Miami-Dade County

April 27, 2014

David Beckham’s Miami soccer gamble: If they build the stadium, will fans come?

Based on South Florida's modest fan support for the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers in recent seasons, one thing is clear: any new sports franchise must win to fill seats.

David Beckham believes South Florida fans will flock to soccer games in droves, just as they have for exhibition games involving South American countries.

But as Beckham works toward securing a stadium deal that would guarantee a franchise is awarded to Miami, analysts say success at the gate for an MLS team is no sure thing, considering the region has struggled to support some of its existing teams, and that Miami-Fort Lauderdale would become one of the least-populated markets with five major professional sports franchises, ahead of only Denver.

Based on South Florida's modest fan support for the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers in recent seasons, one thing is clear:

“Beckham’s team has to win,” said ESPN Radio host Jorge Sedano, who grew up in South Florida and previously worked as a local talk show host. “Any team in South Florida has to win to be a draw.

“In drawing fans to games in South Florida, star power is a factor, too. And it has to feel like an event, that it’s a place people want to be seen at, like Heat games. If Beckham is using that as a model, he can have some success.”

Two factors raise at least some concerns about whether an MLS team would draw substantially more fans than the Miami Fusion, which averaged 11,177 spectators in its final MLS season at Lockhart Stadium before folding in 2001:

• Whereas the two-time defending champion Heat sells out every game, the Dolphins, Marlins and Panthers all rank in the bottom third of their leagues in attendance.
• What’s more, the four teams that rank at the bottom of the MLS in attendance also have Major League Baseball, NBA and NHL teams, as South Florida does. Those leagues’ seasons conflict directly with soccer, particularly baseball’s.

Beckham’s confidence that a South Florida team would draw is based partly on the market’s support for exhibition matches in recent years and high local ratings for World Cup games.

A match between Brazil and Honduras drew 71,124 fans to Sun Life Stadium last November, and other exhibitions involving Latin American teams have drawn big crowds.

But “that will not translate to MLS crowds; those fans are coming to watch a flag,” said Tom Mulroy, president of the NASL’s Fort Lauderdale Strikers and also president of a soccer promotions and marketing company for the past 21 years.

“To translate a guy that watches the World Cup to a guy who’s going to come to an MLS game against Columbus on a Wednesday night isn’t the same,” Mulroy said.

Joe Martinez, a Miami-Dade County commissioner for 12 years before an unsuccessful run for mayor in 2012, also says he is skeptical.

“I don’t think it will be successful,” said Martinez, who is running for a District 26 seat in Congress. “You have a lot of people who love soccer here, but a lot of them feel passion for their home country team.

“You may get [big crowds] the first couple of games for MLS, maybe the first year, but after that, people will want to go back to seeing Argentina, Brazil, their home country. I don’t believe it will be a big draw.”

Others are more bullish.

“I absolutely think it would draw fans,” said auto magnate Norman Braman, who previously owned the NFL’s Philadelphia Eagles.

“But it might take time to build [fan support]. I remember when the Dolphins came here and there were sparse crowds initially.”

Several sports marketing experts say the team’s ability to draw will hinge on other factors besides winning a lot of games: star power, location of the stadium (Port Miami is Beckham’s preferred site, but obstacles remain) and the team’s marketing approach.

On the issue of location, Mulroy said “they need to be in a more centrally located area than downtown, in a commercial environment. It should be in the Gulfstream parking lot” in Hallandale Beach.

Eddie Rodger, president of KICS International (a locally based soccer promotion and marketing firm), agrees with Mulroy that Beckham’s desire for a downtown Miami venue is short-sighted, because it would discourage people from driving to games from Palm Beach and Broward.

“I have faith in Beckham putting together a quality team [but] ... he has never left South Beach or Brickell,” Rodger said. “He doesn’t know where Broward is. He could have built it adjacent to Sun Life. That’s the perfect location.”

But Beckham and MLS want a stadium in downtown Miami or nearby, and some agree that’s the location most likely to lure fans, despite parking and traffic challenges.

