MLS and Miami: A Look Back, A Look Ahead


The Miami/Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area will continue to be the most populated urban area in the US or Canada without an MLS franchise. Yesterday’s announcement that Marcelo Claure and Barcelona are out of the running for a team confirms much of the speculation of the last few weeks.  It also intensifies the feeling that persisted after the failure of the Fort Lauderdale based Miami Fusion, that the market cannot support the sport.

But South Florida actually is a more football savvy market than many in the U.S. That’s why Jamaica, Honduras, Colombia, and Haiti among others consistently play well attended friendlies in either Fort Lauderdale or Miami. CONCACAF continued to bring Gold Cup matches to Miami right until the demolition of the Orange Bowl and announced the launch of the CONCACAF Champions League in Miami, not New York or Mexico City.

Last month, the Mexico-US game beat American Idol locally in TV viewership among the key 25-54 year old demographic. So despite the perception among the fans of many MLS clubs that the market is weak, the truth is that it is actually quite strong for the game.

But Latin fans, who make up the majority of the local supporters are picky. I’ve seen commentary about how South Floridians do or do not support other sports teams in other leagues. But we are comparing apples to oranges. The NFL, NBA and MLB are the top professional leagues on the planet in their respective sports. MLS, is to put it diplomatically a nice domestic league with a set of rules that are odd for World Football and a bunch of players that most Latino fans have never heard of.

Part of the reason MLS did not agree with south Florida when the Fusion were around was because quite honestly the product was completely inferior to what local fans were accustomed to. But it wasn’t just inferiority to Latin or European football but the product was in the mind of many inferior to the beloved NASL which left a permanent imprint on South Florida’s Soccer/Football community.

Fort Lauderdale continued to give decent support to USL, APSL and A-League Strikers from the mid 80s until the mid 90s. But these were minor leagues and the fans knew it. When MLS arrived with much fanfare but the product was only marginally better in many eyes than the non FIFA sanctioned semi professional leagues that the Strikers had participated in, it was difficult for supporters to get excited.

In 2001, this turned around dramatically. Doug Hamilton, perhaps the best General Manager in the history of this league took over the club that year. Soccer fans embraced the club like never before but for whatever reason the fickle ownership of Ken Horowitz had colluded with MLS to contract the team.

Attendance for the Miami Fusion has been openly questioned and mocked by many supporters of other clubs. But I would strongly disagree with this based on the realities of the situation which I will outline below.

1998                 10,284 average  11th in league ahead of Kansas City

1999                  8,109 average. 11th in league ahead of Kansas City

2000                  7,460 average. Last in league

2001               11,177 average. Ahead of Kansas City (10th), Tampa Bay (11th) and San Jose (12th)

As the above table demonstrates, Miami’s attendance had actually IMPROVED BY CLOSE TO 4,000 FANS PER MATCH IN THE FINAL SEASON OF THE CLUB, and had surpassed that of three clubs that had larger attendance numbers the prior year. Other clubs such as Dallas, Tampa Bay and Colorado had used Fourth of July fireworks to spike their attendance at large football stadiums that year, so conceivably Miami would have been ranked at least 7th if you simply took soccer specific attendance into consideration. So basically, the ship was headed in the right direction when MLS decided to contract the club.

In many cases these attendance totals are deceiving. New York/New Jersey, New England and San Jose were infamous in the league’s early years of spiking crowd totals thanks to well scheduled double headers. Miami never had this luxury although national team and international events held in south Florida separate from MLS events got similar crowds to those in the aforementioned markets, but unlike those cities, these crowds didn’t count towards the Fusion’s attendance totals.

A key factor in the decline in attendance from 1998 through 2000 was the league’s decision thanks to the Miami Fusion’s own management ineptitude to re-assign Colombian legend Carlos Valderrama from the Fusion to the Tampa Bay Mutiny. This had the affect of distancing the local Colombian population from the team and turning Latin fans off the league which looked amateurish and silly to seasoned football fans. In other parts of the world, a player cannot be moved from one club to another by league decree. Following Valderrama’s departure Miami was compensated by MLS with several players including US National Team star Eric Wynalda, but the damage was done with the ethnic fan base and hard core football fan.

Rules which allowed the movement of players dictated by figures not associated with the club or player himself was completely foreign to the majority of ethnic fans that supported the club initially.

But enough about the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market and it’s interest in football. Let’s return to the issue of Major League Soccer.

