Someone once said that “the great thing about Miami is that it’s so close to the United States.” While that can be taken to mean a number of things, it is clear that Miami is a different sort of place. Anyone who has strolled Coconut Grove’s salsa and perfume-laced sidewalks on a Friday night, felt the Atlantic breezes saunter across Ocean Drive’s Art Deco strip, or even driven the desolate stretch of Old Card Sound Road before entering the Florida Keys, knows. Don’t get me wrong. Other places have the magic too; Miami does not own it outright. But this city – this wet, hot, sexy, hostile, superficial, unfettered sponge of a city – unquestionably has it.
So, what does all of this have to do with David Beckham and his shiny new Major League Soccer (MLS) franchise in Miami? Well, to be honest, it is a challenging question but one that Beckham and his MLS ownership group have undoubtedly thought over long and hard. Despite the fact that Beckham’s group is likely well-aware of the fickle South Florida professional sports market, I imagine that they are brimming with enthusiasm. After all, Beckham was able to buy into MLS at a cut-rate price ($25 million) and on paper, at least, Miami’s professional soccer potential looks, just as it always has, to be quite bountiful.
As Ray Hudson, former coach of the Miami Fusion, who is as well versed as anyone in the vagaries of the South Florida soccer market, recently noted in a MLS Soccer article by Simon Borg, when it comes to professional soccer in Miami, “everything looks as if it’s just so and just right.” Miami has always appeared to be a natural place for professional soccer to flourish – the gateway to Latin America, diverse immigrant communities, cooperative weather, large youth soccer interest, and an attractive destination for quality foreign players.
However, if the area’s professional soccer past is any indication, Beckham’s MLS gamble is just that. Each time professional soccer has attempted to lay down South Florida roots, the enticing vision eventually fades into a chimeric mirage. South Florida’s professional soccer cemetery is home to tombstones that read Miami Gatos, Miami Toros, Miami Freedom, Miami Sharks, and Miami Fusion. The Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, once bolstered by the likes of Gordon Banks, Teofilo Cubillas, Gerd Muller, and George Best, now play in the NASL, the second-tier of the American league system, in front of home crowds that averaged a little over 4,000 in 2013. As Hudson aptly puts it, “the allure of Miami is like the call of the sirens.” If Beckham’s MLS plans go awry, he would hardly be the first, or the last, whose voyage ran aground on Miami’s shoals of broken soccer dreams.
In a February 2014 New York Daily News article by Justin Tasch and Christian Red, former Miami Fusion owner Ken Horowitz lamented over the sad, last days of the Miami franchise in the early 2000s. In spite of the team’s efforts on the field, game-days increasingly saw Lockhart Stadium’s “parking lot with so few cars, and so many empty seats.” These final days were a far cry from the 1998 season home-debut of the Fusion against DC United in front of over 20,000 spectators. Horowitz noted that despite pushing $50 million into the Fusion, it was a constant struggle to find and retain sponsorship investment as fan support for the franchise waned. By the end of the 2001 season, the Fusion boasted the league’s lowest season ticket sales and lowest sponsorship revenues. Horowitz’s Fusion were not the only MLS project to whither in the Florida sun in early 2002 – on the very same day the MLS also contracted the Tampa Bay Mutiny.