Barcelona’s American dream comes to nothing

March 5, 2009

The prospect of former Real Madrid player David Beckham lining up against a new Barcelona-Miami franchise was a soccer marketing man’s dream — the most marketable man in the game against one of the biggest team brands, playing in the ‘capital of the Americas’.

A couple of months ago that scenario looked on the cards, with Beckham tied into a long-term deal with the L.A Galaxy and Barcelona’s Miami bid for a 2011 MLS expansion slot widely considered a ‘shoe in’.

Now, though, Barcelona’s bid is dead in the water  and Beckham, enjoying his football with Milan in Serie A, is doing his utmost to avoid having to return to the U.S.

MLS, Barcelona and Miami-based Bolivian businessman Marcelo Claure made a joint announcement that cited “adverse market conditions” as the reason behind the decision to halt their bid.

No specifics were mentioned although one has to wonder whether Barca and Claure were put off by MLS’s $40 million expansion fee. It takes a lot of money to set up a professional soccer operation and to hand over that amount of cash, as a membership fee, in the current economic climate, could be viewed as a deterrent.

If you read MLS Commissioner Don Garber, however — and it was not so long ago that he said the Miami bid was taking the expansion process to “the next level” — you have the impression it was the league that pulled the plug on the ambitious project.

“We are convinced Miami is a soccer market but we are not convinced it is an MLS market at this point and for the stability of the league we had to make sure we made a smart decision that didn’t come back to haunt us later,” he said.

Miami certainly is a natural home for soccer. The city has a large, young population of Latin Americans who grow up, whether here or in their initial homelands, on a diet of high quality South American football. Local viewing figures for international soccer are high — especially for a city without a large Mexican population.

Aside from Latin Americans, there are the immigrant populations from soccer-mad Haiti and Jamaica and on a lesser scale to the north of Miami, the newer arrivals from Eastern Europe — Russians, Poles and Romanians — who love the round ball game.

Along with that ethnic mix, there is a small but solid base of fans from the days when Miami did have an MLS team, the Fusion, who drew a reasonable average crowd of 11,000 before the league decided to contract and closed down them. There are even some who remember the days of the NASL teams in Fort Lauderdale and Miami.

What a fabulous cosmopolitan mix of supporters a successful Miami MLS team could have. It is, as Garber puts it ‘a soccer market’ but we won’t know if it is an MLS market until the league allows a team in the area.

There are, however, good reasons behind Garber’s caution and Linda Robertson in the Miami Herald highlights most of them here — never mind soccer, Miami is a tough market for baseball and the NBA to crack and the NFL’s Dolphins are the only franchise to have a truly broad and loyal fan base.

It is often said that the Spanish speaking soccer fans in South Florida are too happy watching Argentine, Brazilian or Colombian league action on television and don’t show much sign of interest in MLS.

But, the MLS, cannot be considered a Major League when the fourth biggest state in the country, with a population of over 18 million people, doesn’t have a team.

I should declare an interest here. I am a soccer fan and I live in South Florida and I really wanted to see an MLS team in this city. While I had reservations about the notion of ‘FC Barcelona-Miami’ (the importing of a ‘soccer brand’ grated and I thought such a name would devalue both Barca and Miami), I was excited about the prospect of know-how from a top European club being applied to a city that could, potentially, fall in love with a professional soccer team.

That isn’t going to happen now but out of the disappointment there might just be an interesting twist.

Miami already has a professional football team in Miami FC who play in the second tier United Soccer Leagues and they could get some badly needed support from the disappointment of MLS’s decision.

The club, which is backed by Traffic Sports, big players in South American soccer and sports marketing, were formed in 2006 but they have so far failed to build a major fan base. The USL is a weird league, featuring some clubs, such as Montreal, who enjoy MLS-level support and who, along with Puerto Rico, have actually enjoyed more success then MLS teams in CONCACAF’s Champions League.

They have teams in states where the MLS isn’t present, like North Carolina and Georgia and they are the league where the Seattle Sounders enjoyed so much success that MLS snapped them up.

Traffic Sports threatened recently to pull the plug on Miami FC unless it got at least 5,000 season ticket sales by this weekend. I am told they are serious about that threat but the end of the Barca bid might just have touched a nerve.

As one internet commenter put it: “I haven’t really supported Miami FC but if they do survive, I am prepared to start supporting that club regularly to spite MLS.”

While I am writing this post, an email arrives from the club stating that the Greater Miami Chamber of Commerce has passed a motion supporting professional soccer in the city. Another recent message informs that at the weekend, the ‘Miami Ultras’, the fans of Miami FC are hosting a 24 hour ‘Soccer-thon’ to build support for the club.

There isn’t going to be Beckham v Barca in Miami but having spent my youth watching lower division football in England and my mid-twenties in small crowds watching Hungarian football, I know you can have a lot of enjoyment without the big-names and the big crowds.

As any coach will tell a player who has been left out of the team, the best response is to knuckle down and prove your worth. Miami now has to show it is worth a place in the game.

Come on you Blues…

PHOTO: A tattooed David Beckham is seen as he plays against Toronto FC in an MLS soccer match in Carson, California April 13, 2008. REUTERS/Danny Moloshok

One comment

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I think your instinct was right: importing a soccer brand was probably not the right answer. Let us know how the soccerthon for Miami FC goes. I remember a very popular one at cash-strapped Hamburg club FC St Pauli a few years back. They’re still in the second division of the Bundesliga, but they remain authentic.

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