Big-time teams keep drawing crowds as Miami's MLS future remains cloudy
MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. -- Despite the fact the teams were only announced two days beforehand, another excellent crowd turned up for a big soccer match at Sun Life Stadium on Monday night.
As David Beckham's former team Manchester United defeated their fiercest rivals Liverpool 3-1 to win the International Champions Cup in front of 51,014 fans, one had to wonder what was going through his mind as he continues his quest to bring a Major League Soccer franchise to the area.
Time after time, the South Florida community has shown the willingness to shell out $50 or more for a ticket to see top club sides like the ones on display Monday evening, or national sides like Brazil and Honduras, who 71,000 saw play here last year.
And you couldn't fail to notice the fact that pubs and bars all over the Tri-County area were packed in June and July for the World Cup, no matter who was playing.
But two nights ago, just a half-hour's drive from the home of the Dolphins, a generously announced crowd of 2,648 people sat and watched the area's only current professional soccer team, the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, beat their in-state rivals, the Tampa Bay Rowdies, 1-0.
While a non-existent stadium deal is probably his No. 1 concern at the moment, Beckham is surely wondering what has to happen for his franchise to succeed attendance-wise where the Miami Fusion, which folded after just four seasons, failed.
"I think you can see the past three or four years, the attendance at games like this one, 50,000-plus, people are starting to support soccer more now than when the Fusion and the Mutiny were around," said Omar Garcia, the Strikers' 24-year-old community relations director who was manning a sparsely visited pop-up tent for the NASL team outside Sun Life Stadium before the big game.
"I think the team can survive if they put the stadium in the right place, have the right staff, and the right marketing plan. It's like a clock: it has a lot of pieces. If you don't have a battery or one hand, it's not going to work. It has to be complete."
However, as all South Florida pro sports franchises know, even with the correct infrastructure in place and a dazzling new state-of-the-art facility, it can be hard to attract fans unless you're winning consistently.
Even the Dolphins, who have been around for nearly half a century now, haven't been able to fill Sun Life over the past decade because they only have one playoff trip during that span.
There is a litany of reasons for this, from the transient nature of the population to the fact there are a million other (more fun?) things for people to spend their hard-earned money on.
And then there's the stadium issue for Beckham, which could prove to be a major sticking point, especially as MLS commissioner Don Garber has said that they "must have the right ownership group and stadium location" if Beckham is to officially be awarded a franchise (which hasn't happened yet).
The plan was to have a downtown Miami stadium, but Beckham has met resistance wherever he's gone in Miami-Dade County, and is now looking north to Broward.
For Garcia and the Strikers, that would mean a competitor right in their backyard, but he still feels a northern stadium would be the best option for Beckham's quest because of where the majority of soccer fans with disposable income appear to be located.
"South Beach is a cool place to go to, but I don't think many people from West Palm Beach would travel all the way down there to watch soccer," Garcia said. "We get more people coming from Palm Beach County than we do from Miami-Dade. People from Boynton Beach, Boca Raton, they come to Strikers games."
Take away the Seattle Sounders, who average over 40,000 fans a game, and the majority of the MLS franchises average 15,000-20,000 in attendance. Meanwhile, the Fusion averaged 7,500 fans in their penultimate year of existence.
Their final year, the season they made the semifinals, the attendance spiked to an average of 11,177.
Wherever Beckham's franchise ends up being located, it's clear that fans want a winning team, and preferably one with a big name.
Will Beckham come out of retirement? Or will he be able to persuade a legendary professional in the twilight of his career to boost the team's profile?
Kaka, a former AC Milan and Brazil star, signed with Orlando City earlier this summer, while English midfielder Frank Lampard, will play for New York City FC, the team that starts playing in 2015, the same year as Orlando. Thierry Henry and Robbie Keane, two former Premier League stars, are plying their trade in New York and Los Angeles, respectively.
In the end, whether the Miami MLS experiment version 2.0 succeeds or not will all come down to the product on the field is a good one. Fans of all sports don't want to pay to watch a second-rate team; it's just as simple as that.
"I watch the Strikers occasionally because of the price," said Richard George, a lifelong soccer fan in his early-40s who brought two of his kids with him to see Monday's contest from the third row. "But to have an MLS team here again would be great. I just hope this team lasts a little longer than the last one did."