The Case for Miami (or Fort Lauderdale)

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The Miami/Fort Lauderdale metropolitan area is the most populated urban area in the US or Canada without an MLS franchise.

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 has continued to bring Gold Cup matches to Miami, with this months doubleheader drawing well at FIU Staidum

In February, the Mexico-US  qualifier 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. This summer, US-Brazil ratings were higher in Miami-Fort Lauderdale than any other media market in the country. West Palm Beach the neighboring market ranked 4th overall. Sunday’s US-Mexico Gold Cup Final won it’s Nielson time slot in the local markets ratings as well.

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  made his impact. 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.

We’ve heard several criticisms of the markets poor performance in USL. But in truth. the awareness of Miami FC is minimal in the area. Traffic Sports, who are massive in towns the team but promotes its other properties with greater gusto and effort.

Those of us in national soccer circles know how big a company Traffic is, and I have a lot of respect for them- but that is part of the issue. I don’t think Traffic spends very much time or money worrying about Miami FC- it’s somewhat like being the 6th or 7th MLS team AEG owned back in the day.

But in fairness to them, I think part of the reason they don’t give it much time is that they simply don’t know what the market is. South Florida is confusing and convoluted and Traffic for all their success elsewhere is just the latest to not figure this region out- no shame in that and thankfully they are still trying with some new and innovative blood in the PR department.

Pieter Brown and the Miami Ultras have been more responsible for getting people to them games than the club itself, which is why with someone like Pieter leading the fans and who has become experienced in marketing a football club to other fans, MLS can work.

No one questions Traffic’s influence in football even with CONCACAF, FIFA and certain elements in the USSF, and in USL. I support Traffic Sports efforts to bring top class football to South Florida- they’ve brought us some good friendlies through the years and Miami FC is finally after a few years really worth watching. Yes, having Romario was a dream, but that was one year and we knew it was for one year. Now they’ve built a decent team

Traffic however is not the issue. As most readers know I support and promote USL. But Miami/Fort Lauderdale is the type of market which views USL in its current form, as a “minor league,” and MLS as an  “emerging league worth watching,” something it was not in 1999 but was in 2001 when despite averaging over 11,000 fans at Lockhart our team was contracted in a very haphazard and unprofessional fashion by MLS.

The South Florida market however is conflicted and contradictory. The TV ratings are high for the EPL, the pubs are all full Saturday mornings, and the Argentine/Brazilian communities cling to their leagues religiously. Locals  also watch the USMNT in greater numbers than other markets so it is not that they don’t relate to the US- it is that they think the domestic leagues aren’t as exciting or important as the US team.

MLS can and will work with the right owner. But it cannot be an owner like Ken Horrowitz that won’t spend money to bring in a quality name player from Latin America. With the DP rule now in existence, Miami goes from being questionable to viable as an MLS market.

From my vantage point, MLS’ biggest problem isn’t the quality of play (which is decent enough), the poor standard of tactical coaching, or attendance (which is actually quite good if not top shelf by any truly objective standard). It is the mere fact that the league struggles on TV. In fact the term, struggles is a massive understatement.

In the last round of expansion MLS embraced two markets with a rich NASL/USL history as well as an amazing sized fan base. But neither is a particularly attractive national TV market. Philadelphia’s inclusion in MLS helps its overall TV profile, but Portland and Vanocuver do little if anything to move the national needle.

MLS’ TV ratings have declined  since the days of the league’s two Florida franchises. In 2000, MLS had more viewers on ESPN than today and more games on network TV than today. Contraction took MLS out of the nation’s 4th most populated state and away from several large TV markets. TV markets ironically enough, that continue to post some of the highest TV ratings for the US National Team’s English language broadcasts (and in the case of the Miami/Fort Lauderdale market a high Spanish ratings as well) while posting average or below average ratings for Major League Soccer.

It is important to note that MLS got higher ratings on ESPN when the league was buying time on the Disney family of networks. Today ESPN pays MLS a rights fee and gets fewer viewers. Even more distressing are reports that Spanish language TV flagship station Univision is reporting a substantial MLS ratings decline on its subsidiary Telefutura this season. Viewership on ESPN Deportes, which is in far fewer homes than Telefutura are up however this season.

Florida has always been logical for the sport. The NASL was a big hit in Fort Lauderdale (Miami Area) and Tampa/St Pete and did reasonably well for a time in Jacksonville. Every successive start up league targeted Florida, whether it was the ASL, the APSL or the USISL. When MLS began play in 1996, Tampa Bay was an original market. Miami/Fort Lauderdale was added in 1998.

It’s also very apparent that US Soccer has a lot invested in Florida: from the targeting of youth clubs in the US Development Academy setup, to the USSF Bradenton Academy.  Of the about 70 club teams in the USSF Youth Development Academy, six are in Florida. Additionally, Florida provides many of the players that are in the US player pool at all level both youth and full national team. Additionally, youth soccer is massive in the state encompassing all demographic groups.

Ethnic populations of both Latins and Caribbean Islanders are well represented in Florida, and that is why despite not having an MLS team for eight years and having four full seasons without any professional football, Florida continued to attract high profile international friendlies. Additionally, Miami is the only city that has hosted at least one match in each of the past seven Gold Cup tournaments. The Gold Cup is marketed by SUM and they keep returning to Miami, time and time again despite the perceived failure of the market in MLS.

Tampa Bay was contracted in 2001 largely due to stadium and ownership issues. That year the Mutiny was among the worst teams in MLS history, and struggled at the gate. However, in the clubs first five MLS seasons, attendance and results were respectable even if playing in a large football stadium was not.

Attendance in USL cannot be used as a predictor as to MLS success. Toronto and Seattle lagged towards the middle or even the bottom in USL-1 attendance. But promotion to MLS has seen both markets hit home runs for MLS. At the same time markets such as Rochester and Charleston consistently outdrew Seattle and Toronto in USL-01. But nobody realistically has suggested them for MLS in the last several years. (Rochester, recall was a prime MLS expansion candidate in the late 90s and did have a decent following for the NASL.)

In fact while attendance is poor for Baseball’s Florida Marlins, its local TV numbers are in the top half for MLB. Chances are a renewed MLS team in Miami may lag in attendance but not in local TV viewership or interest.

As evidenced by the TV ratings for USMNT matches and the turnout for the Gold Cup every two years, Miami/Fort Lauderdale remains a very viable football market despite the perceived failure of the Fusion and struggles of Miami FC in USL-1. In fact the Fusion as with the Tampa Bay Mutiny were contracted more due to ownership and stadium issues than anything else.

Contrary to the rhetoric of some around the country, the case for Miami’s return to MLS is strong. Now it up to the fans of South Florida to help make it happen.