“I believe it would not be a success outside of the downtown area because the majority of the soccer faithful in South Florida are Latin American, not Caribbean Hispanics,” ESPN’s Sedano said. “The Cubans, Puerto Ricans and Dominicans traditionally are not soccer fans. The younger generation like myself has slowly started to get into it.

“The traditional soccer fans from South Florida are from South and Central America, and the majority of those people live in the downtown or Miami Beach area.”

Even with the right location, marketing the team presents challenges.

“Forget the concept of marketing to any one demographic,” said Scott Becher, managing director of Z Sports & Entertainment, a division of Zimmerman Advertising. “If you’re banking on the Hispanic population of Miami soccer fans to sell out every game, forget it.

“This team must be marketed to the entire community. That means reaching out to youth soccer families and even soccer moms, the business community, perhaps forging a unique partnership with one of the other local sports teams, and zeroing in on all soccer fans, including those within our Hispanic population. We have the fan base here, but traditional marketing to a core fan base just won’t cut it.”

Rick Horrow, CEO of Horrow Sports Ventures and a network TV sports business analyst, said Beckham should emphasize “the multigenerational nature of soccer, not only bringing back the memory of the Strikers, but also the kids who are playing now who could be fans for the next 50 years.”

Becher said Beckham’s neon name won’t be enough to draw fans, and that star power is needed on the field, too.

“Remember the success of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers? They won with a team of soccer legends: Nene Cubillas, Gerd Muller, Ray Hudson,” Becher said. “Until a tradition is established, big names are necessary to capture the attention of South Florida’s fickle sports fans.”

The Heat, which has some of the NBA’s biggest names and has been to the Finals for three consecutive seasons, has sold out every home game since LeBron James arrived before the 2010-11 season.

But the market’s other teams have struggled at the gate in recent years.

The Dolphins ranked 21st in attendance at 64,319 per game last season and played to only 85.8 percent capacity — 30th worst in the NFL and ahead of only Washington and Oakland.

The Marlins ranked 29th, ahead of only Tampa, in attendance last season, at 19,584 per game. This year’s team is playing better and is averaging 21,865, worst in the National League and 25th overall.

The Panthers finished this past season 29th of 30 teams in attendance at 14,177, ahead of only Phoenix.

Those franchises will compete with the soccer team for fans’ ticket dollars, which is less of an issue in markets with only a team or two. Consider this: Of the four highest-drawing MLS markets last season (Seattle, Vancouver, Portland and Montreal), only Seattle has an MLB team, only Vancouver and Montreal have NHL teams and only Portland has an NBA team. So in the MLS’ most successful markets, there’s less competition than there would be in South Florida.

Among U.S. markets with at least four other major pro teams, only Los Angeles and New York ranked in the top 10 in MLS attendance last season. And those markets have much larger populations than South Florida, with New York ranking first (7.4 million TV homes) and Los Angeles second (5.7 million), according to Nielsen.

Not much has changed this season, with Seattle again leading the league in attendance and nine of the 10 lowest teams in that category playing in markets with four other major pro franchises.

“There’s no question that with or without an MLS franchise, the South Florida market is squeezed and very competitive for ticket buyers and sponsorships,” former Marlins president Don Smiley said. “The addition of MLS will further put pressure on all the major revenue-producing assets for each franchise.

“The fact four of the five are geographically located on the far south end of the megalopolis will further strain the disposable income available for the sports entertainment dollar.”

And besides the four pro teams and the University of Miami, “we also have dogs, horses, jai-alai, casinos and the beach,” Mulroy said.

Daniel Hunt, president of the Dallas FC MLS team, every day experiences the challenges of an MLS team competing in a market with four other pro teams.

He said long playoff runs by an NBA or NHL team “does draw market attention [away], but you can still rise above the fray. We’ve advertised some of our games with the Texas Rangers. We know we’re all in competition, but there’s space for everyone and we’re all willing to help each other out.

“In Miami, you would always be competing with outdoor activities, besides the other sports team. [But] it’s my belief they would be successful. There will be a lot of fanfare around the launch.”

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