Will MLS once again fail in Miami?

The Miami Fusion was contracted after the 2001 MLS season. Since that time south Florida football fans, myself included have been eager to see the league return to the area. In October, FC Barcelona in partnership with local businessman Marcelo Claure announced their intention to bring the MLS back to South Florida. Claure is the founder of Brightstar and the owner of FC Bolivar in Bolivia. As of this writing Miami is the clear front runner to be awarded one of the two new expansion franchises by the league. Also in the running are St Louis, Portland, Vancouver, Atlanta, Las Vegas and Ottawa.

The regions football fans are very sophisticated and numerous. That is part of the reason MLS failed before and could fail again. South Florida is the area in the nation with the most football fans outside of New York and Los Angeles. The television ratings and local media coverage of the sport are impressive by any standard. Yet none of this translated into success for the Miami Fusion from 1998 to 2000. MLS was seen by the ethnic fans of all persuasions in the region as an inferior and overly Americanized product. In 2001, the Fusion began to turn things around and had a huge upsurge in fan support and attendance.

Football should not struggle the way other sports do in south Florida if done right. But “doing it right” is not necessarily in the hands of Barcelona or Claure. If MLS treats the Miami market the way it has previously of in a typical American sporting way, the results could once again be disastrous. The whole landscape of MLS and Miami is littered with pitfalls that cannot simply be ignored.

The new club would play at Florida International University (FIU), about 35 miles southwest of Lockhart Stadium, where the Miami Fusion played. This location could make it difficult for fans of the previous Fusion franchise to attend matches. In addition, FIU is substantially west of Downtown Miami and south of the metropolitan area’s population center. Being pinned down at FIU also means for the foreseeable future the new team will not have a full football academy/practice facility which is now becoming the norm in MLS. The Home Depot Center began a trend of MLS clubs not only building soccer specific stadiums, but also youth academies, training pitches, and other facilities.

South Florida is an infamously fickle sporting culture. While the NFL’s Miami Dolphins and the University of Miami’s American football team enjoy consistent local support in the form of TV ratings, merchandise sales but necessarily attendance, the other sports teams both college and professional in the area do not. Not only do the Florida Marlins, Miami Heat and Florida Panthers struggle to maintain consistent fan interest but they often play in front of half empty crowds. The University of Miami’s local popularity in American football does not extend to Basketball or Baseball where even in successful seasons; small facilities for those sports are half full. Florida International University the proposed home of the new MLS team, and Florida Atlantic University (FAU) who plays at Lockhart Stadium, the former home of the Fusion usually are fortunate to draw a decent crowd for American football. FAU has received post season bowl bids two consecutive seasons, yet continues to not only play in front of a half empty stadium, but they struggle for more than a mere mention in the local newspapers.

When the Fusion finally turned the corner in 2001, the majority of the new fans were from Palm Beach and Broward counties, areas that are far less accessible to FIU than Lockhart Stadium. So in other words, the new club would have to start over in building a fan base, with little residual affect from the Fusion days. The rebuilding of the MLS brand locally can only be accomplished if the product is considered presentable to the football loving masses. South Floridians understand football in a way most Americans do not. While this may sound positive, it is a big part of the reason MLS failed here previously. Unlike other American cities that struggle with football/soccer, because of competition from other sports and lack of understanding of the game, Miami struggled with MLS because the product was inferior to what the vast majority of ethnic fans deemed acceptable.

14 thoughts on “Will MLS once again fail in Miami?”

  1. The article was full of many mistakes. The Miami Fusion failed for many reasons. Mr. Horowitz over paid for the franchise. The product was not competive until the final year. The addition of Alex Pineda Chacon, Preki, Chris Henderson, Carlos Llamosa, Ian Bishop turned Miami from a doormat to the best record in the league. Miami”s attendence when from 12th last) to 8th. If the team was in Miami instead of Fort Lauderdale and had an owner commited to winning the result would have been different. Barcelona will not make the mistake from the past.

  2. It's a matter of opinion whether Mr. Horrowitz overpaid for the franchise. Certainly it's tough to justify that $40 million is not overpaying for what is essentially a minor league american sports franchise now. That's why Montreal and presumably others had trouble with the franchise fee MLS is charging for an expansion team currently, when only one existing MLS team is worth that value according to Forbes Magazine.

    Additionally it is an opinion and in no way a statement of fact that the team would have drawn more fans in Miami than Fort Lauderdale. I happen to believe the Fusion would have drawn less fans in Miami than at Lockhart.

    How do I make this assumption?

    The Miami Torros/Gatos of the NASL flopped and moved to Fort Lauderdale where they were a hit. They only moved to Minnesota because of a lack of indoor facilities to play the indoor season which was then sustaining NASL teams.

    In the APSL both Miami and Fort Lauderdale has teams and the Fort Lauderdale team drew better.

    The Fort Lauderdale teams in the old APSL and old USL on average outdrew the current Miami FC of USL which plays in Miami-Dade County.

