A possible Major League Soccer expansion team in Miami appears to be closer to reality.
SI.com reported earlier this week MLS commissioner Don Garber told his MLS staff that three of the four expansion sites after New York City FC have been "spoken for." A league source close to the situation said Friday that the "spoken for" sites are Miami, Orlando and Atlanta. MLS, already poised to field 20 teams in 2015, has said they would like to expand to 24 teams between 2015-20.
Former MLS player David Beckham has been involved in negotiations with MLS to secure a team in South Florida. Dan Courtemanche, MLS Executive Vice President of Communications, said Friday that Beckham is still seeking a secondary financial partner for a Miami MLS franchise.
It was also reported by SI.com that Miami Dolphins owner Steve Ross told attendees at the Bloomberg Sports Business Summit in New York on Wednesday that he was interested in bringing and MLS club to South Florida.
South Florida fielded an MLS team for four years: the Miami Fusion. The team was conceived for the Orange Bowl but instead played at Fort Lauderdale's Lockhart Stadium. The league folded the Fusion along with the Tampa Bay Mutiny in 2001, citing insufficient attendance and corporate support.
Twelve years later, the demographics and soccer landscape might have changed.
"The South Florida market drew a No. 2 rating among English-speaking residents that viewed the Mexico/USA World Cup qualifier on ESPN last Tuesday," Courtemanche noted.
There's evidence soccer in South Florida could be on an upswing in recent years.
In 2011, Sun Life Stadium drew 70,080 fans for the Barcelona-Chivas De Guadalajara match, the largest crowd for a soccer game in Florida history. Two subsequent games drew more than 50,000 at Sun Life. And last month, the championship match of the Guinness International Champions Cup at Sun Life between Real Madrid and Chelsea drew a crowd of 67,273 fans.
Poor attendance was the demise for past soccer ventures in South Florida. While Seattle leads MLS with more than 42,000 per game, the MLS average is 18,319 as of Sept. 9, with stadiums at 86 percent capacity.
As recently as 2011, Garber called the South Florida soccer market "risky" during a speech at a fan forum in Fort Lauderdale. He said the region "needs to change its reputation as a market that believes in professional soccer."
But the climate has been shifting as Orlando has been pushing to build a soccer specific stadium to lure the MLS. Beckham has toured Sun Life Stadium and FIU Stadium as potential venues for a South Florida MLS team.
Beckham seems to be aligned with Marcelo Claure, the Bolivian billionaire who owns Brightstar Communications. Claure bid for an MLS team for Miami in 2008, but the league awarded teams to Portland and Vancouver.
Claure's presence on FIU's Board of Trustees has fueled speculation that the on-campus stadium is the front-runner to base a team. The home of the Panthers' college football team is configured to soccer specifications, though the artificial turf would have to be replaced with natural grass to suit MLS.
The league prefers to put teams in soccer-specific stadiums, but "it's really on a case-by-case basis," Courtemanche said in June.
Orlando City is a USL Pro (third tier) club that claimed its second championship in three years last Saturday in front of nearly 21,000 fans at the Citrus Bowl. The team is waiting for October vote on using an existing tourism tax to fund the final quarter of the club's $800 million downtown stadium project. If it passes, MLS could announce Orlando as its newest franchise that could take the field as early as 2015.
Atlanta could be next. Atlanta Falcons owner Arthur Blank, who tried to get a team in 2008-09, would attract an MLS team for the new $1 billion retractable roof facility in 2017. The Atlanta Silverbacks currently play in the second division NASL. The last top-tier team was the Atlanta Chiefs that folded in 1981.
That leaves Miami as a potential natural rival to Orlando, Atlanta or both in the near future. If Orlando and or Atlanta are given MLS expansion teams, it certainly increases the chances Miami could be next. Securing a soccer-specific stadium and a strong ownership group will be key.
Currently the Fort Lauderdale Strikers, who are in their third year as a NASL team, play at Lockhart Stadium. Top-tier professional soccer has been lured to South Florida as far back as the late 1960s at the former Orange Bowl, the Strikers in '70s-80s and the Fusion. ___