Wednesday, June 26, 2013

In Defense of South Florida Sports Fans

Wait, the Dolphins went undefeated in 1972? Their fans NEVER talk about that! Still, it's been a rough last four decades for Phin fans. Well, I guess Dan Marino did have some exciting playoff losses and Ricky Williams had a fun retirement.

By Joe Parello  @HerewegoJoe

There has been a lot of hate thrown around these past couple weeks, and not all of it has been directed at LeBron James and his cronies.

No, after the Miami Heat were dead in the water during Game 6 of the NBA Finals, the national media and fans everywhere lobbed shots at Heat fans for leaving early and missing out on one of the most improbable comebacks in NBA history.

I know a little something about South Florida fans. I'm not one myself, I cheered for the Pittsburgh teams since that's where my family came from (More on this obstacle for South Florida sports franchises later). But, I did grow up in the area, so needless to say, I've been around a bunch of South Florida sports fans. Oh yeah, and I am a fair-weather Heat fan (No NBA team in Pittsburgh) and Marlins fan (No real MLB team in Pittsburgh for 20+ years).

First of all, as I discussed in this week's Studs and Duds, that Game 6 mass exodus would have happened in pretty much any other city. You can deny that your city wouldn't do it, but you're lying to yourself. Editor Jeremy Conlin also brought up the great point in our podcast this week that true Heat fans had been "priced out" since it was such a big game. Also true.

But really, South Florida has gotten a bum rap for its fans for a long time. Why? Well, if a team isn't winning, attendance tends to drop. A phenomenon that, of course, never happens anywhere else. Surely the historic Washington Redskins, complete with an exciting young quarterback and a 2012 playoff run, would have posted amazing attendance numbers last season?

Well, no. The Redskins filled their stadium to an average of 82% attendance each game, good for 27th in the NFL. Why? The Redskins have kind of sucked for a while, and it takes a while for the fans to come back. Same thing for football-crazy Ohio fans in Cleveland and Cincinnati, along with the supposedly great fan base in Buffalo. All joined Miami in the bottom-9 of league attendance, as did the Black Hole crazies from Oakland and the supposed Arrowhead die hards from Kansas City.

What do all these teams have in common? Is it that their fan bases are full of shallow, self-absorbed fans that have no pride in their home teams? No, it's that they have all largely sucked for the last decade (In Cincinnati's case, the last three decades).

Also, attendance in the South is just less than it is in the North. Sorry guys, but sometimes you'd rather head to a bar on the beach and watch the game, as fun as drinking a beer-slushi at Lambeau Field sounds. Look at the top-10 in attendance for football and baseball and you'll find "cold weather" markets like Boston, Chicago, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Denver, while the bottom-10 features markets like Miami, San Diego, Tampa Bay and Arizona.

This is all working against South Florida, but so is the fact that nobody has been in the area for more than two generations. That's a good thing, because living there before the invention of Central Air and OFF! would have led to everyone dying of heat strokes and malaria. But, it's not a good thing for local sports franchises that have to essentially win the hearts of people that grew up cheering for somebody else. Every time the Yankees or Red Sox come to town, their fans outnumber Marlins fans at the ball park, and most of those people didn't make the trip from up north, they moved to Florida long ago.

Think about it, I'm 26, and I'm "older" than the Heat, Marlins and Panthers. Those teams weren't even here when some people moved down. Heck, I wasn't even a South Florida fan when I was a kid, I rooted for the Steelers and Penguins, I was a part of the problem. I did root for the Marlins when they won their World Series titles, but come on, rooting for the Pirates is just torture.

Amidst all these challenges, there are still real fans in South Florida, but the franchises are doing everything in their power to piss those die hards off. Marlins fans had to deal with their team going from a "Florida" team to a "Miami" team, and changing their uniforms to silly versions of the University of Miami jerseys. They also moved the stadium to Little Havana, effectively guaranteeing that no fans from Ft. Lauderdale will ever go to a game again, and built a hideous new venue that cost the city of Miami so much that they wouldn't approve renovations to the Dolphins' stadium, even if it meant losing a Super Bowl.

Meanwhile, you've got the Dolphins, who have made one playoff appearance in the last 12 seasons. The Phins haven't won a playoff game since 2000, when one-hit-wonder Lamar Smith rushed for 209 yards to help Miami overcome three Jay Fielder interceptions for a win over young Peyton Manning and the Colts.

In the last decade, they have had as many one-win seasons as they do playoff seasons. If the Patriots, Giants, Steelers, Bears or Ravens did the same, it's hard to see fans continuing to pack those respective stadiums. Green Bay is the only team that could survive such suck-i-tude and that's because there is literally nothing else to do in that "city" on game day.

As for the Heat, they actually were a mid-level NBA fan base before LeBron came to town. They ranked anywhere between 9th and 18th the previous three seasons before the "Big Three" era, which is about as good as you can hope for a crappy team in a city with plenty of other distractions. Actually, if you want to call a fan base "fair weather" in Miami, it could most certainly not be Heat fans. Those guys show up even when the team sucks. They outdrew an Orlando team that made the conference finals in 2010.

Another factor making it hard on South Florida fans is the location of their favorite teams' stadiums. This isn't like Pittsburgh where the Steelers and Pirates play right across a bridge from downtown, or Boston where three of the four teams play within the city limits.

Heck, people even complain here in Boston about driving out to Foxboro for Patriot games.

In South Florida, if you want to cheer on all the local teams, you've got at least a half hour drive between venues, and that's with no traffic.

Sun Life/Dolphin/Landshark/Pro Player/Joe Robbie Stadium is located in Miami Gardens, a good 30 minutes from both Miami proper and neighboring Ft. Lauderdale. It's a long drive for Dolphin fans pretty much no matter where you come from, but if you're driving up to see the Canes from Coral Gables, you're probably going to need to give yourself an hour before tailgate time.

The Marlins, who used to accompany the Dolphins and Canes in the multi-named stadium, now play in a tacky stadium located in Little Havana. Not only is the stadium an eyesore in a less than desirable neighborhood, it is going to cost taxpayers in Miami $2.4 BILLION, a price the city won't be able to pay off until 2048. Hope your grand kids really like paper mache fish flying around.

The Florida Panthers may as well be put in a different group altogether since their fan base is incredibly white and more suburban than the others (Uh, it's hockey). They play across the street from the world's largest outlet mall, Sawgrass Mills, way off in Sunrise, a suburb of Ft. Lauderdale that isn't even all that close to Ft. Lauderdale. Contrary to what people think about glamorous South Florida sports crowds, you have a better chance of being attacked by an alligator out here than you do of seeing a celebrity.

Finally, you have the Miami Heat, the subject of hate from every other major sports market. The Heat, luckily, play in the beautiful and new American Airlines Arena on the water near Bayside in Miami. It's a great and historic area that holds a ton of events each year. Really, the Heat are the only team that truly represents "Miami," and have no excuse for super poor attendance. And guess what? They draw well, even in down years.

Still, it's a hike from each venue to the other, and there's no single metro system that links them all (Or even any two of them that I'm aware of).

For my Boston friends, think about it this way. Would you make it to as many sporting events if there were no real public transportation and the Pats still played in Foxboro, the Celtics still played at TD Garden, the Sox played in Southie and the Bruins played in Worcester?

So, are South Florida fans great? Heck no, but there are certainly some good reasons why they're not as "die hard" as haters think they should be. There is a popular attitude that Miami didn't deserve the Big Three because it has terrible fans. But actually, I give all true fans of Miami sports props. If you can overcome the BS I mentioned above to cheer for all your teams, you deserve at least one of them to be good.

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