With respect to David Beckham, assuming it goes through, this changes everything.
I’ve spoken before on soccer in Florida, that vexing thing that heaves in and out of corrupted lungs like a bipolar track star with a smoking habit. Like much of the rest of the state’s professional sports pantheon, it’ll balloon out to sizable proportions before contracting back in like a retreating army. The Fusion still loom large here.
But this? This revelation that LeBron James might attach his name (and maybe even his hefty financial weight) to David Beckham’s MLS-franchise-in-Miami project? It’s a game-changer, scrambling the script and allowing South Florida to legitimately dream of professional soccer with a local icon on board. It may just be dreaming now, but King James just sent the hype machine into a frenzy.
Let me first say that isolated attendance figures for ballyhooed international friendlies mean little to me. So what Miami did or did not draw for a Brazil game or to see Cristiano Ronaldo play with Real Madrid is ancillary to any discussions about an MLS franchise. It’s not germane, and that will never be more obvious than if (when?) Miami drops out of an MLS playoff race by late August and a similarly moribund side comes to town for a mid-afternoon game on a Saturday. Cristiano won’t be there. Will Miami?
The reason why I think LeBron jumbles things strikes at the heart of South Florida professional sports. Above all, it appeals to the average Miami fan’s tendency to strike while the iron is hot and turn away from the turnstiles when it’s not (and college fans, too – have you seen attendance at Hurricanes football games lately?). It’d be unfair to characterize the entire region as a fan base of corporate nonces who only support winners – and even in those cases, that that support is conditional on other factors. (Others are content to go those nine yards, especially where the Heat are concerned). There are some wonderfully committed fans in South Florida, to be sure. But the regional fan stereotype is embedded in the sugar sand for a real reason. It exists in greater numbers than most any other professional market in the country.
What happened to Heat attendance after the team’s 2005-2006 title is instructive here. It’s not soccer, granted, but it’s a good way to take the fan temperature of a region that has already spit out MLS once. The next season, 2006-07, the Heat were a respectable fifth in the NBA in attendance. Then they dropped to eighth. And then a paltry 15th in 2009 and 2010, when the Heat finished 12 games above .500 and fifth in the East to comfortably make the playoffs.
Post-“The Decision?” The Heat haven’t fallen out of the top five again.
It’s a town built on buzz, on excitement, on what-can-you-do-for-me-now. In a lot of ways, it’s the most 21st century of sporting cities, a collective hive mind addled with ADD and bent on hitting on the next big thing. And if the new Miami soccer franchise can build on that shifting sand via LeBron’s “brand,” all the better, honestly. It’s better to acknowledge the unique (and frankly a little unfortunate) sporting situation in Miami and pander to its odd whims than assume it’s like Portland or even Orlando and proceed accordingly.
Beckham is good. Beckham will help sell tickets, help secure a stadium, help with a league discount. But LeBron will help sell a brand. And that matters.