South Florida sports has been gaining unprecedented national attention, but whether it can continue will hinge on fans showing up to games
I have a confession to make: I cheer almost exclusively for South Florida teams.
The only exception to that statement is the Florida Gators, but I am an alumnus, so I have a valid excuse. Otherwise, I count myself as a fan of the Miami Dolphins, Miami Marlins, Miami Heat, and Florida Panthers. I made that confession, because being a fan of South Florida sports teams is somewhat of a rarity, and it usually isn't easy. There are a variety of reasons for my existence as somewhat of an endangered and tormented species, and I'll address a couple of them.
A lot of residents in the South Florida area (comprising Palm Beach, Broward, and Miami-Dade counties) are transplants from other, mostly northern, states. There are especially a lot of people from the northeast. This means that there is a lot of support for team based between Philadelphia and Boston, with New York teams making up a majority of that population. Since team devotions have already been established, South Florida teams have existed without much loyal support from the locals. Part of the problem is that there is no legacy with families in terms of team allegiance. Those legacies have not had any chance to develop, because, with the exception of the Dolphins, no team is older than I am, and I'm 24. This lack of support is evinced through attendance issues for all teams, some of which are well-documented. For others, all you would have to do is turn on the television to see all of the empty seats and know those attendance numbers are severely inflated.
But there has also been one good reason for the lack of support. The teams have been largely absent from the playoffs for the past decade, with the exception of the Heat. The Panthers have not been to the playoffs since the 1999-2000 season, the Dolphins have been to the playoffs once since 2001, and the Marlins have only been to the playoffs twice in their existence, even though they won the World Series both times. In the case of the Marlins and Panthers, it is hard to build fan bases if the team is not successful. In the case of the Dolphins, it is hard to retain the fan base you spent years building if, all of a sudden, the team can't win. The Heat has been relatively successful since entering the league, and do "sell out" their games, but a fair number of people don't show up to some games and many don't bother to arrive on time.
The Winds of Change
The days of South Florida teams passively playing out their seasons seem to be coming to an end. Beginning with LeBron James and "The Decision," South Florida has been a focal point of the sporting world in a way it never had been before. The Heat became public enemy number one when they resigned Dwyane Wade and convinced James and Chris Bosh to join him. They made it all the way to the finals last year where they were beat by the Dallas Mavericks, but all eyes are back on Miami again as they continue their pursuit of a title with "The Big Three."
The Marlins- always known for their frugality- were in active pursuit of Albert Pujols, the greatest player of his generation, before talks fizzled. Instead, they signed left handed pitcher Mark Buehrle to a four-year deal to go with All-Stars SS Jose Reyes and CL Heath Bell. In April, they will open their long-anticipated new baseball stadium. Team owner Jeffrey Loria swore up and down that revenue from the new stadium meant that the Marlins would be spenders and he has followed through on that promise. The Marlins are the talk of the town at the winter meetings and are, as of this writing, still negotiating with other free agents.
The Panthers have been a lost franchise for many years now. There have been several rebuilding efforts that failed. Enter: Dale Tallon. The Panthers traded talent for draft picks and this year signed or traded for several veterans, including Kris Versteeg, Tomas Fleischmann, Ed Jovanovski, and Jose Theodore. ESPN has also ranked the Panthers prospects number one in relation to other organizations (Insider access required). The Panthers are in first place in the Southeast Division and are a team on the rise. The marketing campaign "We See Red" has sparked support for the team that hasn't been around since the "Year of the Rat" in 1996. In fact, after their victory against the Washington Capitals on Monday, plastic rats came raining down onto the ice.
This leaves the Dolphins. The Dolphins haven't made many headlines recently, although they are the most supported team down here. Owner Stephen Ross seeks attention. He brought on celebrity minority owners, including Jennifer Lopez, Fergie, and Gloria Estefan. If you think he is going to just sit back and allow the Heat, Marlins, and Panthers steal the spotlight, you are sorely mistaking. Expect the Dolphins to make headline-grabbing moves in the coming months to gain attention from the media. This was once Dolphins territory and Ross will do whatever it takes to make sure it is like that again.
What Does the Future Hold?
The question remains whether these four teams can continue their momentum. It isn't an easy question to answer, but if the people in South Florida show up to games, there is no reason this can't continue. The Marlins, Heat, and Panthers have a nucleus in place that should allow them to compete for the next few years, and the Dolphins are not far behind them. With talent on the field (or on the court or in the rink) and fans in the seats, South Florida may see a sports boon the likes of which it has never seen. The Marlins could continue to be players in the free agent market and the other three teams could see their payrolls end up closer to the salary cap than the floor. Only time will tell if fans will come out, but it is sure going to be an interesting ride the next couple of years.
It's great to be a South Florida sports fan.