The Fort Lauderdale Strikers just completed a season where the club set an average attendance record for a local lower-division professional club, breaking a mark that was set a quarter-century ago in during the 1988 APSL season. The continued discussion of David Beckham’s potential Miami MLS team has raised concerns about the long-term viability of pro soccer among some fans. Last week’s announcement that Orlando City SC will move from the lower-division USL Pro to MLS in 2015 satisfied the thirst some hard-core fans in Florida had towards the desire to see MLS return to the state of Florida. The lingering bitterness towards MLS’ post-2001 season departure from the state of Florida subsided substantially with the Orlando announcement.
The most active local supporters group Flight 19 which supports the Strikers have pledged to continue supporting the club even after an MLS club is awarded to the region. Compounding this reality is the potential geographic problem a Miami team faces if they play too far south, away from the existing pro soccer fan-base. What is also apparent is that the MLS team has no clear idea where it wants to play long-term with published reports recently discussing the Port of Miami, and a 75,000 seat stadium somewhere in Miami-Dade County while internet rumors indicate the prospective team may want to build a stadium at Tropical Park which would ground share with the University of Miami football team. (It should be noted the UM Football team has a generous lease agreement with the Miami Dolphins and moving out of that facility will probably cost the Athletic Department $$$ even if the move brings the team closer to the Coral Gables campus)
Beckham’s MLS team certainly has a shot to succeed but may face long odds if those advising the global football superstar do not do enough homework on the market. While the celebrity factor might attract southeast Floridians to a few games, if my thinking about a Spanish-language dominant side isn’t followed, the team could provide a doomsday scenario for the sport in the region.
Let us assume for a moment Beckham takes the “all things to all people” approach rather than taking the hyper-local Hispanic approach I have previously suggested. Beckham’s team reaches out to everyone but it becomes obvious quickly that the southeast Florida/Miami sports market once again only loves winners of the highest class and an MLS team with only 3-4 recognizable names doesn’t fit that. The team plays in a temporary facility like FIU Stadium where the minuses outweigh the pluses and despite trying to create a good impression with Brand Beckham’s marketing machine, they fall flat in an image conscious market.
In this scenario the realistic average attendance for the MLS team would be in the neighborhood of 14,000 per game. The Strikers, unable to compete with an MLS team that is 20-25 miles south shuts down leaving a disaffected and bitter group of fans who won’t drive south to see the MLS games. These fans switch their allegiances to other sports such as the NHL’s Florida Panthers or to the Premier League which they can watch easily on NBC and NBCSN. Compounding matters is the demographic challenge faced by a team that opts to play in Miami rather than Fort Lauderdale or Boca Raton. Census data clearly shows that the further north you go in the metro area, the more likely you are to find residents who have disposable income to pay to attend pro soccer matches.
The market if appealing to a mass audience tends to only gravitates to winners. The Miami Dolphins have been in the bottom seven of the NFL’s attendance three years in a row in a football mad market. With MLS rules not being dissimilar from NFL, the idea that Beckham could create a “super-club” that could appeal to the masses is off-target. The hyper-local approach could and should work but it looks as if this is not going to be the strategy for this club.
Major League Soccer can succeed in Miami. But unlike Orlando, where despite some questions it is more than likely to be a smashing success with an established club and committed supporters’ base, small details could crush the project. If the project fails, southeast Florida could become a wasteland for pro soccer again, much like it was in the 2002-2005 time period. The risk is too great to do this the wrong way.