World of Sport

Beckham investing in the worst sports town in America

First published October 2013


On the same day that news emerged that David Beckham had selected Miami as the location of his planned MLS franchise, the city's most popular sport's team were having a party.

It was the opening night of the NBA season and the Miami Heat were to be presented with their championship rings from the previous season before their match against the Chicago Bulls.

The Heat are currently the 'Barcelona of basketball.' In LeBron James they not only have the best player in the world, but someone who may eventually surpass Michael Jordan as the sport's best ever. In Dwyane Wade and Ray Allen they have two more players who will enter basketball's Hall of Fame as soon as they're eligible. They have played in the last three NBA finals, winning the last two.

The ring ceremony should have been a chance for their supporters to go crazy with joy. However, everything was strangely muted, the match was sold out but there were plenty of empty seats for the ceremony, while the announcer was forced to urge those in attendance to "stand up and make some noise!!!!!" before 'Seven Nation Army' was blared out by the loudspeakers to prompt them still further.

♫'Duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh!' ♫

Good teams do not make good fans… and Miami have terrible, terrible fans.

Just last season, during the NBA finals, the Heat supporters were roundly ridiculed across America when footage emerged of them desperately trying to get back in as their team staged an unlikely comeback in front of a half-empty Arena.

This, let us not forget, is Miami's most popular team, playing for the NBA Championship. The fans arrive late and leave early but at least, I suppose, they turn up.

LeBron James shakes hands with David Beckham

This is the city that David Beckham has decided to invest in but comparing his proposed football team to the Heat is fanciful stuff – Beckham's side won't be close to being the best in the world.

One of the reasons being spun suggesting Miami is such a suitable home for football is because of its huge Latin community and we all know Latins love their football.

They also love their baseball. In fact in some of Miami's biggest Latin communities – Cuba, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela for example – hold much stronger ties to America's Pastime than the Beautiful Game.

Despite all this, the support for the city's Major League Baseball team - the Miami Marlins – is nothing short of an embarrassment.

Even when they were winning World Series titles (in 1997 and 2003) their attendances were poor. The only time it seemed they could draw a crowd was when a big city team from elsewhere was visiting; out-of-towners, tourists and pensioners who had relocated for the sunnier weather, filling at least part of the stands to cheer on the opposition.

The Marlins' official attendances were awful but even those were inflated. For one match in 2007 they announced a crowd of 10,121 but somebody had actually counted the people in the ground when the first pitch was thrown – it wasn't hard to do – there were only 375 people there.

Marlins fans watch a game in 2000

In 2010, they even started selling tickets, at face value, for a match that had already taken place. Roy Halladay had pitched a perfect game, a rare feat in baseball, so the Marlins decided to allow fans purchase tickets for the game after the fact so they could pretend that they had been there. They counted these tickets sold as part of the official attendance. What makes this even more embarrassing is that Halladay didn't even pitch the perfect game for the Marlins… he played for the visiting Philadelphia Phillies.

The owners of the Marlins claimed that the venue was the problem – for many years they played at the city's NFL stadium which was not suitable for baseball. So on the threat of moving the team to a new city, the owners persuaded the city to fund 80 per cent of a new $634m stadium. The city will eventually pay much more than that though. According to Forbes there will be some $3 billion in interest expenses on the construction loans that will be paid by city and county taxpayers.

Teams usually get a boost in attendance when they open a new stadium and this did happen in Miami when they moved to their new digs in 2012. That season they averaged 27,400, but even still, of the 14 new MLB ballparks that have been opened since 2000, Miami's average in their first season ranked dead last.

This season's their average slumped to 19,584, making them second last in the whole MLB, only Tampa Bay (another Florida team), had a lower average crowd.

Miami's expensive new baseball stadium

Baseball, like the MLS, is mainly played in the summer. The Florida heat makes the beach a far more attractive option than watching a game in a stifling stadium. Miami has second-rate sports teams but first-rate beaches. It costs money to enter one, the other is free. It is hardly a surprise that people are picking the bikini-clad babes over the stick and ball men now is it?

Even the Dolphins of the immensely popular NFL struggle to draw crowds.

Quarterback Dan Marino helped make them one of the most popular and recognisable American football teams in the UK when the game was first broadcast over here in the mid-80s, but their support base is small fry Stateside.

The Dolphins' UK popularity was only partially the reason why the NFL picked them to host the first NFL regular season game in London back in 2007. The real logic behind the choice was because the NFL knew that the dispassionate Dolphins fans would not kick up nearly as much of a fuss at losing one of their home games as fans in "sport towns" like Chicago or Seattle or Pittsburgh.

The Dolphins only play eight games at home a season, but at their last match against the Buffalo Bills (who are divisional rivals), empty seats littered the stands.

Plenty of empty seats could be seen at the Dolphins last home game

It is a similar story with the city's ice hockey team – the Florida Panthers. When they were playing the Boston Bruins earlier this season they made a point of noting in all advertisements of the game that they would be showing a big Boston Red Sox's baseball game on TVs around the Arena because they knew so many in attendance would be Bostonians as opposed to local fans.

This is how sport in Miami works, they've even had an MLS team in the past, The Fusion, who were closed down after only four years due to lack of interest.

There of plenty of smart people joining Beckham in investing in this Miami MLS team so it seems inconceivable that they not aware of all this.

So why pick Miami? Well it is hard to argue with Sir Alex Ferguson's assessment in his recent autobiography that Beckham is more obsessed about celebrity than football.

And in that regard Miami seems like a good fit. Outside of LA, it is the most celebrity obsessed town in America and LA already has two MLS sides, so setting up shop in Hollywood would never have been an option for Becks.

Miami is a good alternative as Beckham should have little trouble persuading his Hollywood pals to come down to South Beach to enjoy everything the city has to offer.

Maybe, in his mind, the presence of one A-Lister is worth more than 10,000 loyal fans and he better hope this is the case because he is going to struggle draw the latter far more than the former.

However, a celebrity owner does not a sports team make. Wigan would not start selling out if Simon Cowell replaced Dave Whelan tomorrow.

No, instead this looks like a mere vanity project for Becks and I suppose picking Miami is an expensive mistake a man of his vast wealth can afford to make.

Miami is a town where waitresses want to be models, and models want to be stars. David Beckham is of course both, but a successful sports team owner? His first big decision in picking Miami could have ruined those chances before he's even properly started.

Seán Fay (Twitter @Sean_Fay)