In attempting to succeed as owner of a Major League Soccer team in Miami, Florida, David Beckham has taken on perhaps the biggest challenge of his career.
The city is not short of major sports teams. It is home to the nation’s most dominant basketball side, the Miami Heat, with superstar players including LeBron James and Dwayne Wade. The Miami Dolphins play in the NFL; the Miami Marlins in Major League Baseball (MLB) and the Florida Panthers compete in the National Hockey League (NHL – ice hockey).
But the presence of these teams does not disguise the fact that Miami is a difficult city for professional sports.
Last year, the Marlins were 29th out of 30 MLB teams in average attendance. This is despite having a new US$634m stadium in the city, built largely with public funds. The Dolphins were 21st out of 32 NFL teams, and only two other sides sold a lower percentage of their stadium per game. A quarter of the seats at the ice hockey go unsold, and the Panthers have had some of the league’s lowest attendances for several years.
Yes, the Heat are currently doing well, filling their arena to capacity for each game. But they are the exception; the US’ 4th largest urban area by population would be entitled to expect more success from its sports teams.
So could Beckham’s new side fill this gap? Football, or soccer, is widely played in south Florida but it has yet to truly catch on as an established spectator sport.
This isn’t for want of trying. In the 1970s and 80s the old North American Soccer League (NASL) featured the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, based 20 miles up the coast from Miami. Veteran superstars George Best and Gerd Müller turned out for the Strikers, but the franchise was eventually moved to Minnesota before collapsing in 1988.
More recently, a team called the Miami Fusion played in the Major League from 1998 to 2002 but again without success. The franchise got off to a poor start when it was unable to secure a stadium in the city, forcing it to move north to Fort Lauderdale despite retaining the Miami name. With low attendances failing to cover the cost of adapting a former high school football stadium for MLS matches, the team was unable to turn a profit. The league closed the franchise in 2002 because “the South Florida market was not capable at this time of supporting an MLS team.”
Franchise owner Ken Horowitz invested US$50m in attempts to make the team a success, but to no avail. He attributed the failure of the Fusion and the difficulty of other pro teams to fill their arenas to a population with few historical ties to the area and whose loyalties were already captured by teams from whence they came.
Most crucial, however, was the lack of a satisfactory stadium arrangement in Miami as well as the decision not to throw in fully with Fort Lauderdale and develop the team’s identity around the city of nearly 200,000 with a county-wide population of more than 1.5 million.
The question is whether Beckham can work his magic on a Miami that could not sustain a team only a decade ago. What can he bring the the table to increase support for an MLS side this time around?
Beckham has had a huge impact on American soccer. Since he first signed for the LA Galaxy in 2007, MLS has expanded from 12 teams to 20 and expansion teams are now four times more costly for investors than they were before his arrival. Crowds have increased three-fold during the Beckham era and average attendance at games last season was 9th among world soccer leagues, not far off the top flight in the Netherlands and France.
While Beckham hogged the spotlight in Los Angeles, there were other factors that aided growth. The league has allowed official supporter groups to flourish, creating a vibrant atmosphere at games. Regional rivalries have been encouraged too, with the most successful being between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders. Indeed, one of their matches this past season in Seattle was the 4th best attended soccer match in the world that week.
Thankfully for Becks there should be a natural “derby” already in place, with an Orlando franchise set to join the league in 2015. Perhaps he can also rekindle old rivalries with Manchester City-backed New York City.
Beckham’s best attribute may be the support of entertainment mogul Simon Fuller. Fuller has excelled at virtually every entertainment initiative he has produced in the USA. With aggressive cross-marketing and branding and a lead time of more than two years, the potential for success is there.
So, how does Beckham tackle the Miami market? The mediocrity or outright failures of most other sports teams in the city shows that no one strategy truly works, beyond investment in expensive talent. But the stricter player finance rules of Major League Soccer mean simply signing a footballing LeBron is not the answer.
Much effort is required on and off the field to woo a widely diverse audience with numerous entertainment options. It will take more than ex-pat Brits, Latin Americans (who are more likely to be baseball fans), or middle class “soccer moms” and their kids to make the team a success. He and his group cannot simply buy success like Roman Ambramovich did at Chelsea or Beckham’s last bosses have done at Paris St-Germain.
It will take a herculean effort for Becks to make it this work. But as the self-styled gateway to the Americas and a global city for the 21st century, Miami is a place where it’s worth taking the risk.