In Forbes survey of Football clubs worldwide a year ago, only one MLS team based on American soil, the Los Angeles Galaxy were worth more than $40 million. Yet, the league is charging potential expansion owners that figure in a depressed economic time. It’s patently absurd and quite frankly insulting that MLS, a league whose relevance in world football is almost nill, would consider itself that important.  The league which has never publicly released its financial statements

It may come as a shock to many of our readers, but the vast majority of Americans who watch football do not follow MLS in the least. The reality is that the domestic league of the United States ranks far below the Mexican, English, Italian, Spanish and Argentine leagues as far as domestic interest is concerned. The horrible TV ratings MLS matches have received since Fox Soccer Channel has begun paying for the nielson service (as contrasted with the surprisingly high ratings EPL matches have received at odd times on the same channel) should be a wake up call to MLS. For example an MLS match last year between Houston and Chivas USA recieved a 0.0 rating and was watched in fewer than 19,000 households.

So should the fact that ESPN’s viewership for MLS game was twice as high in 1998 (an average of about 560,000 viewers) as it was in 2008. (an average of about 225,000 viewers.) The failure of MLS to relocate or award an expansion franchise to a city in the Southeast has surely contributed to these numbers, as the nation’s most populated region does not have a team in the nation’s first division. (USL, however has several teams in the region and will be adding Tampa Bay next season)

Barcelona is an important name in world football, but for a club of that stature to put their name on the product, they needed more control over player acquisitions, and contracts. Additionally, the ability of an individual team to not be able to award a contract to a uniform company was a problem. Barca has a lucrative worldwide deal with Nike, but MLS unlike any other football league on the planet controls its teams kit contracts, and Adidas has an exclusive deal with the league.

It’s no coincidence Barca decided to pull the plug the day after it was reported that MLS will concede defeat in its attempts to force David Beckham to honor his contract with MLS. The LA Galaxy will receive a nice “parachute payment” as Beckham buys out his contract, but despite this the league now looks decidedly small time in Europe.

While that may not be a bad thing for a league that in my opinion badly needs to refocus on developing American players instead of importing foreign talent and paying aging stars too much money, it isn’t the best marketing strategy. New investors have to be concerned about the marquee attraction for league being gone by the time their clubs begin play in 2011.

Barcelona saw Beckham’s move to MLS as a door opening for European clubs to plant a flag in the states. But as it turns out, MLS now has more egg on its face in Europe. Some fans may not care, but this will almost certainly further undermine the credibility of the league among American based fans wanting some sort of reason to support the local domestic product.

25 thoughts on “MLS and Miami: A Look Back, A Look Ahead”

  1. I just wrote to to Claure and I thanked him for pulling out, he was quoted as saying if he was awarded a team ” we will have some American players to”

  2. I know you’ve been talking about the crap that MLS gets from other leagues worldwide and other sports nationally for some time, and I have to agree with you that it’s undeserved. The Sounders (a cute lil expansion team) have sold out their opener, and have also sold over 20,000 season tickets:

    These days, the only way baseball can get those kind of numbers is by pounding steroids.

    I myself have argued that the Sounders have a ton of momentum because we Seattleites are filling a vacuum with the Sonics leaving. However, tickets are tickets. The current economy certainly discourages luxury hobbyist expenses, but I hope these kind of numbers make other expansion possibilities bear fruit.

  3. Kartik, thanks for such an accurate and detailed account of the Miami market. Miami Fans are crushed by this experience once again. I would have rather not had Claure and Barcelona tease us this way, but the damage is done. I hope the Miami community ralllys in support of Miami FC. It is all we have now. I”ll be out there in my Miami Fusion jersey giving my support.

  4. Actually Lars, TFC doesn’t count in my analysis because the post was about American viewers, and American teams. I actually said the only MLS team from the US is the Galaxy.

    Yes, TFC is worth more than $40 million according to Forbes, but they are extraneous to an argument about why the majority of football supporters in America pay no attention to MLS.

  5. Kartik,

    I think some of your points are well thought out, however the bit about exclusive uniform rights misses the infusion of cash the league received by working this deal with adidas and also aligned it with the “big four” leagues in America. Also attempting to make MLS seem small time when your website is named majorleaguesoccertalk feels more like sour grapes than a true analysis of the market.

    The Becks saga is just that. The guy wants to break the all time England caps record. His national team manager will assist him in that aim if he plays league ball in Europe. Egg on MLS’s face? I think not. Becks’ rediscovered appetite for international football came when he refound his form at Real before moving to America (which I believe he saw as a soft landing and still enough fame to prop up his ego).

    The Miami situation is unfortunately painted by the poor performance of the Marlins at the gate. It is unfortunate because the two sports are unrelated, but it does show the extremely fickle nature of fans in the area.

    The best point in your article is the attendance breakdown. Look back to 2001, see which teams were league owned, and then conclude which teams you would have contracted. As I understand it, that was the decision point, not attendance.

  6. Great post and spot on about so many major points.

    As long as Major League Soccer insists on having dictator-like control over how the league is run, they’re not going to get teams like Barcelona to want to be involved. They’re going to want to have player control and everything else that you pointed out.