    I really hope the new effort works. I'll be there at every game hopefully to support the new team. But revisionism about the Fusion especially blaming the location of where the team played is a mistake. Miami has never proven it can support the sport locally the way Fort Lauderdale did. While that's an opinion I have actual facts to back my hypothesis. Those who say the Fusion flopped because they played in Fort Lauderdale have far fewer facts to back their theories.

  3. Don't forget that the Miami Fusion played two MLS games at the Orange Bowl in Miami (against New York and Columbus, if I remember correctly) and the attendances were very disappointing. They ended up having about the same attendances for those matches as matches at Lockhart Stadium.

    I agree that having the team in Miami wouldn't necessarily increase attendances, especially in a stadium that doesn't even have grass.

    The Gaffer

  4. Look, I'm all for the new team. I simply hope it is done right this time, I just do not think shifting the focus away from the traditional fans of American club soccer in Broward/Palm Beach to those very picky about the standard of MLS in Miami-Dade is necessarily a winning recipe.

    I will go on the record as saying a renewed Miami Fusion playing at Lockhart Stadium would probably be successful. I think Marcelo Claure is 100% the right man to lead a new team, and wish he had been the Fusion owner instead of Horrowitz. If that had been the case we would not be having this discussion now. But the bottom line is South Florida is a fickle sports market and combined with the indifference/contempt many local football fans have for MLS, it is going to be a very very tough sell, especially given the location of the stadium.

  5. Yes I will be there supporting the south Forida entry be it Miami or Fort Lauderdale. Ihave been a fan of soccer since the Miami Gatos.

    Barcelona's youth academy will be in Miami which is the best place for it. It will also translate to additional fans in the stands. I feel Miami is the best place for the youth academy and feel Barcelona wants both entrys to be close together. Also I believe if the MLS team does not do as well as they expect the team will move to Fort Lauderdale. they have a short term lease where they are playing and will use the time to decide on where to build the future stadium.

    My biggest concern is the MLS ( or any league) expanding with the economy being what it is. I think any expansion talk should be put off until before 2010. There was alot of money in the early 80's and the NASL overexpanded during this time. Pele (even though he came in during the Miami Toros era) and the economy helped the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. Will it doom the MLS entry?

    Be it Lockhart or the Orange Bowl both places would fill up when the Central and South American National teams would show up. Miami must find ways to have these fans adopt the MLS entry as their own.

    The Fort Lauderdale Strikers did not have good attendance when they played indoor in the NASL. Many of the stars refused to play indoors. The Fort Lauderdale Sun/South Florida Sun went down with the original USL. Alot of the points about the Gatos, Toros, Sharks, Strikers, Americans, Sun etc. and even the Fusion are outdated with the changing fan base. Comparing the Miami FC Blues to the MLS is apples to oranges. I think that the times would favor Miami over Fort Lauderdale. The two Miami Fusion games played in the Orange Bowl ( against New York/New Jersey MetroStars and Columbus Crew) did not have poor attendance. I believe it was alittle more than at Lockhart.

    Be it Miami or Fort lauderdale I will be supporting the team

  6. I go to FIU and it only takes me twenty minutes to get there with traffic and 10 to the orange bowl. FIU is way closer than Lockhart stadium, it's the same as going to the AAA for a lot of pleople. The problem is not the location, the Dolphins last year had terrible attendance cause they sucked, same thing as the Panthers, the Heat and the Marlins; when they win they start drawing just like this year. It's about putting an a good team on the field.

    Kartik is right, the fans here do expect more, the thing is that we have to have a good team with attractive football, quality players like Henry, Riquelme or Veron to be the face of the team, maybe land Ronaldhino in a couple of years. If you guys remember, the Fusion averaged 11,000 until the team got good and started drawing close to 15,000. Alex Pineda Chacon helped bring in a lot of Honduran fans to Lockhart, and we are the biggest melting pot in the US. It has to do with a quality team more than anything else.

  7. I think those fickle numbers is part of what scares people about Miami as an expansion prospect. I get that attendances will go up when a team is more successful, that makes total sense. But even Barcelona can't get it all right immediately. That team is going to struggle at first and if you're right, then attendances will be correspondingly poor. Why not go to markets that will support their teams in droves from the get go?

    If it was a private businessman and not Barcelona behind this bid no one would be nearly as excited about it. But look at Chivas de Guadalajara: Chivas USA doesn't exactly light it up attendance-wise in LA, why do we assume Barca will in Miami?

    I still like Portland and St. Louis best. They make sense regionally: St. Louis has KC and Chicago right away, while Portland would have Seattle and San Jose for rivals. The closest teams to Miami would be DC, NY, Philly, and Columbus. Hard to get the blood boiling for those drives. It might, perversely, be a shorter drive to get to non-conference FCD and Houston for Miami fans.

    Now, were there a closer relationship to the USL this might make more sense. The soccer map would get filled in more as Miami would be able to play (perhaps) meaningful games with Atlanta (if they come back) and Charleston. Add in much hoped for promotion and relegation and a better supported team in Miami makes sense, but wait… what about Miami FC?

    I just don't like playing for short term money gains that could dry up when the novelty wears off, and I'm just not sold that this bid in Miami has stronger fan support than Portland and St. Louis.

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