Despite naysayers aplenty, Phil Schoen believes that David Beckham can make Major League Soccer a hit in the Miami area.
By Phil Schoen (@PhilSchoen)
If you build it, will they come? That is the question facing David Beckham and his fellow Major League Soccer investors today.
Many critics will say South Florida is a soccer cemetery, at least for the domestic game. There are tombstones marked Gatos, Toros, Miami FC, Fusion and a few with the legendary Strikers nickname that lives on in the new NASL. However, a bit of digging shows Miami is not the graveyard it is supposed to be.
I grew up here. I remember listening to the Miami Toros play on my transistor radio. When they moved to Lockhart Stadium and became the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, I was there. I was fortunate enough to call the inaugural game for Major League Soccer in San Jose and blessed to do the same with the return of first-division soccer for the Fusion.
I say this not to brag, but to point out I have followed this game for a long time—and lived in South Florida even longer. Others with similar backgrounds might have doubts as to whether soccer can "make it" this time, but I am not one of them.
I do not want to diminish the hard work of all of the local supporters who did their parts in the past, but this is a different universe. Besides, many of them are excited about getting back in the saddle for this new adventure. South Florida could have succeeded with the Fusion if it was given the chance, and the region has grown exponentially more favorable toward the sport since then.
I remember a time where the only soccer available in Miami was on PBS, courtesy of "Star Soccer" and "Soccer Made in Germany." Since the Fusion closed up shop, local fans have once again been largely limited to watching games from afar on television. But Miami has turned into one of the top markets for soccer ratings, especially international matches. It is also the home of numerous soccer television and radio networks, like beIN SPORTS, who have moved in because of the business climate and the soccer-friendly population.
Everything happens for a reason. If the Fusion had not folded, the world would not have discovered the one and only Ray Hudson on their television screens. Now it is time to try it again, and with David Beckham heading up this new effort, it looks like the league is doing it right this time.
Back in 1998, Ken Horowitz spent $25 million to start the Fusion and renovate Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale. He did not help himself by getting into legendary arguments with Miami political officials, which forced the move north. After months of preparing a business plan for the glitz of Miami, they had to quickly adjust to a different, more humble market. Ticket prices were too high, the style of play was too boring and the Fusion did not take advantage of the one true superstar they had, the legendary Colombian Carlos Valderrama.
I have always believed that it was not a case of South Florida failing MLS. Rather, MLS failed South Florida.
Rather than support the league's first new, outside investor in an effort to attract others to follow suit, the league upset him with numerous cash calls and mandates that added to his frustration. The league has grown monumentally since then, and David Beckham knows what is required.
Back then, Horowitz was disappointed other local investors did not step up and help foot the bill. Now, in addition to his long-time business partner Simon Fuller, Beckham has already lined up local billionaire Marcelo Claure. NBA star LeBron James has expressed an interest in coming aboard, as have several other big-money investors.
Several years after the Fusion's launch, the late Doug Hamilton arrived to take over the front office and Ray Hudson took charge of the team. This led to a more professional operation and a more exciting product on the field. The local media took notice and the fans returned. The Fusion made it to the U.S. Open Cup Final in 2000, and the next year won the MLS regular-season crown.
It was too little, too late for an already financially insecure league. In the wake of the worldwide economic collapse following the terror attacks of 9/11, the Fusion died and were tossed on the heap as yet another South Florida soccer failure.
Even that can be misinterpreted. The old Strikers did not fail; rather it was the death throes of the NASL that led to their demise. While the Strikers were successful on and off the field, many other clubs were looking for extra money by tapping into the indoor game. At the time, South Florida did not have an adequate arena. So, the Strikers had to move somewhere that did.
The Gatos and Toros of the early 1970s played in a much different Miami than the one that exists today. The various other minor-league teams that followed did not have anywhere near the financial power or connections that this new effort will have.
South Florida has grown tremendously in recent years, even since the birth of the Fusion. In 1998, South Florida had a population of about 4.7 million residents. In 2014, that number approaches six million. Moreover, the demographics have changed. Only about half of the region's Hispanic population traces its roots to Cuba, and even many of those are second- and third-generation Cuban-Americans who have also fallen in love with soccer.
Many natives, like me, have had nearly a half-century of experience to fall in love with the global game. And the massive influx of new Miamians from Central and South America, Europe and the Caribbean has turned Miami into America's true melting pot.
One of the things that unites us most is soccer. Look at the recent exhibitions that drew numerous crowds of 60,000-70,000 fans to Sun Life Stadium, and you know that the support for the sport is there. MLS now has to put something on the field worth supporting.
Ask any star player where they would want to play if they came to America, and odds are high you would hear Miami near the top of the list. At the news conference announcing Miami's return to MLS, Beckham revealed that he's been swamped with interest from star players who want to find out how they can join the team.
Also important (but relatively overlooked in the announcement) was Beckham's stated primary goal of creating a legitimate, productive youth academy for his team. If you have ever driven around South Florida, you've witnessed the vast, yet raw talent base of players. Developing that talent and blending it with world-class players would turn this into the global team of Beckham's dreams.
Success is not a given, but this is a great opportunity. As great as he was as a player, Beckham is an even better businessman. There are many passionate players who can deliver a good cross, but there's only one David Beckham.
During the announcement, Beckham was described as incredibly focused, smart, passionate, hard working and committed. He knows there is a lot to accomplish before his new team takes the field in 2017: finding a downtown location, financing and constructing an iconic stadium, finding the right people to build the team on and off the field, and growing roots in the community. Beckham says he is ready to roll up his sleeves and get to work.
Beckham's goal is to turn MLS's newest team into MLS's best team, and for a player that grew from humble roots into a worldwide success, it looks like happy days are right around the corner for South Florida soccer fans.