    And while MLS did secure some sweet back pocket deal with adidas, as long as they have that exclusive (and money driven deal), they won’t get teams like Barca to want to be too involved because Barca doesn’t want to put their name on something not Nike.

    Great post – too bad the brass of MLS likely isn’t reading.

  7. Kartik – I agree with your last 3 paragraph to a point (sorry Bryan SOB) – I think that you HAVE to consider the effect that the negative press MLS has received at the hands of the European media – but that only goes so far. Getting world class players to play in MLS for more than a season or two is the challenge. The players are the bigger draw for MLS crowds at the moment – not so much the game. Yes, you saw a huge increase in attendance over the last two years – but that could be a ripple effect of the Beckham Era. This year will be a true litmus test of the fan retention. Unfortunately for MLS, I think the combination of the economy, the loss of Beckham, and the dilution of the MLS product’s placement in the American media, I think we will see a downturn in attendance numbers.

  8. Good analysis about why South Florida/Miami is a good pro soccer market; I would argue it applies to the Tampa Bay area as well; the Mutiny never had an owner and it is simply not acceptable to have a team that is owned and managed by the very league it is playing in. The Mutiny were doomed from the start without an owner, and Tampa Bay area fans could still remember the Rowdies and their much superior NASL product.

    The usual haters will use this latest incident to disparage not only the Miami pro soccer market, but the entire Florida and Southeastern USA pro soccer market as well. These aspersions are completely unfair as these series of setbacks in Florida are entirely MLS’s doing.

    The rest of your comments are entirely too gloomy, however. MLS has shown over the years that it is capable of learning from its mistakes and correcting them. Losing potential investors due to its single entity policies is a learning experience; MLS single entity policies have been greatly modified/reduced over the years and I expect this trend to continue.

    For the sake of pro soccer in Miami I hope Marcelo Claure partners up with Traffic Sports and becomes an investor in Miami FC; these two should work together to make USL stronger in Miami, and eventually make a new bid for an MLS franchise. If, now that Miami is out, it seems likely that both Portland and Vancouver get the two MLS expansion slots, we will have the absurd situation of the Northwest getting three clubs from USL into MLS, in the space of a few years, while the Southeast continues to be completely unrepresented in MLS. This situation cannot last.

    By 2010, I hope, we should have three clubs in Florida in USL D1; Miami FC, Tampa Bay Rowdies, Orlando Tuzos USA. Fans, this is our chance to finally prove that there are plenty of real pro soccer supporters in Florida. Yes USL isn’t the greatest quality, but for the next few years at least, it is OURS. Support it and make it grow, and you prove the haters wrong.

  9. Outstanding piece.

    I think an unwillingness to embrace the traditions of the NASL doomed the Tampa and Miami markets.

    I believe Garber talks out of both sides of his mouth so much he cannot be taken seriously.

    I do not understand how MLS could screw this up. Heck, with the Miami market open and Barca willing, they should have waived the expansion fee.

    The league has all sorts of convoluted rules. I agree with Kartik in saying the league’s failure in Fort Lauderdale the first go round had more to do with these rules than any other factor.

    MLS needs a real gut check. Hank is correct in stating that losing Beckham probably is going to make the entire value and marketability of the league less attractive in upcoming years. Couple that with the global financial meltdown and we’ve got problems.

  10. Ha ha ha ha ha Miami. Miami sucks.

    You never going to get MLS only in your dreams.

    Vancouver yes!!
    Portland Yes!!

    Die Miami!!!!!

  11. Rick’s post is a perfect example of the sneering, regional smallness that poisons American soccer.

    Thanks, Rick, for again proving right.

  12. People Rick is the reason soccer don’t grow like it should in this county.

    Miami soccer fans will recover. Yes it is a very sad time for all of us. The Miami Ultras will do what we can to save what we have now Miami FC, but we will not give up on our dream of MLS.

  13. People like Rick are what kept soccer in the USA a very minor, mostly ethnic sport for more than 140 years: people too proud of their own idiotic insularity, and their ethnic/regional/local hatreds and provincialism, to make soccer the nationwide success it deserves to be.

  14. I love this piece. Good work but some honest advice:Forget MLS.

    I’m so put out by the lies and the constant dashing of our hopes in this market.

    The Fusion was a big lie: we knew the team was in trouble, we rallied behind them and the plug still got pulled.

    Now months of lies from MLS HQ.

    I haven’t really supported Miami FC but if they do survive, I am prepared to start supporting that club regularly to spite MLS.

    Go Montreal and Puerto Rico! Good for Atlante, ending the fraud league’s hopes in CONCACAF.

