By FRANCO PANIZO
FT. LAUDERDALE, Fla. — It is no secret that these days it is vital for lower division clubs to have a sparkling, brand new soccer-specific stadium or at least a remodeled one to be considered a serious soccer franchise. With it, however, usually comes talk of eventually wanting to jump into MLS.
For the Ft. Lauderdale Strikers, that is not the case.
It has been two weeks since the Strikers announced their plans to pursue a soccer-specific stadium, but they are not doing so with the idea of one day joining MLS. Instead, Ft. Lauderdale is simply aiming to secure a long-term future in NASL and as a professional club in South Florida.
“I think with what’s happened in NASL over the last several months and the year-and-a-half since its been in existence, there’s a feeling within our league that we should focus on growing our league,” Strikers managing director of team personnel and stadium development Tim Robbie told SBI. “That the aspirations to be in MLS is there because there’s such a gap between the MLS and our league. I think the pining that you hear about from people to get their franchises into MLS is because of that gap.
“I think if we do our job as a league and bridge that gap and bring our league up to a level with MLS, there won’t be clamoring for teams to leave our league to go to MLS and I think our league will be recognized on its own as being a league that’s strong enough to be on the same level as MLS.”
As part of that quest, Ft. Lauderdale is hoping to find a new or improved home for the Strikers in the near future. The Strikers currently play in antiquated Lockhart Stadium, but Robbie has changed positions (he was previously team president) in an effort to help the club find a more suitable place to call its home and have a bigger and better foothold in the local market.
“Our feeling and the feeling among our parent company Traffic Sports is in order to really cement the Strikers franchise in the South Florida community, we need to have a state-of-the-art facility that we can call home for long term,” said Tim Robbie. “If you’ve been here before and know what Lockhart is like, in order to be a facility that fans in this day and age are accustomed to seeing and having for professional sports, you’ve got to do some substantial upgrades to Lockhart to bring it up to modern standards, and that’s an option.”
Lockhart, which opened in 1959 and was renovated in 1998 to house the now-defunct Miami Fusion, has been linked for a few years now with a possible water park that would be built by Texas-based company Schlitterbahn on the current land the stadium is on. Lockhart could be remodeled as part of the deal but nothing is set in stone.
Still, there appears to be reason for optimism.
“It’s been sort of an off and on negotiation between the water park developer and the city of Ft. Lauderdale and FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) that owns the land here,” said Robbie. “If you would have asked me six months ago, ‘Is that water park deal ever going to happen?” I would have said, ‘Probably not.’ Now, I think it’s possible again because at least the sides are talking again.”
The other, and likely costlier option, is to build a soccer-specific stadium from scratch elsewhere in South Florida. Robbie did not reveal any potential locations, saying the most viable options are at “sensitive points” and “talking about them would do more harm than good”. But he expressed an optimism that he confessed he did not have recently.
“If you would’ve asked me six months ago, ‘Do you think you guys could ever get a soccer-specific stadium for the Strikers?’ I would have said, ‘Not any time soon,'” said Robbie. “Now with the conversations we’ve had over the last few months, I would say that the prospects for doing that are much brighter than I would’ve thought six months ago.”
While the Strikers are focusing on upgrading Lockhart or constructing a new home, there is no timetable for when they would like to have their new project complete. Robbie believes the club is not in a position to be so rigid so as to set a timeframe and is looking at the long-term picture rather than focusing on a certain date, but stated that sooner is better.
Robbie also said the Strikers are looking at all options in terms of funding, such as public-private sponsorship or an entrepreneur coming in and doing it on his own. The Strikers would have to serve as the major tenant in the latter scenario, but that would be an upgrade over their current deal.
The Strikers are currently on a year-to-year deal with the FAA, which owns the land that Lockhart is own as well as the neighboring Ft. Lauderdale Executive Airport. The club will be back at Lockhart in 2013, but having to face uncertainty at the end of every year is frustrating for Robbie. In addition, even if Traffic wanted to upgrade Lockhart on its own, they would need permission from the FAA first. Otherwise, they could risk being booted from the area on any given year.
That is why the search for a long-term solution has begun, even if there is no plan to become a part of MLS.