In the early 70’s a smart coach and owner, Don Shula and Joe Robbie to be specific brought big time professional sports into a sleepy little resort town on Biscayne Bay. The fact that Danny Thomas managed to scarf up an AFC franchise for a heretofore NON sports town is almost as impressive. In a history eyelash of 5 years the NFL became THE prevailing sport in what was previously a mecca for sports fishing, golf, tennis, (croquet), soccer, high school football, and regattas galore.
The Orange Bowl was the only major national event held in the city and its success was largely due to a razzle-dazzle New Year’s Eve nighttime parade and huge extravaganza half time show. After the huge Clay Liston fight put South Florida boxing on the map, the sweet science remained moderately popular especially with the new immigrants; and, for many years, Wednesday night Wrestling presented by Chris Dundee at the Miami Beach Convention Center provided the rabid faithful with multitudes of Dusty Rhodes finishes and Rick Flair narrow escapes.
The Coconut Grove Arts Festival, and the Calle Ocho street fest emerged to provide an annual counterpoint to the sports; and the Greater Miami Opera under Robert Herman’s extraordinary leadership became a top national draw. Aside from the Opera and Dolphins, in the early 70’s Miami was a cultural and sports wasteland.
The Miami Dolphins success gave (re) birth to a comatose University of Miami athletic department and within several years under the masterful watch of Sabin (Lou), Schnellenberger, Johnson, Ericcson and Davis on the football side and legendary Ron Frasier and Jim Morris on the baseball side, UM emerged into an elite program in the big boy sports dragging track and swimming with them to the top of their leagues.
In the early 70’s there was one well respected sports marketing curriculum at tiny Biscayne College; there are now sports business marketing hubs at schools that didn’t exist then: Nova, FIU, FAU, Lynn, and Barry.
Wayne Huizenga, a waste management and entertainment mogul decided it was time to have a pro baseball and hockey teams and along with partner Ralph Sanchez built a NASCAR track. Welcome the Florida Marlins, Florida Panthers, and the Homestead Miami Speedway. Up went a state of the art track and arena. Along the same lines Ted Arison, a cruise ship magnate teased the NBA with exhibition games in a glorified convention center and tossed the keys to the new franchise to Billy Cunningham and Lewis Schaffel, with a little help from promoter Zev Bufman. Later Kevin Loughery and the genius of Pat Riley kick started that franchise to elite status.
When most major cities have nourished professional and top college programs for years and years, with great history and celebrating legends dating back to the turn of the last century, Miami and South Florida are just getting used to the cyclical nature of success in winning championships and immortalizing the players who accomplished them. Dan Marino rules supreme among the local stars. Old timers still toast the undefeated Dolphins team. Anyone under 40 couldn’t name the coach let alone the payers. The MLB franchise with two World Series since its inception in 1992 was a non event for 20 years except during those pennant runs. Even with the likes of Kevin Brown, Carlos Delgado, Mike Lowell, Brian Harvey, Livan Hernandez, Josh Beckett, Derek Lee to name a few.
While there are several generations of South Floridians who have never celebrated a Superbowl win, there are several generations who only know that World Series and NBA championships and NCAA trophies are to be anticipated, if not expected…. In fact DEMANDED.
This rapid growth has translated to taking the (fka Eastern) Doral Open PGA event to a PGA World Golf Championship event; an annual Boca (Raton) West Club tennis tournament featuring the touring pros fka THE LIPTON is now the Sony Ericsson played at a state of the art facility on Key Biscayne and considered the 5th major on both ladies and men’s tour.
The growth however, has not impeded anglers descending upon Lake Okeechobee, or bass tournaments in the Everglades, bonefish tournaments on the Biscayne bay flats, alligator wrestling at the Indian Reservations and still the jugheads journey to Pompano Park and the thoroughbred fans fill Gulfstream Park and Calder.
Tourists now come into South Florida INTENDING to bypass Mouseworld in Orlando for the bounty of high level pro and college sports happenings virtually every day. New stadiums continue to go up. The city fathers aren’t as concerned at fewer hostings for the Superbowl —-there’s plenty to replace that circus.
The maturation of the fans trails the building of the teams. The fans turn out only for winners. There’s little blind devotion to any team—now including the formerly Teflon Dolphins. As always, the beaches and bay and backyard barbeques are serious competition to the ticket sales by the teams. That is unlikely to change. San Diego and LA suffer from similar competition which makes it all the more remarkable that South Florida offers just about every major sport year ‘round.
So what does the future hold?
Probably fewer Superbowls (if any). Larger and Larger purses and attendance for the big golf and tennis tournaments. More frequent major league (international) soccer friendlies. An MLB All Star game (finally) in the next 5 years. Probably a retooled NFL pro bowl game from time to time…ditto NHL all star weekend….Nascar seems content to run its final championship Sprint Cup race at Homestead largely because of the terrific early December weather and the drama and sparkle of racing under the lights.
OH…and one thing for certain: on April Fool’s Day 82,000 rabid fans will celebrate when the WWE stars stage the first Wrestlemania in South Florida at the stadium formerly known as Joe Robbie. The hotels are full. The limo services reserved. The Forge and Prime 112 and Michaels are all booked….just another day in paradise.
It’s been a wild ride. And worth every hiccup, false start, and home run.