MLS 3.0: Making MLS Work in Miami

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The following is a collaboration of Matt Pollard (Twitter) and Alec F. Rivera (Twitter)

With expansion announced in Minneapolis, Making MLS Work in Miami takes on new significance.

With Major League Soccer poised to reach the 24-team threshold a couple years early, Making MLS Work in Miami has taken on a sense of urgency. As Miami Beckham United continues their search for a home before being officially granted a coveted MLS expansion franchise, it will become increasingly important for the ownership to learn from past mistakes in that market. To do so, Miami Beckham United would do well to look at what was not working for their predecessors, the Miami Fusion.

Failure of the Miami Fusion

The Miami Fusion joined MLS in 1997 as an expansion franchise in the league’s second season. The club won the Supporters Shield in 2001 with an average attendance of over 11,000 in the season, but MLS chose to fold the franchise after several years of significant financial losses. While many fans from outside the area scoff at the notion of a second attempt at an MLS Miami franchise, few note that the Miami Fusion played their home matches at Lockhart Stadium in Ft. Lauderdale–33 miles from the center of downtown Miami and 47 miles from Kendall, the largest suburban development in the region.

Poor attendance and lack of corporate support were the primary cause of the financial losses for the Miami Fusion. The Fusion did have a supporters group, the aFUSIONados, but attendance was always at or near the bottom of the league. With the founding of Southern Legion in 2006, Beckham’s ownership has a supporters group waiting for a team.

A few quality corporate sponsors could provide the financial basis for a technical infrastructure. While Miami may be a fickle sports market, with a quality product and a big name (ex: Lebron James), fans will show up for an MLS Miami team in ways they never did for the Fusion.

This support will also allow for a quality and well-located stadium; per the 2013 census, Brooklyn is the most populous borough in New York. By distance, Yankees Stadium is about one mile closer to New York City’s population center than Red Bull Arena.

While Miami and New York City are not necessarily comparable when it comes to transportation infrastructure, the average Kendall resident must travel 47 miles for a Ft. Lauderdale Strikers game, much further than American Airlines Arena (AAA) or Marlins Park. A Miami metropolitan-based stadium will be much better location and less of a hinderance for Miamians than Lockhart Stadium ever was.

In order to capitalize on a market that, on paper, should be among the strongest hotbeds of support for the sport, the ownership needs to enlist the local community in their quest to bring MLS to Miami. The most important piece of the puzzle is one which Beckham has been quite adamant about from the beginning: a prime stadium location…

A Place To Call Home

MLS awarded an expansion bid to David Beckham and the city of Miami in February of 2014. The one requirement the league gave David Beckham’s ownership group was to acquire a downtown stadium location. As proved previously with soccer specific stadium (SSS) construction, location matters. Establishing a quality venue in a prime and convenient location is critical to establishing and sustaining a fanbase.

After over a year of discussions, meetings, and rumors, no clear resolution has been achieved.

The first stadium reports came in March 2014 as Beckham looked to PortMiami as a potential location. A 25,000 seat stadium on Dodge Island would be constructed with a pedestrian bridge across to AAA. The plan was however shot down by city officials after opposition surfaced from the Miami Seaport Alliance (MSA). There was concern that the stadium would worsen traffic problems to and from the island. It would also limit the port’s ability to expand and increase import/export capacity. The Miami-Dade County commissioners voted 11-1 against the bid in May 2014.

Beckham and company then looked across the water to Museum Park, adjacent to AAA. The plan would require filling in a boat slip to provide the foundation for the stadium. While discussions with the Mayor’s office lead the bid to be called the new “Plan A,” criticism surfaced from a number of angles. The stadium would have taken up 4.2 acres of park land, but expanding the park would produce 8.5 acres of new park land.

The public saw issue with using park land for the stadium. The Marlins had looked at the site but draining the boat slip and filling appeared too expensive. Complaints also surfaced from the local condo residents, who did not want to lose their water front view. While this location was well liked by several pundits and supporters, the Mayor’s office rejected the bid in early June, citing that the two sides were too far apart to reach a resolution.

While the ownership group had explored options in the neighboring Broward and Palm Beach County, the MLS front office held firm that the expansion team would not join the league without a downtown stadium location. Rumors had also surfaced of the ownership having the team play temporarily in either Sunlife Stadium or FIU Stadium while the SSS plans were in development.

This past March, the county commissioners passed a resolution to give Beckham’s group a plot of county-owned land adjacent to Marlins Park, what some have called “poisoned land.”

Looking back at all of these bids, the Museum Park seemed to be the dream come true: a great location next to AAA with the parking infrastructure already in place. It is unfortunate that other entities opposed it such that the ownership group and the city could not come to an agreement.

While not mentioned as frequenty, the Miami International Airport/Bertram Boat Yard site is a dark horse candidate for the stadium location. With ample land and a blank slate to build as they wish, this would provide the least resistance from the surrounding residence. While not immediately in downtown Miami, it is easy and quick to get to from anywhere in the area.