  15. Miami FC and the Miami Ultras Supporters Club are coming together for the good of the game – for the good of South Florida. Fans from all over the region are gathering around to prove to the world that Miami is the place for pro soccer. The kick-off of the 24-hour Soccer-a-Thon will be on Saturday, March 7th, at 6 pm, at Monsignor Edward Pace High School (15600 NW 32nd Avenue, Miami Gardens, FL 33054). The games won’t stop until 6 pm Sunday evening.

    Participants from everywhere and anywhere are welcome. They just need to bring a lot of stamina and their soccer gear to participate in this historic event. Sign up is free but contributions of any size are encouraged and welcomed.

    “This Soccer-a-Thon is one of the last chances that our community has to keep its professional team in South Florida. In the past few days, Miami FC fans have shown a great amount of support buying season tickets and helping spread the word. Nonetheless, we cannot forget that we still have a huge task in front of us and the 5,000 season tickets mark is still a goal that must be attained by this Sunday,” said Aaron Davidson, Miami FC’s President.

    At the same time, in an area close to the field where the games will be held, a silent auction will also take place. A few items are already confirmed to be auctioned, such as: a vintage Miami FC official jersey signed by Romário, Zinho and other players, a 2007 Copa America Brazil jersey signed by the champion players, a US Men’s National Team official jersey signed by Landon Donovan, Bruce Arena, and others, a Peruvian National Team jersey signed by the great Teofilo Cubillas, a weekend stay for two with breakfast included at the Marriott Miami Airport Hotel (with discount coupons for Starbucks and the Cane Fire Grill Restaurant), a Marlins Certificate, which includes: 4 regular season tickets, 4 official hats, and a VIP tour of Dolphin Stadium. Other items will be confirmed in the days leading up to the event.

    “Miami FC is in danger of not having a 2009 season and folding for good, unless we as a community can come together and prove to the ownership we deserve to have this great team,” says Pieter Brown, President of the Miami Ultras. “This Soccer-a-Thon promises to be a historic sports event in Miami. It will try to bring attention to the Miami FC 2009 season ticket plans and show that the fans in Miami do indeed care about soccer.”

    “This is the type of fan support any sports franchise can only dream of. These are Miami FC fans. When fans want to show their support sometimes they have a rally or a march, but we thought what better way to prove our love for this team than to play continuous soccer for 24 hours straight?,” declared Julio Caballero, Ultras VP.

    Don’t miss the 24 hour Soccer-a-Thon. No matter your age, gender, race, religion, political conviction, no matter how well you play, this is a once-in-a-lifetime event open to everybody who cares about soccer and about this community. Don’t look back and say: “I wish I had done something.” Right now you can Save Pro Soccer in Miami!

  16. So, I enjoy your commentary although I don’t always agree with your conclusions, and I know this is a hard time to be a Miami soccer fan, but this is pretty sad.
    You sound like you just got dumped by your GF and now you’re calling her fat and ugly and you never liked her anyway.

    And guys, MLS lies? Guess who gave up on the Miami soccer market?

    and soon to be: Traffic Sports

    I’ll continue to enjoy MLS for what it is. It’s too bad that you guys want to through stones and pout.

    The truth hurts. Maybe it will take some time for you guys to get some perspective.

  17. Entrust MLS some. The league is of more importance than “nil”. How many of the other, powerful leagues must also compete against the established leagues of four other sports? Despite the competition from the establishment and even from the ambivalence of American fans, the league has continued to expand.

    For me, as a native-born American, there is no value in supporting foreign leagues, whose teams I might only watch on subscriber-based television and never actually view in competition, but occasionally on tour.

  18. As president of the ad agency that helped launch the Miami Fusion, what always struck me as unbelievable was their location! For reasons that made very little sense, the owners decided NOTto locate the “Miami” Fusion in a city that was over 60% Hispanic at the time of the launch and from which a strong Latin attendance could be drawn, but to Broward county which at the time had a Latino population of around 10%. Management felt that their primary target audience was the Anglo soccer Mom. Oh please. At any rate, there are many other reasons for the failure of the team, most having to do with the local ownership’s micro-management and lack of knowledge of the market opportunity (I could go on and on here, but better not…). Having worked with several other professional sports organizations including the NBA and NFL since the Fusions’ demise, all I can say is that it didn’t have to end that way. Sad, very sad. Of all places that should have a thriving professional soccer team, it’s South Florida! Better yet, Miami!

  19. In many cases these attendance totals are deceiving. New York/New Jersey, New England and San Jose were infamous in the league’s early years of spiking crowd totals thanks to well scheduled double headers.

  20. You really make it seem so easy with your presentation but I in
    finding this matter to be really one thing which I think I’d never
    understand. It seems too complicated and extremely broad for me. I
    am taking a look forward for your next put up, I’ll try to get the
    grasp of it!

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