First, David Beckham’s MLS franchise, then unnamed, were to play in PortMiami, not far from the downtown home of the NBA’s Miami Heat. Then, the plan was to fill in a boat slip near Museum Park. After that, two more sites were suggested, one next to baseball’s Marlins Park and another out by Miami International Airport, and then two more sites, one in Overtown and another, again, out by the airport.
Despite all this, despite the numerous sites identified and analysed, Inter Miami, as they have now been christened, still don’t have a permanent home. That means they will play their first two MLS seasons at Lockhart Stadium in Fort Lauderdale, a 45-minute drive from downtown Miami. Beckham made the announcement in front of an overgrown wasteland at the former home of the Fort Lauderdale Strikers. The Fyre Festival jokes were irresistible.
Beyond the punchlines, though, there is something to be said about Inter Miami’s struggle to find a stadium site downtown. Their troubles are similar to those of New York City FC, still playing at Yankee Stadium after four full seasons in MLS and are, in part, a result of a league-wide drive to change the way stadiums are built.
“We end up with sites that nobody else wants to build on,” says Bruce Miller of Populous, the architectural firm that designed stadiums for Houston Dynamo, Sporting KC, DC United, Minnesota United and Orlando City. “We look at the pros and cons of each one. The league is really driving this. They are big believers in urban stadiums so that the venue is close to a place people live, work … so that they’re close to their fanbase.”
The drive to build soccer specific stadiums, as they are dubbed, across North America can be traced back to the late 1990s and early 2000s, when somewhat primitive, out-of-town venues like MAPFRE Stadium, Toyota Stadium and SeatGeek Stadium sprung up. At that time, all that mattered was giving soccer in the United States and Canada a home, regardless of where that home was.
Now, after some of those hastily-built stadiums resulted in franchises without much of a native fanbase to speak of, there has been a change at MLS HQ. It’s not just about building stadiums, but stadiums that integrate into their communities. In most cases, that means downtown, urban arenas.
“[The MLS] fanbase in this country is very young, educated and likes to live in urban areas,” explains Miller, lead architect for Minnesota United’s recently-opened Allianz Field, “so the league is really encouraging teams to build in areas that have 365, 24/7 environments. They really want to encourage urban stadia because that’s where they believe the future of their fanbase exists.”
Indeed, as of 2010 the largest block of MLS fans fall between the ages of 18 and 34 and the league wants to solidify that demographic. That means being in downtown and urban areas, which draw in millennials. It’s no coincidence that the last five stadiums to open in MLS have been in cities.
Of course, with this drive to go urban comes difficulties, the primary one being that land is more expensive downtown than it is in the suburbs. Urban areas are typically tied up in more regulatory red tape, too. Even if a suitable site is identified and purchased, the planning process can be where everything falls down. Nobody has a problem with building next to a suburban McDonald’s drive-thru, but building next to packed apartment blocks, means more potential objections.
MLS, it seems, believes these complications are worth it, though. The city is where teams can capture the largest fanbase, partly down good public transport networks. Allianz Field, for instance, is directly served by light rail between Minneapolis and St Paul.
Traditionally, North American stadiums are sprawling structures. The best examples of this can be found in the NFL, where stadiums often occupy sites the size of whole districts, with vast parking lots around the perimeter.
But while huge stadiums work for the NFL, they do not suit MLS. The league’s aren’t so fond of tailgate parties, but have made the so-called ‘March to the Match’ a key part of the sport’s culture in North America. The effect of such a procession would be lost if it were forced to weave through the endless parked vehicles that encircle a typical NFL stadium.
Miller backs this up. “We try to emulate the UK and Europe,” he says. “That whole ceremony and experience is another benefit of having an urban site and something we take into account.” MLS fans, and North American soccer fans in general, have come to expect more than just a game from their matchday experience.
What’s more, the typically tighter, smaller plots of land downtown lend themselves to stadiums with steeper stands, which in turn generate more intense atmospheres. “The bowl is shaped by the land we have available,” says Miller. “Sporting KC, while it’s more of a suburban area … that’s a good example where the bowl and the building really responded to the site. It’s quite tight because of that tight site that we had.”
Serious thought has been applied to MLS’s natural habitat. A study conducted back in 2013, for instance, showed that an MLS team loses 260 fans per match for every mile their stadium is situated outside the closest urban core. This is why Beckham and Inter Miami, who did not respond to requests for comment for this article, have expended so much time and energy on finding a site pretty much anywhere in urban Miami. And why will be so disappointing if they end up in Fort Lauderdale for good.