Sports
11:14 am
Mon August 12, 2013

Are South Floridians 'Soccer Savvy' or Soccer Snobs?

  Last week the attention of the international soccer world was focused on Miami Gardens. Sun Life Stadium hosted the final four matches of the Guinness International Champions Cup, including the championship match in which Real Madrid defeated Chelsea (3-1).

Organizers called it a “perfect-storm” tournament final -- top teams with huge fan bases and international star power, playing for a trophy with a high-profile coaching saga at the center of the match.

“We really believe that the second day is going to sell out,” predicted Relevant Sports CEO Charlie Stillitano.

The Guinness ICC was a test of a long-standing theory that if you bring them the best soccer in the world, South Florida fans will turn out. It has become our way of explaining away South Florida’s vexing soccer history.

South Florida Soccer Paradox

In January 2002, the Miami Fusion was cut by Major League Soccer, America’s top professional soccer league. The Fusion was one of two teams axed that year due, in part, to MLS financial problems.

Some people point to rising attendance as evidence that the Fusion was just one or two years away from taking off in South Florida. For the team’s final season in 2001, attendance jumped 49 percent from the previous year. But even with that relatively large bump, the average attendance for the 2001 season was 11,177 -- about 4,000 fewer fans than the league average.

Fusion owner, Ken Horowitz, famously said “South Florida is a very difficult market.”

Less than six months after the Fusion failed, the World Cup was held in South Korea. And in what U.S. market did the World Cup pull down its highest TV ratings? The Miami-Fort Lauderdale market, of course.

A Real Madrid fan hides behind the mask of Cristiano Ronaldo.
A Real Madrid fan hides behind the mask of Cristiano Ronaldo.
Credit Kenny Malone/WLRN-Miami Herald Staff

'Soccer-Savvy'

The Fusion were just the highest profile failure of domestic soccer in South Florida. In 2011, Women’s Professional Soccer shut down the Boca MagicJack for legal reasons after just one year. Even decades before that, the Miami Toros, a North American Soccer League team from the 1970s, bounced to Fort Lauderdale and eventually Minnesota (and sort of back to Fort Lauderdale but that’s another story.)

Given the global influence and international presence in South Florida, it seems like one of the most obvious markets for the world’s most popular sport. And yet, with few exceptions, professional soccer has failed to thrive here.

The popular theory about that disconnect is that South Florida fans are “soccer-savvy.” 

The soccer-savvy fan wakes up early on the weekends to watch European soccer the way Americans do football. He or she plays recreational soccer the way Americans go bowling or play golf. And, maybe most tellingly, he or she can appreciate a 0-0 tie the way many Americans apparently cannot.

“I think that’s probably some of the concerns that MLS has about putting a franchise there,” said Mike Sophia, formerly the executive director of the Miami-Dade Sports Commission. Sophia now runs the Sacramento Sports Commission.

“When you have people that come from soccer countries where they’re really passionate about the game, there are some folks that look at MLS as a second division product,” Sophia said.

Beckham And MLS

Thanks to British soccer icon David Beckham, the stakes were particularly high for the Guinness ICC finals.

When Beckham came to the United States to play in MLS in 2007, part of his contract included the opportunity to buy a franchise team at a deeply discounted rate -- $25 million, as opposed to say the estimated $70 million it would cost Orlando to buy a franchise.

MLS announced two weeks ago that it plans to add four expansion teams by 2020 and Beckham has reportedly been sniffing around Miami, touring Sun Life Stadium and Florida International University’s stadium.

Among other factors -- including a 20-25,000 seat stadium -- MLS wants to see in its expansion markets a demonstrated history of fan attendance at live soccer events -- not just high TV ratings.

On one hand there have been major successes like the August 2011 friendly between FC Barcelona and Chivas Guadalajara that drew a record crowd of 70,080 fans to Sun Life Stadium.

"I was a little concerned about that crowd." - Jose Sotolongo on low turnout for last June's Haiti/Spain match.

On the other hand, there was the Haiti/Spain match last June. With one of the largest Haitian-American populations in the country, the built-in support for Haiti was obvious. And given that Spain is not just the top team in all of soccer, but is considered by many to be the greatest team of all time in any sport, one would have imagined a similarly robust turnout for the match.

Total attendance was a disappointing 36,535. (By comparison, Wrestlemania XXVII drew 78,363 to Sun Life Stadium the previous year.)

“I was a little surprised,” said Jose Sotolongo, currently the executive director for the Miami-Dade Sports Commission. “I was a little concerned about that crowd. But after [the Real/Chelsea] numbers, I threw that all out”

Second Largest Soccer Crowd

While the Real/Chelsea match (along with the LA Galaxy/AC Milan) was not an official sellout, the 67,273 was at the high end of more reasonable predictions. It was the second largest soccer crowd in South Florida history, and was easily the biggest crowd the Guinness ICC attracted (next largest was 41,983 in Indianapolis for Chelsea versus Inter Milan in the first round.)

“Just the fact that the geography, that we we're in Miami (Gardens),” said Sotolongo, “you could have transported everything and put it in the middle of Spain, it would have been perfect.”

What all this means for the future of soccer in South Florida is anyone’s guess. It does seem to support the prevailing “soccer-savvy” theory.

“You can’t just roll anything out and expect 67,000 people to turn out,” said Sophia. “What you had... was two very well-known international clubs with great players and obviously playing for something. So that’s a good formula.”

Soccer-savvy numbers: We collected attendance data from every single Guinness ICC match that was played domestically. We’re interested what you make of these numbers? For example, does it reflect badly on South Florida that the August 6th matches at Sun Life Stadium had the second lowest attendance total of the tournament?

AT&T Park
San Francisco, CA
Soccer Capacity: 41,503
Date: July 31
Match(es): Juventus (1-5) v Everton (1-6)
Attendance: 22,208
Face Value of Cheapest Ticket: $40

Lucas Oil Stadium
Indianapolis, IN
Soccer Capacity: "Just under 65,000"
Date: August 1
Match(es): Chelsea (2) v Inter Milan (0)
Attendance: 41,983
Face Value of Cheapest Ticket: $30

University of Phoenix Stadium
Glendale, AZ
Soccer Capacity: 64,900
Date: August 1 
Match(es): Real Madrid (3) v LA Galaxy (1)
Attendance: 38,922
Face Value of Cheapest Ticket: $35

Dodger Stadium 
Los Angeles, CA
Soccer Capacity: 56,000
Date: August 3  
Match(es): Juventus (1) v LA Galaxy (3) and Everton (1) v Real Madrid (2)
Attendance: 40,681
Face Value of Cheapest Ticket: $25

 MetLife Stadium
East Rutherford, NJ
Soccer Capacity: "Around 80,000"
Date: August 4
Match(es): AC Milan (0) v Chelsea (2) and Valencia (4) v Inter Milan (0)
Attendance: 39,764
Face Value of Cheapest Ticket: $60

Sun Life Stadium
Miami Gardens, FL
Soccer Capacity: "Approximately 70,000"
Date: August 6 
Match(es): Everton (0) v Valencia (1) and Inter Milan (1-9) v Juventus (1-8)
Attendance: 38,513
Face Value of Cheapest Ticket: $60 for two-day pass

Sun Life Stadium
Miami Gardens, FL
Soccer Capacity: "Approximately 70,000"
Date: August 7
Match(es): LA Galaxy (0) v AC Milan (2) and Chelsea (1) v Real Madrid (3)
Attendance: 67,273
Face Value of Cheapest Ticket: $60 for two-day pass

Editor's note: This post originally referred to Major League Soccer as "the MLS." It has been corrected to simply "MLS."