The spot next to Marlins Park on initial view looks bad. There isn’t much space based on this rendering between the ballpark and NW 17th Avenue. This leaves limited room for future stadium expansion. It could also contribute to residence in the area protesting the stadium due to increased traffic from construction. The location is decent and the Marlins Park parking lots already house enough space for the expected size of the SSS.

Association with the Marlins could be a serious hindrance to getting public support and funding to help pay for the facility. Tricky construction settings, a very small space to work with, and being in the shadow of the ballpark roof (and thus the shadow of the hated Jeff Loria) makes this location very problematic.

It could be better to wait a few years for a quality and more ideal option to arrive rather than construct now for the sake of getting the team sooner.

Funding Or Lack There Of

The construction of Marlins Park and the aftermath unfortunately will forever taint future bids for public funding for professional sports teams in Miami. Relocation pressure from MLB came in 2007, with the lack of a stadium and poor attendance cited as the primary concern. When push came to shove, the city agreed to contribute financially to keep the team. The Miami Orange Bowl was demolished and the new Marlins Park was built on site. The Marlins would only pay for 20% of the stadium costs.

One season of a high payroll team underperforming, a bunch of trades, a lawsuit, and some angry fan tweets later, the Marlins again sit at the bottom of MLB in payroll, attendance, and the standings.

Loria remains the primary villain in this story. He convinced the city to build him a new stadium and pay for most of it while he continued to put a cheap and mediocre product on the field. The ballpark will ultimately cost the county $2.4 billion in tax revenue. The loan payments will not be paid off till 2049.

This highway robbery has already cost the Miami Dolphins any chance of getting public funding to help renovate SunLife Stadium. It is hard to see how David Beckham will get any public funding for his SSS, regardless of any promises to provide a quality team and big name DPs.

Securing any public financial support could require teaming up with a sports entity in Miami in desperate need to find a new home . . .

Star Power in the Magic City

If there’s one thing the city of Miami loves, it’s a winning team and a group of stars leading them to victory. One only has to look back at the golden years of the Miami Hurricanes and Miami Dolphins, the Marlins World Series teams, and most recently the Miami Heat and the Big Three. The Miami-Dade metropolitan area draws among the best television ratings for international and club matches of all major metropolitan areas in the United States; a big name star in the vein of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Cristiano Ronaldo, or Lionel Messi would attract a fervent following in a city with countless distractions and options for entertainment.

In addition, partnerships with local athletic organizations could prove pivotal to the success of an MLS club in Miami-Dade County. The University of Miami has indicated an interest in partnering with the startup club to host a new and improved home for their football team, in what could potentially be the country’s first gridiron football team hosted in a SSS.

The University of Miami is a sleeping giant in Miami’s sports scene; after having garnered most of the attention and respect in the region between the 1980s and 2000s, Miami have not been able to garner the same amount of local clout since their move to SunLife Stadium. This potential partnership with Miami Beckham United could relocate the school’s football team to a more central location in the city, while increasing their profile and drawing more fans. MLS Miami could be the major catalyst for the resurgence of not only professional soccer in the region, but also the resurgence of sporting culture in general.

Not only could this potential partnership prove mutually beneficial for MLS Miami and the Miami Hurricanes football program, it could prove to be a catalyst for college mens soccer in South Florida. The University of Miami, Florida International University, or any local college or university that chooses to partner with MLS Miami stands to benefit.

The potential partnership could set a new standard for MLS, with sources talking about amassing an ownership group that could fully finance a stadium seating up to 60,000 fans; if MLS Miami is able to secure the support of an ownership group to finance that type of investment, this could truly prove to be a team that represents and reflects the diversity and potential of the city.

Conclusion

Miami as a sports market is admittedly risky and fickle. However with proper investment and marketing, it has the potential to be among the most successful markets in MLS. The Miami Fusion failed because of a poor stadium location and lack of vision and initiative from the ownership group. David Beckham has a the right people around him to navigate the market properly. He has his own cache and brand which wield significant financial clout. He has the connections to bring in quality international talent.

The limiting factor has always been the stadium location, and to this point the most likely option does not seem to be a good one. The Marlins Park location appears politically expedient, but less than ideal. It will take a quality venue in a good location with several bells and whistles to capture the attention and imagination of the city. The ownership group recognizes that and appears to be proceeding with caution. It could be better in the long term to wait another year or two to find the home-run stadium opportunity rather than go for the immediately available. The result of the stadium hunt and the quality of that product could ultimately dictate the potential Making MLS Work in Miami and succeed in Major League Soccer.

Correction: An earlier version of this article made several statements that were based on the knowledge of the authors after significant research into the subject matter that were however incorrect. The Fusion did have a supporters group, the aFUSIONados. Several Division One Men’s Soccer programs exist throughout South Florida. Southern Legion was founded in 2006, not 2010. We here at Last Word on Sports do our very best to present the facts as best we know them to then analyze and build a narrative. We thank our viewers for taking time to read our work. We also thank those of you who bring to our attention the occasional mistake so that we can continue to improve the quality of the material we publish.