MLS is heading to South Florida next week. Yes, the only official purpose of the visit is to conduct the MLS Combine, but that's not the only thing that will be going on. As part of the trip, MLS Commissioner Don Garber will meet with the Miami Ultras, presumably to discuss the possibility of the league ever returning to the area.
There's no way to know for sure what Garber's plans are, but he obviously is not willing to totally dismiss the possibility of a MLS team in the Miami area the way many of us in the media are. Garber oversaw the contraction of the Miami Fusion, and no doubt appreciates the obstacles that team faced as well as anyone. That he continues to at least pay that market lip service speaks volumes about the potential he sees there. Here's how we see this conversation going:
First of all, I just wanted to say I'm impressed with your turnout for today's little meeting. It definitely looks like most of your 300 members showed up, which is good. It's a nice little group you have here, especially considering you've been without top level soccer for about a decade.
But that brings me to my first point: While 300 members for any club is nothing to sneeze at, it's just not enough. The Sons of Ben managed a membership of about 4,500 before the Union had even played a game. In 2007, without even the promise of a team, they got 2,800 season-ticket commitments.
The three teams we most recently "promoted", were among the best drawing second division teams in North America. The Montreal Impact, who as you well know will be the 19th MLS team in 2012, drew an average of more than 12,000 per game last year. The Portland Timbers and Vancouver Whitecaps, who will both join the league this year, averaged about 10,000 and 5,000 fans respectively.
Miami FC, a team that plays in the same league as those guys, drew barely 1,200 fans per game last year. If not for Crystal Palace Baltimore, you'd have been the worst drawing team in the league.
I know what you're going to say, though, I'm not being fair. Miami FC is playing in a high school football stadium in Ft. Lauderdale. Ownership hasn't impressed you. Miami is a "major league" town and isn't going to support a "minor league" team. The only problem is, everyone seems to use that excuse.
You know who's been getting MLS teams lately? Cities that don't need to make excuses.
Sure, Montreal plays in a stadium that is practically MLS ready right now and is downtown. But even at their worst, they were drawing double your attendance. And it's not like they have always played in a relatively state-of-the-art facility. They've called four different stadiums home, and that doesn't even include the games they've played at that indoor monstrosity that is Olympique Stadium. Sure, they've had the same ownership group for their entire existence, but have you ever talked to that guy? He's hardly someone who makes you all warm and fuzzy on the inside.
The Timbers have been playing in a stadium that was originally built as a dog track and until next year, has been shared with a minor league baseball team. You can say their stadium had old-world charm and a great location, but baseball fans didn't seem to find that particularly compelling. Yet, the Timbers Army made it almost impossible for MLS to stay away (Merritt Paulson's willingness to write a $40 million check didn't hurt either).
The Whitecaps hardly boast eye-popping attendance, it's true. But they drew more than 5,000 fans a game while playing at a stadium in the suburbs of Vancouver that is probably not even as nice as Lockhart. Your supporter group was probably twice as big as theirs, and yet they were outdrawing you by almost five times.
But Miami is different, I know. Unlike those backwater towns, people in Miami only attend big-time events. But do they? The Heat sell out, I'll give you that. But there are three other "big-time" sports calling Miami home and none of them are among the better attended teams in their leagues. The Miami Dolphins are in the middle of NFL attendance, and they only fill their stadium to 90.2 percent capacity, which is the seventh worst in the league. The Florida Panthers are drawing fewer than 16,000 fans per game, worse than the average MLS team mind you. The Marlins, you know that baseball team that has won two World Series since 1997 and no one seems to care about, are outdrawn by all but two teams.
I really know you want to gloss over the fact that when you had a MLS team, it was perpetually among the worst drawing teams in the league. The Fusion's final year, the year you won the Supporters' Shield, about 11,000 fans showed up to an average game. It's no wonder no one wanted to invest in that team.
I really want to overlook this fact, too. Miami is a great town, which is why I keep mentioning you as a possible destination for MLS expansion. I know it's growing, that the economy is much better than it was back in 2001. It's no wonder teams like Barcelona have kicked the tires on your fair city.
But you need to give me, and more importantly prospective owners, a reason to believe you're going to attend games. It's not enough for you to say if you have a state-of-the-art downtown stadium and have world-class players, fans will follow. You need to show us this is true.
The CONCACAF Gold Cup is going to be in Miami on June 10. I highly recommend that you go to that game. Miami FC is going to start their season sometime in April. You should think about convincing your friends and family that it's a worthwhile endeavor.
I'm not going to lie to you, the smart money is on New York getting a second team before you get yours back. The Cosmos are a worldwide brand and they are generating buzz without even playing a match. That's going to be hard to overcome.
There are going to be limited opportunities for you to make an impression before we make a final decision on our 20th team and it's probably going to be a few more years until we decide to expand beyond that. But you need to start making a better case than you've been making so far. You can send all the emails and phone message you want, but I need to see material changes. Show up to games. Start a season-ticket drive. Find an owner.
In my heart of hearts, I know this league needs a presence in the South. We can't continue to ignore a whole quarter of the country and expect to succeed. We'd rather be in Miami than anywhere else in the South. But we need you to do your part.