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.