when Marlins Park hosted the World Baseball Classic in March, the average attendance was 25,771, which would actually rank the Marlins at 14th in attendance percentage.
So the mere existence of soccer fans, just like the mere existence of baseball fans, will not guarantee a fan base for the team. The question then must shift to why no one goes to Marlins’ games. Is it because they refuse to support a team that is not one of the best in baseball, or is it because they hate this particular franchise and ownership group, after having been repeatedly flogged by them? If a new ownership group came in, tried to compete in good faith, but the team was still not elite, would fans go?
Because that is the boat that a Miami soccer team would likely be in. Even if Miami develops one of the best teams in MLS, it would not be in the same discussion as the elite European teams. The success of a future Miami soccer team might just lie in convincing those fans of European teams to not view the team as a comparative, and therefore inferior, product, but as an additional product to supplement their other soccer viewing habits. If that happens, there are certainly enough fans to sustain an MLS team in Miami, and finally erase the stain of the Fusion failure.
Vishnu Parasuraman (@vrp2003) is a consultant in the Washington, D.C., Metro Area and an editor of the Sebastian’s Pub blog. His work can also been seen on Grantland. He is a graduate of the University of Miami with an MBA from Carnegie Mellon University.